Former F1 driver and 1996 world champion Damon Hill recently spoke of the effect Ayrton Senna’s death had on him, and how safety changes following the Brazilian’s accident changed Formula 1 for the better.
Hill was Senna’s team-mate at the Williams F1 team at the time of the fatal incident at Imola on May 1 1994, and the loss of such a legendary figure rocked not just the Brit and the sport, but also the world.
It was a dark weekend for F1, as Roland Ratzenberger also had his life taken during qualifying for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, and Rubens Barrichello was injured during practice.
The deaths were the first in a F1 race since 1982, when both Riccardo Paletti and Gilles Villeneuve lost their lives, and were gladly no longer a common occurrence in what is an extremely dangerous pastime.
Senna had been at the top of his game however and a hugely iconic figure in his home country and to fans of the sport. To put into context just how popular the Brazilian was, Hill described how even the President of Japan was in attendance at his funeral.
“Yeah, so he was in the same team as me, just joined the Williams team and we went to Imola and we lost Ayrton.
“I went to his funeral and millions of people turned up, there was the president of Japan, and it was a state funeral.
“He was an immensely potent figure in Brazil’s life and this was a massive tragedy and a massive shock to most sports, and Formula 1 as well.
Senna was often thought to be a rather intense character both on and off the track, but Hill says there was much more to the man, than what he allowed to be on show to the public.
“Some people feel like he was over intense about his mission and what he was actually doing on the race track. I mean, Alan Prost said well listen, if he thinks God’s on his side then nothing can happen to him, then I don’t want to be racing against this guy.
“You know he was a very fierce competitor, but he raced almost as if he had a mission to complete and his mission was to wipe out the opposition, anyone who stood in his way sometimes – it seemed like that.
“But, also I think he was a very caring, passionate – deeply passionately emotional guy as well. I think he wanted to fight for what was right so there was this contradiction, and sometimes he contradicted himself in his sport.”
Following Senna’s death, the FIA jumped to immediate action, and brought in a number of safety amendments for the very next race on the calendar, which are still in use today, and have no doubt saved countless lives since.
Then FIA president Max Mosley was behind the raft of changes, vowing at the time of the tragedy, that F1 would never again be plunged into such darkness.
One of the first things on Moseley’s list of must do’s, was to create the Expert Advisory Safety Committee, which would be in charge of thinking up new safety features, and he made the late Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA’s former medical delegate and one of Senna’s closest friends, chair of the group.
Amongst the ideas thought up, were the collapsible steering column, protective foam around the top of the cockpit, crash tests for front, rear and side impacts, the Head And Neck Support (HANS) device which has become mandatory for every driver, and wheel tethers. There has also been a revamp of many circuits, which now include much larger run-off areas, and impact-absorbing crash barriers.
Hill for one is extremely thankful for the changes implemented by the FIA, which ensured no further loss of life until that of Jules Bianchi in 2015, following his fatal crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. The Frenchman’s death once again prompted the sport to look seriously at the dangers within F1, and a cockpit safety device is currently in the process of being developed.
“Yeah, It was a sort of 9/11 moment for Formula 1, they swept in and they said ‘okay we can’t afford to be seen as reckless, there’s too much at stake’, so they immediately enforced a lot of changes in the sport.
“I would say the changes they brought in since…probably certainly saved my legs, probably saved my life as well.”