|Tuesday, 14 October 2008 09:57|
Born: March 21, 1960
Died: May 1, 1994
Place of death: Imola, San Marino
Cause of Death: Motor accident
Notable because: The most successful driver of his generation, died at the wheel.
Ayrton Senna da Silva was a Brazilian racing driver and triple Formula One world champion. He remains the last Grand Prix driver killed while driving a Formula One car.
A kart racer from an early age, Senna won the British Formula 3 championship in 1983 and made his Formula One debut with Toleman the next year. He moved to Lotus-Renault in 1985, and won six Grands Prix over the next three seasons. In 1988 he joined Frenchman Alain Prost at McLaren-Honda, the top driver and team at the time, and won that year's championship. He and Prost developed a heated rivalry, which is regarded as the bitterest in F1 history. Senna also won the 1990 and 1991 F1 championships. In the next two years with McLaren, despite driving an inferior car, Senna won races and challenged for the 1993 world title, finishing runner-up to Prost. He switched to the then-dominant Williams Renault team for the 1994 season. At the third race of the year millions of fans witnessed his fatal crash live on global TV coverage whilst leading the San Marino Grand Prix.
During his Grand Prix racing career, Senna became an international sporting superstar. His wet weather driving skills were often showcased during his ten years in the sport, most notably in his near victory during the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix despite an inferior car, his dominant first victory in the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix and his acclaimed 1993 European Grand Prix. He was recognized for his qualifying speed over one lap, as shown by his 65 pole positions in 162 races. His record six victories in the Monaco Grand Prix, the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix win, and the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix win that earned him his first Drivers' title are some examples of his finest performances. Senna was also known for his ruthless will to win. This became evident most infamously during the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix in which Senna deliberately crashed his McLaren into Prost's Ferrari, some say in retribution to Prost's similar actions the year before. Both drivers were eliminated from the race, which handed the title to Senna.
At the third race of the season, the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Senna declared that this was where his season would start, with fourteen races, as opposed to sixteen, in which to win the title. Senna again placed the car on pole, but he was particularly upset by two events. On Friday, during the afternoon qualifying session, Senna's protégé, the then F1 newcomer Rubens Barrichello, was involved in a serious accident that prevented him from competing in the race. The next day, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a practice accident.
Senna spent his final morning meeting fellow drivers, determined after Ratzenberger's accident to take on a new responsibility to re-create a Drivers' Safety group (i.e. Grand Prix Drivers' Association) to increase safety in Formula One. As the most senior driver, he offered to take the role of leader in this effort.
Senna and the other drivers all opted to start the Grand Prix, but the race was interrupted by a huge accident at the start line. A safety car was deployed and the drivers followed it for several laps. On the restart Senna immediately set a quick pace with the third quickest lap of the race, followed by Schumacher. As Senna entered the high-speed Tamburello corner on the next lap, the car left the track at high speed, hitting the concrete retaining wall at around 135 mph. Senna was removed from the car by Sid Watkins and his medical team and treated by the side of the car before being airlifted to Bologna hospital where Senna was later declared dead. What had likely happened was that the right front wheel had shot up after impact like a catapult and violated the cockpit area where Senna was sitting. It impacted the right frontal area of his helmet, and the violence of the wheel’s impact pushed his head back against the headrest, causing fatal skull fractures. A piece of upright attached to the wheel had partially penetrated his helmet and made a big indent in his forehead. In addition, it appeared that a jagged piece of the upright assembly had penetrated the helmet visor just above his right eye. Any one of the three injuries would probably have killed him. As track officials examined the wreckage of his racing car they found a furled Austrian flag -- a victory flag that he was going to raise in honour of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, who had died on that track the day before.
To this day, the cause of the accident has still not been fully determined after many court cases, including Williams being investigated for manslaughter though the charges were later dropped.
Senna's death was considered by many of his Brazilian fans to be a national tragedy, and the Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning. An estimated million people lined the streets to give him their salute. Most of Formula One attended Senna's state funeral, notably among them his fierce rival Alain Prost who was one of the pallbearers. However, FIA President Max Mosley did not, as he attended the funeral of Ratzenberger instead which took place on May 7, 1994 in Salzburg, Austria. Mosley said in a press conference ten years later, "I went to his funeral because everyone went to Senna's. I thought it was important that somebody went to his." A testament to the adulation he inspired among fans worldwide was the scene at the Tokyo headquarters of Honda where the McLaren cars were typically displayed after each race. Upon his death, so many floral tributes were received that it overwhelmed the large exhibit lobby. This in spite the fact Senna no longer drove for McLaren and that McLaren, in the preceding seasons did not utilize Honda power. Senna had a special relationship with company founder Soichiro Honda and was beloved in Japan where he achieved a near mythic status. In his home country of Brazil, the main freeway from the international airport to São Paulo and a tunnel along route to the heart of the city is named in his honour. Senna is buried at the Morumbi Cemetery in his hometown of São Paulo.
For the next race at Monaco, the FIA decided to leave empty the first two grid positions and painted them with the colors of the Brazilian and the Austrian flag, to honour Senna and Ratzenberger.
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