Sunday, 18 September 2005 23:31
Ayrton Senna da Silva
Heading for Europe in 1981, he entered the British Formula Ford 1600 competition, which he won. He also adopted his mother's maiden name, Senna, as da Silva is a very common name in Brazil. In 1982 Senna combined the British and European Formula Ford 2000 Championships, winning both. In addition to winning the prestigious and high-profile Macau Grand Prix, Ayrton saw off the challenges of Martin Brundle in the 1983 British F3 championship, and after testing with Williams, McLaren and Toleman, he managed to secure a seat with the latter in time for the 1984 season.
Into Formula One
The Lotus Years
1987 came with as much promise for better things as it had before. Lotus had now the powerful Honda engines after Renault decided to step out of the sport. After a slow start, Senna won two races in a row: The prestigious Monaco GP (the first of a record breaking six victories at the Principality) and the United States GP at Detroit for the second year in a row, once again taking the World Championship lead. This time, the Lotus-Honda seemed to be more or less on par with the all-conquering Williams-Honda cars once again driven by fellow countryman Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. But Piquet had an amazing run of consistency throughout the year that Senna was not able to match, and after a spin due to a faulty clutch in the third to last round in Mexico, he was out of the championship hunt, leaving Piquet and teammate Mansell to fight it out for the last two races. Alas, Mansell badly bruised his back in an accident while practicing for the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, which effectively handed the World Championship to Piquet since he would be out of the season-ending race at Australia in Adelaide as well. However, this meant that Senna still had a fighting chance to snatch the runner-up position in the standings if he managed to finish at least third in both remaining races, and he did more than that by finishing second in both Japan and Australia. Unfortunately at Australia, scrutineering found the brake ducts of his Lotus-Honda to be wider than what they should legally be and he was disqualified, bringing his last and ultimately best season with Lotus to a sour end. After the disqualification, he ended third in the Final Standings, with 57 points, 1 pole position, and 6 podium finishes (four seconds, not counting the one in which he was disqualified, and two thirds). However, this season would mark the turning point of his career as throughout the year, Senna began to build a deep relationship with Honda, a relationship which would pay off in big dividends once his contract with Lotus expired at the end of the season and once the McLaren team soon started calling.
At the Suzuka circuit in 1990, the pole position was located on the right, 'dirty' side of the track. After qualifying fastest, Senna made a request to officials that pole position be repositioned to the left side of the track. To Senna's outrage, the request was denied. At the start of the race Prost pulled ahead but when attempting to take the first right-handed corner he found Senna plowing into him. Telemetry showed Senna made no attempt to decelerate as the corner approached. Both drivers were removed from the race, meaning that Senna won the championship. Senna later hinted that it was payback for Prost taking them both out the year before in the 1989 Suzuka chicane incident. For many, however, it was an act of breathtaking cynicism and one for which Senna received much criticism. He was accused of introducing a "video game" mentality of "win at all costs" into the sport, an accusation later repeated against his successor Michael Schumacher.
On the track Senna could be ruthless, showing extreme determination and precision. This was especially so in qualifying, a discipline he mastered like none before to produce a record 65 poles. Senna still holds this record for number of pole positions, eleven years after his death.
Senna also won the Monaco GP six times, a record in itself and a tribute to his skills which earned him the title "Master of Monaco".
He started the first wet race of the season, the Monaco Grand Prix (a notoriously difficult circuit for racing, as it is run on regular streets) in 13th place. The race was terminated after 31 laps due to monsoon conditions deemed undriveable. At the time the race was stopped, Senna was classified in 2nd place, and catching up to race leader Alain Prost, at 4 seconds per lap.
In 1993, at the European GP at Donington Park, Senna drove for the McLaren team. The MP4/8, although one of the front running cars, was considered inferior to the leading Williams FW-15C of Prost, and the Benetton B193 (which used a factory Ford engine) driven by Michael Schumacher and Riccardo Patrese. Some maintain that the Williams FW-14B and FW-15C were probably "the most technologically advanced cars that will ever race in Formula One".
The start of the wet-weather 1993 European Grand Prix, by way of its uniqueness, is frequently referred to in racing lore as the best-ever lap. Starting from fifth on the grid, Senna was first before the end of the first lap. Examples of wet weather car control such as this gained Senna the title "The Rain man" in numerous F1 publications in the early 90's.
Fellow Brazillian F1 driver Mauricio Gugelmin tells of an episode in 1988 where Senna and Nelson Piquet, another champion, had developed an altercation. It had started when tongue-in-cheek remarks made by Senna to a reporter had been taken out of context. Having been asked why he had not been readily available to the press for a few weeks, Senna had responded that, as Piquet had just been crowned World Champion he had receded to give the press time to talk about Piquet. Piquet, who was infuriated by these comments, told the press to ask Ayrton why he did not like women. Mauricio Gugelmin expands: "He [Senna] was at my house when they called and told him Piquet's answer, wanting more of him. Even my wife was angry with that and said to him: 'Ayrton, tell them to ask Piquet's wife if it is true', referring to Catherine, who was Ayrton's girl before Nelson's. And Ayrton refused: 'No, I don't do this. If he doesn't respect anybody, I do. I don't do this to any woman.'" After Senna's death it was discovered that he had donated millions of dollars to children's charities, a fact that he during his life, had kept very secret.
Senna on the grid, Imola 1994
In 1994, Senna finally left the ailing McLaren team for the top team at the end of 1993 Williams-Renault. After the banning of active suspension the Williams started the season trying to close the gap to Benetton. Senna failed to finish his first two races, despite taking two superb pole positions against the Benetton at both events. On May 1 1994, he took part in his third race for the team, the San Marino GP. Senna took pole position yet again, but would not finish the race.
That weekend, he was particularly upset by two events: On the Friday of the Grand Prix, during the morning session, Senna's protÃ©gÃ©, the then newcomer Rubens Barrichello was involved in a serious accident that would keep him out of the race. Senna visited Barrichello in the hospital (he jumped the wall in the back of the facility after being barred from visitation by the doctors) and was then convinced that safety standards had to be reviewed. On Saturday, the death of driver Roland Ratzenberger in practice forced the issue and even caused Senna to consider retiring. Ironically, he spent his final morning in meetings with fellow drivers, determined by Ratzenberger's accident to take on a new responsibility to re-create a Driver's Safety group to look at safety changes in Formula One. As the most senior driver, he was asked (and accepted) the role of leader in this effort.
A crash at the start caused the caution flag to wave, and Senna was leading the race after a decent start kept him ahead of Michael Schumacher, the young German. But on the second lap after the restart, Senna's car left the track in Tamburello and struck an unprotected concrete wall. Telemetry shows he left the track at 193 mph and managed to slow the car to 135 mph in less than two seconds but it was not enough. The FIA and Italian authorities still maintain that Senna was not killed instantly, but rather died in hospital, to where he had been rushed by helicopter, although the medics had performed an emergency tracheotomy before moving him. Many believe, however, that this was not the case, and the only reason why Senna was not declared dead on the scene is because this would have caused the race to be cancelled and money lost. The FIA dismisses that conception as an unfounded conspiracy theory.
Remembrance for Senna, Monaco 1994
Professor Sidney Watkins M.D., F.R.C.S., O.B.E. a world-renowned neurosurgeon and Formula One Safety Delegate and Medical Delegate, head of the Formula One on-track medical team, who performed an on site tracheotomy on Ayrton Senna, reported:
â€œHe looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment.â€?
Senna was 34 years old. The lack of information on the cause of death led to much speculation. What is known is that the front right tyre with attached suspension piece become loose on impact, hit Senna on the head and pierced his visor, causing the fatal trauma. Images of Senna's battered helmet indicate that some sort of puncture had occurred at the top of the visor, just over his right eye. This led to the now most commonly accepted theory that one of the car's suspension bars had came loose and impacted with Senna's head.
The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola was immediately investigated, and the track's signature Tamburello, a lightning rod of controversy because of the lack of run-off and two previous incidents -- Piquet's 1987 crash in Friday practice caused by a tyre failure, which kept him out of the race, forced Goodyear to withdraw all tyres after the first practice, and replace tyres for Saturday's qualifying session. Two years later, Gerhard Berger's Ferrari was in flames after another tyre failure early in the race, surviving because of alert safety workers. But Senna's death meant the end of the sweeper, and it was replaced by a chicane in 1995.
In 2000, he was posthumously inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
In 2004, a television documentary by National Geographic called "Seconds from death: The death of Ayrton Senna" was screened worldwide. The programme considered the available data from Senna's car to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the fatal crash. The programme concluded that an unusually long safety-car period had reduced the pressures in Senna's tyres, thereby lowering the car. As the car entered the Tamburello bend, it bottomed-out and the loss of the ground effect led to a sudden reduction in downforce, and hence grip. As Senna instinctively corrected the resultant slide, the downforce and grip suddenly returned, and Senna effectively drove off the circuit. The programme came to the conclusion that if Senna's reactions had actually been slower, he might have survived the crash. To many within the F1 world including drivers of that era who had raced at Imola, the conclusions drawn from low tyre pressure as a cause of the accident seem highly implausible. Telemetry recorded that Senna took the bend at 190mph on lap 6 with cold tyres. Alboreto and other drivers of the era claimed that given his lap time, his tyres would have been at race temperature by the 7th lap and it was not a factor in the crash.
The ban on active suspension affected Williams more than any other team as it was the key development that had helped make the Williams car the class of the field from 1991-1993. 1994 started with the Williams drivers complaining of severe handling problems and a twitchy rear-end. It was ironic that at the beginning of 1994 Senna himself had told the press that he would be surprised if there would be no large accidents that year. Referring to the fact that after the wide 26" Goodyear slicks were banned for 1993, now the technology at the very core of the cars, the technology around which they had been based for the last few years; (Active suspension, traction control and ABS) were also banned for 1994. He surmised that the cars would have trouble staying on the road, which is exactly what was observed at the beginning of 1994, J.J. Lehto damaging his vertebrae at Silverstone in January, Lamy breaking both knee-caps at the same track in May, Alesi breaking his neck in preseason testing, Ratzenberger and Senna's fatal accidents at Imola, the race after at Monaco, Wendlinger in coma for months and Ratzenbergers replacement, Montermini breaking his feet in the Simtek in Barcelona. None of these accidents were deemed to be caused by driver error.
There are other factors - Senna did not like the position of the steering column relative to his seating position and had repeatedly asked for it to be changed. At Imola Senna found himself in a car with his team's engineers struggling to cope and adapt to the ban of active suspension. Patrick Head and Adrian Newey agreed to Senna's request to shorten the FW-16's wheelbase, but there was no time to manufacture a shortened steering shaft. The existing shaft was instead cut, shortened, and welded back together with reinforcing plates. Many surmise, based on comparing hours of onboard video footage from Brazil and Imola that the movement of the steering wheel during the race at Imola was completely abnormal. Senna on his final lap is seen turning the wheel left to full lock with no movement of the front wheels. Others have raised suspicion at what can clearly be seen on the onboard footage as Senna looking down onto his steering wheel seconds before entering Tamburello.
His death was considered by many of his Brazilian fans to be a national tragedy, and three days of national mourning were declared. Senna is buried at the CemitÃ©rio do Morumbi in his hometown of SÃ£o Paulo.
It was later discovered that Senna planned a tribute to Ratzenburger, as the Austrian flag was found in the cockpit of Ayrton's car after the crash.
In 2004 (when, ten years after his death, the Brazilian media revisited the entire life of Senna), a book called "Ayrton: The Hero Revealed" (original title: "Ayrton: O HerÃ³i Revelado") was published in Brazil. The book recalls several passages of Senna's career, and adds a lot of never written before information about his personal life. As the title suggests, the book "reveals" the human side of a hero.
As well, to mark the 10th anniversary of Senna's passing, on April 21, 2004, over 10,000 people attended a charity match in a soccer stadium near Imola. The game was organized by several devoted Italian and Canadian fans of Ayrton, bringing together the 1994 World Cup winning team of Brazil to face the "Nazionale Piloti", an exhibition team comprised exclusively of top race car drivers (of which Senna was a part in 1985). Michael Schumacher, Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello, Fernando Alonso and many others faced the likes of Dunga, Careca, Taffarel and many of the team that won the World Cup in the USA ten years earlier.
That same weekend, Bernie Ecclestone revealed that he still believed Ayrton Senna was and remained the best F1 driver he'd ever seen.
Perhaps the unique duality of his character was most evident at the moment of his death. As track officials examined the wreckage of his racing car they found a furled, bloodsoaked 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.
At his memorial service one million people lined the streets to give him their salute.
"On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit and you go for this limit and you touch this limit and you think, ok, this is the limit. As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you realise that you can suddenly go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and your experience as well, you can fly very high." - Ayrton Senna
|Last Updated on Sunday, 14 March 2010 18:51|