Ayrton Senna: The tragic story behind the F1 legend's fatal crash
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This piece was first published on April 30, 2014, to mark the 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna's death
Turn the key to suite 200 at Hotel Castello, Ayrton Senna's bolthole amid the pastoral peace of Emilia-Romagna, and one finds the decor has evolved little since 1994: there is still a curious teardrop-shaped mirror, a dated radio built into a cabinet, a four-part montage of Chinese scenery dominating the wall of the master bedroom.
It has become, rather like the discreet grave in São Paulo's Morumbi cemetery, a kind of maudlin Graceland among Senna-philes for whom the passing of more than two decades has served only to enrich their idol's mystique. For it is here that Formula One's most mesmerising champion spent his final night alive.
Senna's demeanour that evening was distracted, tormented even. The late Sid Watkins, the sport's chief doctor for 26 years, recalled how the Brazilian had been crying on his shoulder as Roland Ratzenberger's death in qualifying, in a 195mph (313kmph) crash at Imola's Villeneuve corner, signalled the first fatality in F1 for 168 races. Martin Brundle was staying in the same hotel in Castel San Pietro Terme, 10 miles from the circuit along the old Roman road, as Senna returned. "I saw Ayrton in the lift," he says. "He was quite clearly upset. We spoke briefly, but he wasn't happy."
None of Senna's customary escapist rituals could leaven the mood. He would habitually receive a restorative massage from Josef Leberer, his fitness trainer, but dispensed with it. He went for dinner at Trattoria Rompagnola, still the most unassuming of hostelries off Piazza Acquaderni. The intention was to mark Leberer's birthday, but any attempts at celebration were muted by the afternoon's tragedy. As a strident, self-appointed voice for drivers' safety, Senna was troubled to his core by the carnage unfolding ahead of the San Marino Grand Prix.
Prior to Ratzenberger's crash Rubens Barrichello, a great friend and compatriot, had suffered a terrifying accident in Friday practice when his Jordan struck a kerb at the Variante Bassa chicane, vaulting through a fence to leave him suspended unconscious, upside-down. After Senna had retreated, dazed and tearful, from a glimpse of the shattered remnants of Ratzenberger's Simtek, he became convinced that something at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari was profoundly wrong.
Frank Williams, his team principal, tried to impart a little reason. He was staying in suite 100, directly below Senna, and left a note under his driver's door asking him to call down for a chat once he came back from the meal with Leberer. Luisa Tosoni, then as now the hotel's owner, remembers: "I know that on this night, he came to his room and was ready to go to sleep. Then he went downstairs again to meet Frank, and I supposed he was telling him that did not want to race, because he seemed so incredibly sad about what had happened that day. From seeing him, I imagined that Senna could be strong only when he drove. Otherwise, he came across as such a sweet person – gentle, generous, and very sensitive."
Emotionally, Senna felt incapable of racing. But pragmatically speaking, he had to. Reliability problems with Williams' '94 car, coupled with a spin in Brazil and a first-corner collision in Japan, conspired to leave the three-time world champion without a point to his name as he entered the European campaign.
Damon Hill, his team-mate after a winter where Williams achieved a career's ambition in prising Senna from McLaren, says: "There was an atmosphere from the word go, perhaps even from before we got to San Marino. The car was not the beauty we wanted it to be, and Ayrton was concerned that he could not push it as much as he needed to. So the pressure was on him to start opening his account. It was one steady ratcheting-up of the tension."
It is a theory advanced by Watkins that Senna, while harbouring a fatalistic attitude towards death through his strict Catholic upbringing, was reminded by Ratzenberger's crash more acutely of his own mortality than he could bear. But Brundle, a contemporary of Senna's for 11 seasons and one who saw every peculiarity of his rival's character, believes he never seriously considered pulling out of the grand prix. "As a driver you realise that people get smashed up, people get killed," he says. "If he was that upset about it, he wouldn't have stepped into the car on Sunday. Your heart is wired to drive racing cars. The bottom line is that you get back in and go again."
The tête-à-tête with Williams appeared to trigger just such a shift in mood. Senna consoled himself with a promise that, should he seize his 40th victory on an Imola track where he had already won three times, he would unfurl an Austrian flag in honour of Ratzenberger. He was also soothed by a telephone conversation with girlfriend Adriane Galisteu, a 21-year-old model, who told him she would meet him at Faro airport the following night when he flew back to their second home on the Algarve. All the signs were, as a wedding party gathered exuberant pace in the Castello lobby downstairs, that Senna settled into bed in suite 200 if not calm, then at least appeased.
As dawn broke over the Romagna countryside, Senna's race-day began in a manner befitting a driver contracted on $1 million per race, when Captain Owen O'Mahoney called to ask when he should take the bags to his private jet in Bologna. In radiant spring sunshine he projected a façade of serenity, even exchanging pleasantries in the paddock with Alain Prost, who was shocked at so cordial a greeting from a figure he had regarded as a mortal enemy.
Timesheets from the morning warm-up suggested, too, that Senna's ruthless racing brain had re-engaged. "He was just blindingly fast," says Hill, dumbstruck at seeing his stablemate eclipse the field by nine-tenths of a second. "I felt I had to take a closer look at the difference between myself and him."
First, though, there was the solemn affair of the 11am safety briefing to attend. Bernie Ecclestone ordered a minute's silence in Ratzenberger's memory as Senna, anguish and introspection engulfing him afresh, sat at the back of the room, weeping. Only afterwards did he raise his worries about the Imola set-up, in a private discussion with Gerhard Berger and Michael Schumacher, who alongside Brundle would later form the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.
"Ayrton was deeply concerned," his nephew Bruno, heir presumptive to the family F1 tradition, explains. "It was clear the cars were not working well on their configurations that weekend. He understood that the circuit was not safe in those circumstances."
It is received wisdom, implicit in Asif Kapadia's 2010 film of Senna's life, that he acted on such occasions out of laudable campaigning motives. But Brundle, familiar with his adversary's Machiavellian streak since their Formula Three days, claims that there was always a heavy dose of self-interest. "There was a great paradox about Ayrton," he says. "Down at the medical centre with Rubens, he had shown great compassion. But strangely, he would also be one of the first to have an accident with you, or push you off the road.
"I had a bizarre incident with him at Monza in '93, where he made a mistake and ran into the back of me when we were fighting for third. He ran over to me, but as soon as he knew I was OK a switch flicked and the hard, calculating element of him emerged. He drove with his heart primarily, his head secondarily. Ayrton was no fool, but he was convinced the world was against him – in F1 he thought it was Jean-Marie Balestre, the FIA president, everybody. He was an emotionally driven guy. He had a God-given gift to drive a racing car just over the limit, and beyond that he was complex."
By the time pre-race anxiety gripped the Williams garage, Senna conveyed a more agitated air than usual. He withdrew from the chatter of the mechanics, scrutinising the car with suspicion and leaning pensively against the rear wing. There was such sombreness about him, according to his former PR chief Betise Assumpção, that "you could just tell he didn't want to race."
Hill, in the sister car, interpreted Senna's behaviour differently, as the senior man's method of constructing a force-field around himself. "I didn't get close to Ayrton in the moments leading up to a race," he says. "People gave him space, he was on his own. He kept a protected wall. I never had the chance to forge a relationship with the guy. I was absolutely thrilled to be his team-mate, because I thought I would learn so much. But it wasn't to be."
If Senna did indeed harbour grisly premonitions of what was about to transpire, they were realised early. As he streaked into the first corner from pole position his rear-view mirrors filled with flying debris, the Lotus of Pedro Lamy smashed into the back of JJ Lehto's Benetton, which had stalled on the start line. Cue mass yellow flags, and the deployment of a safety car, as Senna was left to reflect whether this bleakest of grand prix weekends was somehow cursed.
Three dreadful crashes, one of them catastrophic: the horrors at Imola seemed too repetitive for it all to be mere coincidence. But in those first nervous minutes as the cars held station, the thought had to be cast aside. "You are in a racing driver's state of mind, where you have a default mode," Hill argues. "Namely, 'If this happens, we go to Plan B.'"
In Senna's case, Plan B was straightforward. After two races he trailed Schumacher by 20 points in the championship and, once the safety vehicle peeled away, his only intention was to press home his on-track advantage over the German by driving at the ragged edge of human and technological capability. Here was a talent who, in his mid-Eighties Lotus days, could boast of memorising exact readings from nine separate diodes on the back straight at Brands Hatch, so he knew no other mindset. Sure enough, on lap six and with the wreckage finally cleared, he decided, in Hill's words, to "put the hammer down".
Few tracks could be as terrifying at full tilt as Imola. From the sweeping curve of Tamburello to the hairpin bend at Tosa, from the intricate kink of Acqua Minerale to the double left-hander at Rivazza, it was a three-mile sequence of warp-speed straights, high-compression corners and alarming changes in elevation. At the re-start Senna swept through every section like a man possessed. His lap time of one minute 24.887 seconds was only surpassed by two drivers by the end of the race – an extraordinary feat, given that it was achieved on cold tyres and a full tank of fuel.
Maintaining a 0.6sec lead over Schumacher, he began lap seven and the 190mph entry into Tamburello. Watkins, sitting in his medical car as the Williams barrelled past him on the finishing straight, thought it appeared skittish and unstable, telling his driver Mario Casoni: "There's going to be a bloody awful accident any minute." Schumacher, likewise, instantly intuited that the car in front was not responding as it should, claiming afterwards that he noticed its chassis hit the tarmac as it rattled over the sharp bumps. What ensued defied comprehension as Senna's car deviated not an inch on its exit from the turn, ploughing through the gravel trap at terrible speed and straight into a concrete wall.
Hill, dodging the blizzard of bodywork back in fourth place, at first did not recognise the severity of the impact. "When Ayrton went off, I remember thinking, 'I can't believe this, it's just one thing after another, non-stop.' That was my initial thought: 'Now what?' I didn't have a feeling in my guts that it was serious." Brundle, in seventh, knew otherwise, having spun off in jarring fashion at precisely the same spot. "It is a very scary corner," he says. "You don't have small accidents at Tamburello."
This was patently one of the largest. Even though Senna had decelerated to 130mph, the right-hand front of his car took the maximum force of the crash, causing a wheel to fly off and become trapped between the undercarriage and the wall. As the suspension crumpled like a tin can, his Williams was launched back on to the edge of the track, its monocoque a ruined shell and Senna's head slumped, inert, inside the cockpit. Marshals swarmed to the scene as Galvao Bueno, a Brazilian commentator and one of the driver's best friends, told viewers on the TV Globo network: "Ayrton has hit the wall badly. It's very serious."
A patch of crimson was visible next to the wreck: Senna's blood. At this point the BBC footage switched from the crash site to the pit lane, out of trepidation for what would be visible next. But the local feed from Italy's RAI station remained fixed upon the desperate spectacle as Senna's head noticeably twitched. John Watson, the Northern Irish driver calling the grand prix for Eurosport, described this as a "very positive indication". And yet 7,000 miles away in Buenos Aires, Juan Manuel Fangio, the five-time champion and one figure with whom Senna's greatness could legitimately be compared, concluded it was an involuntary spasm that could only mean a massive head injury. "I turned off my television," he said. "I knew he was dead."
Watkins, who in treating Senna appreciated that he would not survive as soon as he studied the wounds beneath his yellow helmet, recalled it thus: "He sighed, then his body relaxed." Not an avowedly religious man, the neurosurgeon said: "That was the moment I thought his spirit departed."
Medically, the prognosis was unambiguous, but Brundle expresses the confusion that prevailed in the paddock. "I didn't immediately think it was fatal. I just saw the red flag and went back to the start line. I was originally told it was Damon who had had the crash. We were informed that he had moved his head, that it seemed like he was OK, but you subsequently learn that was the nervous reaction of a man finally dying." Senna – sorcerer, artist, icon, virtuoso – was gone. It was 2.17pm.
Owing to the strict edicts of Italian law, Dr Maria Theresa Fiandri, Bologna's chief medical officer, did not officially announce the death until 6.40pm. But every effort to resuscitate him in those intervening 4¼ hours, as Senna was taken by air ambulance to the city's Maggiore hospital, had been hopeless. Senna was brain-dead from the second of impact, when jagged pieces of the right-front wheel assembly penetrated his helmet and produced multiple fractures at the base of his skull.
Yet even in the midst of so desolating a tragedy, a race took place, re-started a mere 38 minutes after Senna's accident and won by Schumacher. Indeed, the only concession the FIA made to the mood of mourning was to insist that no champagne be sprayed on the podium.
Brundle scarcely disguises his contempt at so astonishing a decision. "I was angry that we carried on racing," he says. "I'm still angry today, if I'm honest. What makes me angry is that we raced past a pool of his blood for 55 laps. I thought that was disrespectful, and not the right thing to do."
Brundle depicts a "pall of silence" over Imola that afternoon, as a welter of misinformation circulated about Senna's fate. "I didn't know he had died until after the race. Keke Rosberg told me, then I told Ron Dennis. We all knew something was up." Even Adriane received precious few details. She was still on the runway in Faro, preparing to fly out, 15 minutes after her boyfriend's life-support machine had been switched off.
Back at the Castello, few were so powerfully struck by life's cruel capriciousness that Sunday as Luisa Tosoni. For she had also been taken to a hospital ward, to give birth to her second son, when she heard the news. On what ought to have been the happiest day, she struggled to compute that this impeccably-mannered Brazilian boy, on whom she had doted since he first based himself at her hotel in 1989, would never again be checking into suite 200. "In one way I was happy because of my son, but in another I felt so much… tristezza. It is an awful memory. I prefer to remember the good person, the strong driver who wanted to win at any cost. I know that his father had told him, 'If you want to do something, you must do it the best.'"
The full explanation for why Senna, who could make an F1 car dance through the most devilish corners, went straight on at Tamburello is mired in claim and counter-claim. Hill, however, after 20 years in which the sport has pursued almost every legal and scientific avenue to establish the answer, is adamant in ascribing it to straightforward driver error. "I was the only person who had sat in the same car, on the same day and on the same circuit," he says. "I was able to piece together in my mind that the cause of the accident was nothing to do with that Williams car. I satisfied myself, I wouldn't do it for any other reason. My calculation was that he had been pressing on, and the car was very, very tricky over those bumps."
Brundle draws a contrasting conclusion. "I had a conversation only this month at the Chinese Grand Prix, where I learned quite a bit more information," he discloses. "I'm nervous about putting my opinion on it, because the cars didn't have as many data acquisition tools then. It was probably a set-up issue – a combination of low tyre pressure, an odd aerodynamic effect on the car, and Ayrton pushing hard against Schumacher. But the impression is that his steering column failed."
The judges at Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome agreed. In 2007, after a trial that had lasted over a decade, they resolved Senna's accident had arisen from the failure of a column that was "badly designed and badly executed", and that ultimate responsibility fell upon Williams' former chief designer Patrick Head for "omitted control".
The flaw in the verdict was that Head could not be arrested, since Italy's 7½-year statute of limitation for manslaughter had expired. Plus, to this day, the court's findings are vigorously disputed. Adrian Newey, the architect of Senna's Williams, has pointed out how the car oversteered at Tamburello, with the rear section snapping suddenly out of line – a movement not usually associated with steering column problems and one that, he suggested, was more likely to have been triggered by a puncture.
Television replays highlighted how a loose object was creating an obstruction close to Tamburello, but this was almost half a mile from the point where Senna veered off track. Nonetheless, the emphasis that Hill places upon the bumps in this area is valid, since Senna had specifically complained about the rough surface in pre-season testing there. Then, of course, there is the question of culpability on the part of the Imola circuit itself.
Senna's misgivings about whether it was safe to drive were manifested in his death, for just behind Tamburello ran a creek that significantly reduced his run-off distance. To protect errant cars the creek should have been redirected, but Senna found nothing to diminish his speed as he hurtled off course into the horribly unforgiving expanse of a retaining wall. In place of that wall there is now only a wire fence, festooned with Brazilian flags and small posies of flowers to mark the spot at which his life was so savagely cut short. "It has become a shrine," Hill says. "It gives people somewhere to continue displaying their remembrance and devotion."
Hill often draws unkind remarks that he would never have won his drivers' championship in 1996 had it not been for Senna's tragic ending. But his admiration of the driver with whom he was able to spend just three races at Williams is boundless. "He was on a mission, wholeheartedly committed to giving himself completely to his profession. The fact that he never offered anything other than his absolute best incurred greater risk, and he knew that. So I believe he was one of the most courageous racing drivers there has ever been – the most gifted, the most fascinating. I don't think you will ever see anyone else like him."
There is still no threat to his status. Schumacher, Fangio, Prost, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have garnered more titles, but Senna is heralded as the greatest by every contemporary and every young pretender who has come since. Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, Fernando Alonso, Hamilton: all are united in saluting his pre-eminence. They marvel at the dexterity of one who could propel himself from fifth to first inside 40 seconds in the wet, at the audacity of one who shunted Prost into Suzuka dirt without so much as a trace of contrition.
For Brundle, the abiding example of his craftsmanship will always be his mastery of the sinuous angles of Monte Carlo, where Senna could carve not just tenths off his lap-times but whole seconds. "Ayrton got into such a trance driving around Monaco," he says. "He was almost outside his car, outside his body."
Bruno, the nephew whom Ayrton had anointed as his natural successor, says: "People were aware he was fighting for something more important than just winning races. It was a belief. He was convinced that he had been given a singular opportunity by God, and he had the personality to make the most of it. These are the qualities that make special people in history."
A statue of Senna behind Tamburello, within the Acqua Minerale public park, captures his enigmatic aspect beautifully. The bronze figure is sitting, earnest and contemplative, as if perched on the pit wall. Echoing Tosoni's impression that he was essentially a simple, soft-natured soul, the monument is refreshingly devoid of ostentation. Inquisitive children wander across occasionally to touch the statue's feet, and once they pass the only sound is of birds warbling in the verdant Romagna forest. After the terrible violence of Senna's ending, all at last is still.
- Daily Telegraph UK