Formula 1 | Thirty years after his death, Ayrton Senna’s legacy still lives

(Paris) An intact legend. Thirty years after his death, at the age of 34, on the Italian circuit of Imola, on 1er May 1994, the Brazilian Ayrton Senna is still adored and his death helped to strengthen safety in Formula 1.

If safety had already made progress over the previous twenty years at the initiative of pilots like triple world champion Jackie Stewart, the death of Senna provoked a new effort as evidenced by the deformable structures, the pilots’ equipment and the clearance zones on the circuits.

The improvements thus made mean that only one driver has since died following an accident in F1, Frenchman Jules Bianchi, in 2014.

The day before the Brazilian’s death during the Grand Prix, another F1 driver, the Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, had already been killed in an accident during qualifying practice. Rubens Barichello, Senna’s compatriot, also had an accident that same weekend, from which he emerged miraculously unscathed.

There were “three big accidents […] and I think it shocked F1,” Frédéric Vasseur, now boss of the Ferrari team, told AFP.

“I don’t know if it was a trigger, but it’s true that it’s often when there is an accident that we change. After Jules (Bianchi), we did the halo for example,” he adds, referring to the roll bar above the cockpit which now protects the drivers’ heads.

Long investigation

In the movie 1, Life on the Limitreleased in 2013 and devoted to safety in F1, the British specialist journalist Maurice Hamilton observed that the death of Ayrton Senna had “been broadcast into the living rooms of millions of people who did not know much about motorsport, but knew who he was and wanted to know who the culprit was.”

A long investigation established that the accident was caused by the breakage of the steering column of his Williams and that a wheel hit his helmet, while a suspension arm perforated the passenger compartment when the car crashed against a concrete wall, in the Tamburello bend, where a tribute will be paid to it on Wednesday in the presence of F1 boss Stefano Domenicali and the Italian and Brazilian foreign ministers.


Ayrton Senna, in 1994

With three world championship titles (1988, 1990 and 1991), 41 victories and 65 pole positions in 161 Grands Prix, Senna has built one of the finest records in F1, with Lewis Hamilton, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher, Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Alain Prost.

Prost remains inseparably linked to Senna’s destiny. Not only were the two men teammates, but their rivalry remains the fiercest to have existed in F1.

The Frenchman ended his career at the end of the 1993 season with one last world champion title, a few months before Senna’s death. “I don’t have any bad memories of him,” he assured in 2018.

Schumacher’s tears

“I keep the last six months of his life in mind, that’s when I got to know him a lot better. He was someone completely different. I understood who he really was and why he sometimes acted.”

Senna’s aura remained immense. Michael Schumacher, still a young driver, was following the Brazilian driver by a few meters at the time of the accident. In 2000, when asked about his feelings after equaling what was then Senna’s record of 41 Grand Prix victories, the German broke down in tears in front of the cameras, despite his reputation for coldness.

Lewis Hamilton also has fond memories of the fateful day. “I was nine years old and my father told me that Ayrton Senna had died in an accident. As a child, it’s hard to understand what that really means, but I went behind the car and cried,” recalls the man who would become a seven-time world champion, still in the film “1, Life on the Limit.”


Lewis Hamilton with Ayrton Senna’s helmet.

If Senna left lasting memories as a pilot, he was also concerned about poverty in his country. Today, the “Instituto Ayrton Senna” foundation, run by his sister Viviane and his niece Bianca, takes care of deprived children, whom Ayrton Senna, who himself never married and did not have of children, wanted to help.

Senna “was much more than an F1 idol. He was a model of excellence, perseverance and integrity,” recently summed up Brazilian Ambassador to Italy Renato Mosca, presenting the exhibition entitled “Ayrton Senna forever” at the Museum of the automobile of Turin.

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