With crash structures and HANS devices, it is very easy to forget about the risks involved in modern day racing. Today however, is a timely reminder of just how dangerous motorsport can be when you least expect it. Eighteen years ago perhaps one of the greatest F1 drivers ever to have lived was killed at Imola in 1994.
Even now for many fans what happened that day still remains a huge shock to the system. Everyone knows the risks that are involved with a sport that is still inherently dangerous, but no-one expects to see drivers get killed, particularly someone of the stature of Ayrton Senna. The fact that the three times champion was fatally injured just a day after Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died in qualifying made the pain all the worse. The last death in Formula One prior to 1994 had been years ago in 1982, and fans and drivers alike believed the dark days of racing were behind the sport.
Everyone knows how Senna's story was tragically cut short at just thirty-four years of age, and whilst today is sombre for many racing fans, young and old, it is perhaps a day to reflect on some of the happier moments of Ayrton's career.
Senna arrived in Formula One in 1984 with a strong background in junior formulae. Only a year earlier had he won the prestigious British Formula Three championship, and although Ayrton's talent was clear to see right from karting, not many imagined he'd prove to be successful at Toleman. That was until Monaco later that year. Throughout the history of Formula One we have seen many great drives as a racer shows his potential to the world, and this was Ayrton's moment. After qualifying thirteenth on the grid, Senna made great progress through the field in what can only be described as monsoon like conditions.
After passing Niki Lauda, the three times champion, Senna began to quickly close down on race leader Alain Prost. Senna was considerably quicker and had been closing the Frenchman down when the red flag was brought out due to the terrible conditions. It was a question of what might have been – but still, he had made his intentions clear. He followed up this performance with two further podiums at the British and Portuguese rounds of the championship later that year and would move to Lotus for the next three seasons.
Despite a strong heritage in the sport, Lotus, like Toleman, were not considered to be a championship contending team whilst Senna was there, such was the likes of McLaren and Williams' dominance. Despite this, in 1985 he claimed his first win, again at the Portugese Grand Prix, again in wet conditions. He lead from pole position and went on to win by over a minute. It was another clear indication to any who needed it that the Brazilian was a future star of the sport, and that his car control, particularly in wet conditions was quickly becoming noticed by a lot of front running teams, notably McLaren. During his time at Lotus, Senna would win six times and finish on the podium a further sixteen times, finishing fourth in the championship twice (1985 and 1986) and third (1987) once.
But it was clear that if Senna had any dreams of becoming World Champion, he would have to move teams. In 1988, he was announced as team mate to two times champion Alain Prost, the man he had come so close to beating at Monaco four years ago. It was a super team – the perfect blend of experience and youth, and to start with, things went well. McLaren were the truly dominant team in 1988, winning all but one race that season. Now in a truly front running car Senna duly delivered in a year that saw him qualifying almost one second faster than his team mate around the streets of Monaco, and taking eight wins, including four in a row. The championship went down to the wire at the penultimate round in Suzuka, and despite a terrible start it was Senna who won the race and his first title.
The next two seasons would see his relationship with Prost turn sour and the racing get even more competitive between the two. Things came to a head at Suzuka a year later – with Prost ahead in the championship this time. Late in the race the two collided infamously at the chicane. Thinking the race was over, Prost got out of his car. Senna had a different idea however. He recovered, pitted for repairs and still won the race – but was controversially disqualified after the chequered flag and the title was Alain's.
In 1990, the two collided at the same track again. Prost, now driving for Ferrari, needed to win the race for any chance of the title. Senna, incensed that pole had been positioned on the dirty side of the track, deliberately crashed into Alain at the first corner, ending Prost's hopes and thus giving Ayrton his second title. A third, and ultimately final, title would follow in 1991.
So how to sum up Senna's legacy on this eighteenth anniversary? It's a difficult one – it is almost like he had a Jekyll and Hyde personality. This was the man who drove his fierce rival clean off the race track, but stopped his car and ran to help Erik Comas after he crashed heavily at Spa in 1992. He was one of the most ruthless racers on the grid – memorably claiming that “if you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver” but who quietly donated millions to help poverty stricken children in his native Brazil.
But perhaps Senna's lasting legacy to the sport is that since his and Ratzenberger's deaths, there has not been a single driver fatality in Formula One. Thanks to the safety improvements that were made to cars and tracks following his crash, the sport is a lot safer now than it was back in his day. No doubt if he knew that, he'd be smiling.