Thursday, May 1, 2014

May 1, 2014: 20 Years After the Passing of Ayrton Senna

Image used with Copyright Permission

May 1st, 1994, the start of a new month consisted of the third race on the Formula 1 tour for its respective year. Staging in Imola, Italy, the San Marino Grand Prix was being held in a season quickly redefining trends in Formula 1. However, it was that Italian Formula 1 race in 1994 that greatly shook the motorsport world. Now 20 years in the past, that race in known for the last moments of a man regarded as an inexhaustible source of talent and heroics. It was the day the world lost the great Ayrton Senna.

Back in 1994

Prior to the start of the 1994 Formula 1 season, new technical rules altered the path for which cars were being developed. Banning electronic driving aids delivered the first change for drivers of some teams. Masterfully executed by the Williams F1 team on their dominant FW15C race car in 1993, electronic aids such as an active suspension and traction control was used by Alain Prost en route to a fourth and final Formula 1 drivers' title. With Prost's retirement from Formula 1, the second-biggest change came when Ayrton Senna joined Williams.

A driver attached to McLaren since 1988, Senna left behind his Marlboro-sponsored car in favour of a Rothman-backed Williams-Renault. Seen as a potential dream teaming before the start of the 1994 campaign, the Formula 1 season started with Senna and his Williams-Renault struggling. Qualifying on pole for both the Brazilian and Pacific Grand Prix, Senna's two races wheeling the Williams FW16 ended with retirement. Having built a race car lacking the electronic driving aids, some attributed the removal of high-tech handling features as a challenge to developing a stable vehicle for Senna. For the 34-year-old Ayrton Senna, some additional pressure came from the fact his experience was being outweighed by the talent of a young Michael Schumacher who won first two grand prix events as title contender.

During Saturday for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend, Senna along with everyone part of Formula 1 was stunned by the death of rookie Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger. In a determined by sadly unwise move to gain a spot on the Formula 1 grid in Imola, Ratzenberger attempted to qualify with a damaged front wing on his Simtek when it broke causing a fatal crash into a concrete wall. Despite what was the first death on a Formula 1 race weekend since 1982, the grand prix was held with Ayrton Senna starting at the front for the third consecutive time in the season. Due to an early race crash resulting in a safety car period, the Senna and the field received their first green flag lap of the San Marino track on lap 6. By lap 7, as the Formula 1 cars were at full speed, the Williams-Renault of Ayrton Senna straight-lined a curve at high-speed crashing violently into a concrete retaining wall. A 135-mile per hour crash, the Williams FW16 was torn to pieces as the driver was subjected to extreme forces and flying debris. An emergency team arrived on the scene but Ayrton Senna could not be saved and was declared deceased later that day.

The reason and circumstances of the Senna crash is still a contentious issue. While a steering column break has been widely pointed to as the reason for the crash, Williams engineers at the time Patrick Head and Adrian Newey argued against it. Both engineers as well as the team's boss Frank Williams were even subjected to criminal proceedings in Italy. Some less supported claims point that the accident was the result of driver error or even suicide.

20 Years Later

Reliving the circumstances of that time described by Murray Walker as the "blackest day for grand prix racing that I can remember", the death of Ayrton Senna definitely affected a sizable population. When we look back him after 20 years, the viewing Senna's accomplishments is one that can not be done in a single type of analysis.

Statistically after 11 seasons in Formula 1, Ayrton Senna has true reason to be considered among the greats of the sport. A three-time World Drivers' Champion in Formula 1, Senna posted impressive numbers in his career. 41 wins ranks him third in all-time grand prix victories in Formula 1. His 65 pole positions stood as a record in the sport until 2006 when Michael Schumacher surpassed this qualifying number. With 68 poles, Schumacher's record-breaking pole resulted on the same San Marino circuit where Ayrton Senna's final race took place 12 years prior. Senna finished on the podium for just under half of the 162 races he competed in.

Image Used with Copyright Permission

However, basing Ayrton Senna's racing accomplishments on racing alone is somewhat hollow. On the track, drives by the Brazilian was what really captivated Formula 1 audiences. There was a near-win in wet conditions at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix driving a Toleman. Driving for Team Lotus, Senna's first win in the Portuguese rain in 1985 was regarded as a hard-fought victory. One year later, Senna held off the Williams-Renault piloted by Nigel Mansell by a slim 0.014-second margin. In 1993, the Ford-powered McLaren at Donington Park charged from fourth to first on the opening lap in a moment seen as one of the best performances in Formula 1. Of course, the on-track rivalry with other drivers have provided some of the greatest action in motorsports. While Ayrton Senna had some spirited battles with the Nigel Mansell on several occasions, clearly Alain Prost was Senna's greatest rival.

The Senna versus Prost battle ignited during 1988 when McLaren hired the Brazilian to companion with the Frenchman in their Honda-powered race cars. An adversary that brewed between the two drivers was a battle among titans that resulted in battle getting so nasty it divided the McLaren race team. A feud between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost reached a highpoint for the 1989 and 1990 Formula 1 seasons but their combativeness lasted until Prost's retirement after the 1993 tour. However, prior to Senna's death, the two had reconciled their bad blood to the point of friendship. Following the 2011 release of the documentary 'Senna', Alain Prost voiced displeasure that the relationship wasn't fully documented. It was stated in the documentary that Prost served as a pallbearer at his funeral and has served on the board of Instituto Ayrton Senna. 

If there was one positive thing that came from the tragic loss of Senna, it was Formula 1's investment into safety. Following the San Marino Grand Prix race weekend where Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed in crashes, steps were promptly made to slow down the race vehicles with mandated changes to the race cars as well as to the race tracks. In years following the fatal crashes, cars have been reengineered for greater driver survivability in a serious crash. Since 1994, there has not been a driver fatality in Formula 1.

Finally, we look at the personal impact Ayrton Senna has had to participants and enthusiasts of motorsports. In his native Brazil, Ayrton Senna was a nearly worshipped figure in his time fighting for Formula 1 victories. Not the first Brazilian Formula 1 champion (Emerson Fittipaldi captured the title in 1972 and 1974), Ayrton Senna has given his country a source of national pride and gave back through charitable causes. Outside of Brazil, Senna is still a source of fascination much in the same way as Elvis Presley. The driver's legacy has maintained popularity for the merchandise depicting his era among McLaren, Lotus, Toleman as well as Williams in Formula 1. This enthusiasm for Ayrton Senna has also been rekindled with the popular, award-winning Senna documentary.

Despite his tragic passing at the wheel, Brazilian race car driver has inspired the motorsport dreams of a new generation of racers. Even to this day, so many open wheel racing star has been heard embracing Senna as an idol.

His impact on the motorsport has been great. It's the desire of myself as well as many others that Ayrton Senna's life is seen as the spiritual uprising demonstrating the greatness that can emerge from us when we find our unique talents and pursue it tirelessly.

No comments:

Post a Comment