Undoubtedly, the greatest ever to compete in the sport, Ayrton Senna would have probably shattered each and every record in the book by a mile. He blazed through the sport like a man from another planet and his dazzling intellect and charisma thoroughly lit up the Formula One world. There wasn’t a man who tried harder; there wasn’t a man who pushed himself more than the great Brazilian. His quest to beat himself day-in and day-out meant that he would constantly push the limits of racing and that, on one fateful day, would prove to be his undoing.
Ayrton Senna was born into a high society family where he, along with his brothers and sisters, enjoyed a thoroughly privileged life. He had no need to race for the money but it was a miniature go-kart that held his attention when he was four. Since then, Ayrton knew just one thing and one thing only - Formula One. He would wake with great anticipation to watch his heroes on TV. He raced Karts when he was 13, and immediately, as if he was meant to, he won. He moved to Britain when he was 21 and turned to single-seater racing and won an incredible 5 championships in 3 years. His personal life was in turmoil after having divorced his young wife and shunned out of his family’s business. But now, he had all the time in the world to concentrate on just one thing - being the best.
He made his Formula One debut in 1984. In his first season, he scored a sensational second place in Monaco, in torrential rain, behind Alain Prost. The result was to be the first of many squabbles that Senna would have with Prost but more importantly, it was a sign that a new phenom had arrived on the tracks.
In his debut season, with Toleman, he barely managed anything due to the rather limited resources and to quench his thirst, he decided to buy out his contract and move to Lotus. In three seasons with Lotus, Senna won six races and he knew it was the best he could get out of the team. So he moved to McLaren in 1988 and stayed for six long seasons. His most formidable years as a race driver, Senna would go on to win 35 races in the 6 seasons along with 3 world championships.
Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were team mates in a formidable lineup at McLaren in 1988. The duo won 15 of the 16 races in the season while Senna won eight races to Prost’s seven, handing him the World Title. In 1989, Prost took the title on the last day of the season by ramming into Senna and taking him out of the race at the Suzuka chicane. In the following year, Senna repaid the favour in similar circumstances. Again, the last race of the season at Suzuka saw both team mates battling it out for the championships and Senna, at the first corner in Suzuka, decided that it was time for Prost to taste a bit of his own medicine and took out the Frenchman and won the title.
In 1991, Senna took his third title, which was part of one of the most incredible driver dominating displays ever. Although Senna was ruling the roost, his need to compete against himself always got the better of him. He kept pushing himself at McLaren and produced some incredible performances before moving to Williams in 1994, a move that would prove fatal. Senna was a colourful personality in a sport that cherished colourful personalities. He ruled the room he walked into and the intensity of his voice was a great measure of the clarity and conviction of his thoughts. Press Conference were dead silent when the man spoke, such was his commanding presence. Senna had a magnetic appeal and it was attracting the entire world.
Senna’s sheer determination to go faster and faster was condemned by many including Alain Prost, who firmly believed that Senna cared more about winning than living. The commitment on display at each qualifying and practice lap was as intense and genuine as a race lap. The effort was unquestionable and the man had extraordinary skill and control over his machine.
Martin Brundle once said about Senna, “I define genius as just the right side of imbalance. He is so highly developed to the point that he’s almost over the edge. It’s a close call. Senna is a Genius!” Senna, himself, confessed to stretching things too far on certain occasions. One instance in his debut season, in the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, proved this point exactly when Senna, despite qualifying in Pole position for the race, just kept going faster and faster till he was two seconds ahead of the seasoned campaigner Prost in an identical McLaren. “Suddenly, it frightened me,” Ayrton said, “because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding. I drove back slowly to the pits and did not go out anymore that day.”
He considered driving as a discovery of his own self and termed it as self-research. He said, Every time I push, I find something more, again and again. But there is a contradiction. The same moment that you become the fastest, you are enormously fragile. Because in a split-second, it can be gone; All of it! These two extremes contribute to knowing yourself, deeper and deeper.”
Senna was not always as self-absorbed as it seemed to the public eye. The Brazilian had a hidden side to his character that didn’t get out into the open until after his death. Senna loved children and donated almost $400 million of his personal fortune to provide a better future for underprivileged children in Brazil. In 1994, he spoke about his thoughts on life, “I want to live fully, very intensely. I would never want to live partially, suffering from illness or injury. If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs my life, I hope it happens in one instant.”
It was almost as if he wished it badly enough and San Marino struck. The death of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger had led to widespread protests by drivers, led by Senna, about the dangers of the Imola circuit, especially the Tamburello corner. The main area of concern was the fact that there wasn’t enough drive-off area at certain segments of the track deeming it unsafe. Despite a funny feeling in his gut, Senna decided to go ahead and race and at Tamburello, his Williams darted straight off the track and rammed sideways into the concrete wall lining the track.
Ayrton Senna died on May 1st, 1994.
From under his blood-soaked race jacket, race stewards extracted an Austrian flag that Senna was planning to unfurl at the podium upon winning the race. That gesture said everything about the man. Alain Prost escorted the funeral procession along with many members of a shaken Formula One community.
Frank Williams said this for Ayrton, “Ayrton was no ordinary person. He was actually a greater man out of the car than in it.”