Senna Forever – memories of Ayrton, by those who knew him best (CAR+ archive, 1999)

Published: 21 March 2016

► Ayrton Senna remembered by those closest to him 
► Those who knew him best share their memories
► ‘The guy was special, just…different, you know?’ 

It is five years since Ayrton Senna lost his life in that horror crash at Imola. Few of us will ever forget how we felt that day, but how did the tragedy affect those closest to the man considered to be the world’s greatest racing driver? And now, five years on, how do they remember him?

Something in that tiny movement of the yellow helmet caused a gasp in the Imola press room. A minute earlier, Ayrton Senna had hit the wall at Tamburello, and briefly there was pandemonium, but then, as the red flag was waved, everything fell curiously quiet.

We stared at the TV monitors, mesmerised by the set of Senna’s head. It was upright, not slumped to one side as one would expect of an unconscious man – but, if he was not unconscious, why was he not moving? We willed him to wave an arm, do something, anything, to indicate that all was essentially well with him.

Then his head moved. It was almost imperceptible, but enough for some to keep hoping that Senna was merely stunned, and nothing more. For others, there was something almost ghostly about the moment.

‘He’s dying, isn’t he?’ someone murmured.

Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA’s medical supremo, was quickly on the scene, and immediately discerned from Senna’s pupils that he had suffered a massive brain injury. ‘He looked serene,’ Watkins recalled. ‘We lifted him from the cockpit, and laid him on the ground.

‘As we did so he sighed, and although I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment.’

Senna was taken by hospital to Maggiore Hospital in Bologna. ‘There was no point in me going with him,’ Watkins said, ‘because there was nothing more I could do to influence the situation.’

At 6.40 that Sunday evening – 1 May 1994 – Senna’s death was formally announced.

He was buried in Sao Paulo four days later, the scale of his funeral comparable to that of a national leader – which, to the Brazilians, he was. Through several days of national mourning, and beyond, the country was demented with grief.

Formula One, too. Everyone assembled at Monte Carlo two weeks later, but a residue of shock hung over the paddock. ‘I think we all felt the same,’ said Martin Brundle. ‘It had been so long since anyone died in Formula One, and then in two days we lost Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton.

‘Senna getting killed…it was almost too much to take in, wasn’t it?’

Across the world, media coverage was extraordinary. A whole generation of motoring journalists, as well as race fans, had grown up in the blithe belief that this was now a relatively safe occupation, and their outrage – much of it ill-informed and precipitate – inevitably put pressure on the FIA to make changes to this ‘killer sport’. The governing body not only had to take action, but had to be seen to do so, and felt compelled to order a whole raft of technical and procedural changes, changing the very ethos of Grand Prix racing forever.

Why did Senna crash that day? Opinions vary, but perhaps the only cause we may reasonably rule out is driver error. ‘Tamburello,’ confirmed Keke Rosberg, ‘was always a heart in mouth corner where you feared something going wrong, because it was  flat-out, and the run off was nothing.

‘But it was not a difficult corner – you just turned in, and hung on. It was never a place where a driver, yet alone one of Ayrton’s ability, would go off because of a mistake.’

When Senna’s Williams-Renault hit the wall, the right front wheel came back, dealing the massive blow to the head that killed him.

‘Otherwise’, said Professor Watkins, ‘he didn’t have a single injury, not even a tiny fracture.

‘If the wheel had missed him – as usually happens – he’d probably have raced at Monaco.’

Inevitably, such a singular motor-racing talent as Senna left deep and varied impressions on the people he crossed paths, and swords, with – generating rivalry, some antipathy, and certainly abiding professional respect.

Today, five years after the crash which ended his life, the man still casts a giant shadow over the sport and those involved in it. Memorials to his memory exist all over the world, including the poignant tribute pictured on the previous pages, which stands at Imola, near the spot where the accident happened. A tattered Brazilian flag has been clinging to the perimeter fence at the Italian circuit for a very long time. No-one is likely to take it down, nor scrub off the crudely painted messages proclaiming, ‘Senna forever.’ In the following pages, five of those who knew the Brazilian best give us their intensely personal memories and thoughts on what Senna’s death – and life – meant to them.

We start with Frank Williams, Senna’s team boss at the time of his death, and end with Alain Prost – the only driver to approach the Brazilian’s sheer ability, who experienced the bitterest edge of the man’s unique competitiveness; but could nevertheless have become a close friend…'Tamburello was always a heart-in-mouth corner - you feared something going wrong because it was flat-out and the run-off area was nothing'

Frank Williams, Senna’s last team boss

‘Everyone in the company was truly shattered by Ayrton’s death. They all felt a certain responsibility, because, at the end of the day, the fact is that Ayrton died in a Williams car, and that was an enormously important responsibility. As well as the grief, I felt very embarrassed that he never got a fair crack of the whip at Williams. He drove a very good race at Interlagos in a difficult car, got nowhere in Aida – first corner accident – and then came Imola.

‘Julian Jakobi, his team manager, told me that, despite the early handling problems with the car, Ayrton remained pretty certain he’d be world champion in 1994. And, all things being equal, he would have been, I think. He’d have got the car sorted very quickly. It was a difficult car at the beginning of the year, and yet he was on pole position at each of his three races in it. Quite remarkable. He never bitched publicly about the car, although he gave us a hard time, in terms of making clear what the problems were.

‘Undoubtedly, Ayrton was shattered by Roland Ratzenburger’s fatal accident in the final qualifying session on Saturday, but he came to my hotel room late that evening, and by then he was pretty relaxed. He said ‘Don’t worry Frank, I’m okay now.’ He had been out with his Brazilian friends, and they’d cheered him up. On race morning he seemed fine. The last words he said to me were, ‘I’ve got to go and see Gerhard (Berger).’ They were very close buddies, because Gerhard was always honest with Ayrton, and that mattered to him more than anything else.

‘I was the first team owner to give Ayrton as test seat, back in the summer of 1983. We had a policy of going only for experienced drivers, but as soon as he was into Formula One, I regretted that I hadn’t signed him. He was something very special.

‘We always stayed in touch down the years. Sometimes twice a week, sometimes not for a couple of months, but we never lost touch. The thing was, he just loved to talk motor racing – get him on the phone, and you couldn’t get him off it! It’s pretty unusual for a driver and the owner of another team to talk as we did, I would say.

‘After he died, I remember a great sadness; but I don’t recall any particular difficulty in going to work, or turning up at Monaco two weeks later. There was just this huge sadness. The guys here – the mechanics and engineers –were very affected by it. I repeat – it was a major responsibility having a guy like Ayrton drive for you. He’d been at McLaren had six years of massive achievement there…and then he came here, and in three races everything cracked and crumbled…’
Jo Ramirez, McLaren team co-ordinator

‘Ayrton’s last race at for McLaren was in Adelaide, at the end of 1993. Just before the start of the race, he called me over and asked if I’d tighten his belts, which was unusual, because the last pull on his belts he always liked to do himself. When I got close to him, I realised that wasn’t what he wanted. He said ‘It seems strange to be doing this for the last time in a McLaren.’ I said, ‘Yes, for us too. This is a very important race – if you win, I’ll love you forever.’ Then he grabbed my arm, and I looked into his eyes, and I could see tears. I was emotional, too, and I thought, ‘Jeez, the last thing I want to do is get him wound up just before the start,’ so I quickly changed my tone, and said, ‘No, you’re just going on holiday for a year, and then you’ll  be back to us.

‘At the end of the race it was wonderful to see Senna and Prost together on the podium. It was very emotional for me, for it was also Alain’s last race, and I was very fond of both of them. I hated it when they fell out, and I was glad they were starting to make it up by the end.

‘Everyone knows about the feud between them. I think that, as in any sport, you cannot have the two top guys together without trouble eventually, but it was still a great shame.

‘People have said that Alain was a McLaren driver with a Honda engine, while Ayrton was a Honda driver with a McLaren chassis. I think Honda was always a little biased towards Ayrton, but then he used to spend a lot more time with them than Alain did. And also he had a very special way of using the throttle – we could all hear it, couldn’t we? – and Alain said it simply didn’t suit his driving style.

‘For all the problems that existed between them, though, there was always this deep respect between them, too, and that would always have been there. Neither of them ever spent any time worrying about any other driver; they were in a totally different class from the rest. I remember the year that Prost didn’t drive – it was 1992 – Senna would always remind us, ‘We’re just lucky that Alain isn’t driving the Ferrari or the Williams, because if he had been, we wouldn’t have won…

‘Right at the end, when they shook hands and started talking again, it was nice, but also poignant, considering what happened at Imola. I think Prost was right, that they should have become friends.

‘Once Prost had gone, Senna could see that Schumacher was going to give him some trouble in the future. At Magny-Cours in 1992, Michael pushed him off on the opening lap. Later, the race was stopped because of rain, and as the drivers waited for the restart, Ayrton went to read him the riot act. I could see them in the distance, with Michael nodding his head, saying, ‘Yes sir, no sir…’ Ayrton came back all pleased with himself, saying, ‘Great! Got him just before he got in the car again!

‘Did I fully understand Senna? I think I did, but sometimes I find myself wondering. He was an incredibly intense person, and his will to win was really quite unbelievable. When Prost was driving a car he was completely happy with I think he was untouchable, but Senna, at the end of the day, would drive flat-out, no matter what the car was. That was the case at Imola – there was no way that car should have been on pole position; it was there because he was driving it.

Schumacher said that he could see Ayrton’s car was a handful, and I think that, in those circumstances, Prost – or anyone else, would have waited to see how things developed. But Senna was born to lead, to be the fastest. That’s the way he was, and he was never going to change.

‘Now that Ayrton and Alain are gone from the sport, there are no charismatic drivers left, are there?’

Gerhard Berger, Senna’s McLaren team-mate for three years

‘I was in the pit, watching the TV monitor, when Roland (Ratzenberger) went off. I could see them working on his heart, and I knew he was dead. When I got to the motorhome, I was shaking. That was the moment when I said, “Think about his. You’ve had some success, and you’ve made some good money. For the rest of your life, you can have a smaller risk of hurting yourself – maybe now is the time to stop.”

‘For 10 minutes I sat there, and then I concluded, “No, I still love to drive racing cars, even if there is the risk.” And if that was the case, I needed to get in the car straight away, which is why I practised again afterwards. If I was going to race again on Sunday, there was no reason to not go out.

‘After Ayrton’s accident, of course I thought about it again, but really the decision as already taken. I saw him in the hospital in Bologna, at six o’clock in the evening. He was on a life support machine, and his heart was still beating, but he had no chance any more…

‘From the hospital, I went by helicopter to the airport, and we landed near my plane, which was parked next to Ayrton’s. Even though I’d just left him, that hit me hard. For a few days afterwards, I had a bit of a discussion with myself, but really I’d made my mind up to go on.'The circuit was changed because of Ayrton's crash - and he would have hated it'

‘I went to Senna’s funeral in Sao Paulo, then to Ratzenburger’s in Austria the following day. I knew Ayrton well, and the guy was special, just…different, you know? And his funeral was unbelievable – it was as if he’d organised it himself. The whole thing was on a bigger scale than you can imagine – one-and-a-half million people in the streets, hundreds of soldiers everywhere, military aircraft overhead, helicopters. It was like the funeral of an American President.

‘For a moment, I thought, “He’s up there, watching, and he’s going to be so upset if one person moves the wrong way at the wrong moment!”

‘Ayrton’s whole way of thinking was on a different scale, and I used to wonder if it was because he came from such a big country. There are seven million people in Austria – that’s half the number in Ayrton’s city. So, maybe even from the beginning, he had a different thinking, on money, on everything.

‘I’m sure that it was this mentality which put him on a separate level as a driver. In a qualifying session, I would go out, set third-fastest time, and say, “That’s it, The two Williams are ahead, they’re quicker than we are, so that’s the best I can do.”

‘For Ayrton, though, the Williams didn’t exist. In his mind, the only thing that existed was himself – and he had to be first. And, you know, by this thinking he was able to create a power. That’s the only word I can use.

‘There would be a car that, on paper, was a second a lap quicker, and you knew that you couldn’t beat it. Ninety-nine percent of drivers will accept that, and say; “Next week we’ll have a new engine, and we’ll be up there.” But Ayrton, no. He would say, “I have to be the quickest” – and he’d do it! ‘As people, we were entirely different, which is probably why we became friends. For sure, he had strengths where I didn’t, but I think it was true the other way round, too. I could easily separate working time from free time, but Ayrton could not, and I think, when I arrived at McLaren, I made him even stronger, because he became more free. I believe, through me, he learned to laugh.

‘Until I went to McLaren, I had been quicker than my team mates – even in 1989, when I was with Nigel Mansell at Ferrari, I out-qualified him more often than not, and therefore, I thought, “Why should I have a problem with Senna?” Ha! I was dreaming! As I said, this guy was different. At Phoenix, our first race together, I was on pole, and thought, “No problem.” Ayrton went home to Brazil to think about it – and I never beat him again!’

Professor Sidney Watkins, President, FIA Medical Commission

Going back to Imola doesn’t cause me any particular anxiety any more, although it was difficult the first year after Ayrton died. I suppose what’s helped me is the fact that the circuit is so different. In fact, the irony is that it was changed because of Senna’s accident – and he would have hated it, the way it is now.

‘When I go through there now, I can’t quite believe it’s Tamburello – the old corner simply isn’t there anymore, and it’s actually quite different to work out now exactly where it all happened.

‘Ayrton was extremely distressed after Ratzenberger’s accident, and we had a long talk about things afterwards. This was the first fatality at a Grand Prix meeting for a dozen years, and for most of the drivers, it was the first time they’d had to confront the situation. Even allowing for that, I judged Ayrton’s reaction to it to be abnormal. I told him I didn’t think he should race the next day – and that he should think very seriously about racing ever again.

‘He thought a great deal before he answered. A minute or more. He was always like that. If you asked a difficult question, there was always a very long silence – he’d never come up with a rapid response, which he might regret. Eventually he said that…he couldn’t not race, in effect. There was no particular explanation, but I believe he felt trapped by every aspect of his life at that time. I think he would have liked to step back; that was the impression I’d been getting for a while.

‘He’d had a difficult time in his last year at McLaren, and then the two races he’d done with Williams had gone badly. He was very upset about those races – he’d just changed teams, and he was having more problems than he’d had before. I think there was no doubt he felt very much pressured that he had  to win at Imola.

‘After the shunt at the start, they ran around slowly behind the safety car for three or four laps. When they got the signal to go again, Ayrton came past my medical car (parked near the pit straight) like a bat out of hell. I’m not given to premonitions, but I said to my driver, “I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be a fucking awful accident…” I’d never had it before, and I never have since. I’m normally useless at predicting anything. But when we got the message that the race had been red-flagged, somehow I knew it was Senna.

‘Schumacher was behind him, and he backed off a bit, because he was worried about how nervous Ayrton’s car looked. He said it was like a stone skimming over water – the trajectory of the car through the corners was jerky, not a Senna trajectory at all.

‘Over the years there were a lot of big accidents at Tamburello – Piquet, Berger, and so on – and they got away with it. I think Ayrton would have walked away too, if the wheel hadn’t hit him. His helmet was cracked. He had no other injuries whatever. None.

‘So many times I suggested to him that, once in the lead, he should back off a touch, that there was no need for him to win by a minute or whatever, but it was always to no avail. He couldn’t help himself – and that, in my opinion, was his main fault as a racing driver. I used to tell him that the clever driver is the one who wins whilst taking the least out of himself and the car. And he’d say ‘Yes, I know you’re right. Every time I go past your medical car, I remember what you said, and I feel guilty about it. But by the time I get to the next corner, I’ve forgotten…”

‘In many ways, Senna was very similar to Gilles Villeneuve, another driver of whom I was extremely fond. They were both chargers on the track, but also wonderfully gentle human beings. What distinguishes people like them, from the rest is their flair, their total commitment, and their precision. If you were out on the track in the medical car, they’d miss you by a centimetre as they came by. That would never worry me with people like them – but some of these others, I wouldn’t give them a metre!

‘I still think a great deal about Ayrton. My relationship with him was by far the closest that I’ve had with…another man, I would say. It’s odd, I suppose, that I don’t have a problem coming back to Imola. Just before that weekend I went to Venice with my wife. I’d never been before, and I’ll never go again, because that, I know, would bring it all back again. What started off as such a great week ended with the most tragic weekend there’s been – certainly in my experience, anyway.’

Alain Prost, Senna’s bitter rival

‘I had retired at the end of the previous season, so there was no reason for me to go to the first two races in 1994. I was, though, going to Imola, and Ayrton – when he was filming a lap of the circuit for Elf – commenting on each corner, and so on, suddenly said, “I would like to welcome back my god friend Alain…”

‘Considering the problems we’d had over the years, a lot of people were surprised by that, but actually, after I’d retired, we spoke quite often on the telephone. He called me several times, usually to talk about safety – he wanted to keep me involved with that, and we had agreed to discuss it at Imola. He was much softer than before – for me, Ayrton changed completely in ’94. He seemed very down to me, without the same power as before.

We had this conversation on the Friday, and I saw him again on the Sunday morning. I was with some people at the Renault motorhome at the time. You know how Ayrton usually was; he’d go from the garage straight to the motorhome, but that morning I was very surprised – he came into the middle of all these people, which he would never normally do, just to get to me. We had a chat, and he was really trying to be nice, to be friendly. That was not him at all – at least where I had been concerned…

‘Then, later in the morning, I saw him in the pit garage briefly. I didn’t want to disturb him, because he was doing some exercises, but I knew he wanted to have more discussion with me, that he wanted help, that he needed somebody. That was obvious.

‘Senna was unbelievably competitive, even by Formula One standards, and more so towards me than anyone else. It had always been like that. But as soon as I was no longer a racing driver, his attitude towards me changed. In Adelaide, which was my last race, as we went to the podium afterwards, already he was starting to talk to me a little bit. “What are you going to do now?” he asked me. I was very surprised. “I don’t know yet”, I said. “You’re going to be fat,” he said…

‘Then, when we were actually on the podium, he put his arm around me, as if to say that now I was not a rival anymore, everything was different between us. I’m going to tell you the truth; if I was surprised, I was also a little bit disappointed.'Ayrton changed completely in '94. He seemed very down, without the same power'

‘I must explain this. In Japan, the race before, he won, and I was second. Between the podium and the press conference, I said to him, “This may be the last race where we are at a press conference together, and I think we should show the people something nice, maybe shake hands, or something.” He didn’t answer me, but he didn’t say no, either, so I thought he agreed. We went to the press conference – and he completely ignored me.

“I’d even thought maybe we could exchange helmets, something like that, but after Japan I forgot about it, because he hadn’t been interested in any sort of reconciliation. Then we went to Australia – my last race – and on the podium he puts his arm around me shakes hands, and everything. Why? Because now it was his idea, and it was on his terms. That was Ayrton!

‘I think it’s not impossible that eventually we could have become friends. We had a great respect for each other, and that was the most important thing. I don’t think either of us worried too much about anyone else. And there were times when we had fun together, you know. Not very often, but…

‘Sometimes I look back on those years, on what we put ourselves through. At times it seemed like a bad dream. Maybe because usually we were so much in front, it was inevitable that there would be problems between us, but why did it have to get so venomous? Why did we have to live like that?

‘I used to say to people, “You’re a fan of Ayrton Senna? Good, that’s fine – but please don’t hate me!” The pressure was so high, so high. If we had to do it all again, I’d say to Ayrton, “Listen, we’re the best, we can screw all others!” With a lot of intelligence, it could have been a good dream. Still, though, it was a fantastic story, wasn’t it?

‘To go to Ayrton’s funeral wasn’t a difficult decision to take, except in one respect. I knew I wanted to go, but I didn’t know how the Brazilian people would perceive it; would they be upset if I went, upset if I didn’t go, or what? The day after the accident, a good friend called me in Paris. His wife was Brazilian, and I asked his advice. “I have my ticket ready,” I said, “but what do you think I should do?”

‘He said I should definitely go, that the Brazilian people would like that, and he was right. There was no hostility to me in Sao Paulo at all – the opposite, in fact. And I know that if I hadn’t gone, I would have regretted it forever. Ayrton was a big part of my life, after all, and certainly the best driver I ever raced against, by a long way.’