When I was growing up, my racing hero was Michael Schumacher. I remember waking up early for the Australian Grand Prix with my Dad, praying that Michael would finally bring that long anticipated Drivers Championship back to Ferrari. Of course, since then, Schumacher went on to become the sport’s most successful driver with 7 world championships to his name, and arguably one of the greatest talents F1 has ever seen. However, it is very rare to see the German at the top of anyone’s “Top 10” list. And it is usually because of one man – Ayrton Senna.
Ayrton Senna da Silva was born on the 21st March 1960 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Unlike many in Brazil, Ayrton was born to a reasonably wealthy family, and grew up on the family farm. By the time he was 7, Senna was already driving the family Jeep around the farm, learning the key skill of changing gears without a clutch. A relatively late starter, Senna first had his taste of competitive karting at the age of 13, where he stuck in on Pole for his first race and would have won it if not for an unfortunate collision. From there, it was clear that Ayrton had a talent.
In the early 80s, Senna made the switch to single seater racing in the UK, and immediately won his debut season in Formula Ford. However following this, Senna almost had to retire from racing early – funding was tight, and the pressure was on to take a more active role within the family business. However, Ayrton was quickly offered a subsidised drive in another Formula Ford championship and from there began his meteoric rise to Formula 1.
Senna went on to win 3 F1 World Championships – although not always without controversy. His career long spat with rival Alain Prost is the stuff of legend, and his constant disagreements with the FIA made for headline news almost every season. His fast and aggressive style struck fear into his competitors, and he quickly became known as the fastest man on the grid. Never one to back down, Ayrton’s personality and belief struck a chord with the Brazilian nation, and for the first time in a long time, the country had hope. But of course, he will unfortunately be remembered as for that fateful day 21 years ago, at the San Marino Grand Prix.
It was a strange weekend, from start to finish. Fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello had a horrific crash in practice which caused Rubens to suffer a broken arm and nose. Fortunately, Rubens survived and made a full recovery – Ayrton even snuck into the medical centre that evening to visit him and make sure he was ok. Then the following day, Roland Ratzenberger suffered another horrific crash – unfortunately, he was not so lucky, and died at the scene.
It was the following day that Senna’s life came to an end, as on lap 7 of the race, Ayrton’s car left the track and collided with a wall at around 145mph. Once freed from the car, Senna was airlifted to the nearest hospital, where his death was announced almost on arrival. The world mourned a great driver and a great man – his last gesture proving what a special person he was. After the crash, inside his mangled car, Marshalls found a furled Austrian flag – Ayrton was going to fly the flag in honour of Ratzenberger at the end of the Grand Prix.
My biggest regret is that I was robbed of the opportunity to watch Senna in action. Anyone you speak to will have varying opinions of the man – some say arrogant, others say gentle and kind. One thing they all agree on is that he was one of the best and most talented drivers to ever sit behind the wheel of an F1 car. And the footage of him racing is just magical to watch. He was always one with the car, and would always get the most out of any package he was driving. Even at 34, Senna was in his prime, and I think many of us all agree that the 3 world titles he ended on is not reflective of the man’s gift. Having said that, Senna has left behind an incredible legacy, and one thing is for sure – no-one will ever forget him.