Ayrton Senna and the weekend of April 1994
Ayrton Senna was genius, charismatic, controversial, aggressive, kind, humane and in the end, just a bloke who died doing what he loved the most. Racing in his car. This is the 20th year since he passed away and Formula 1 still misses his larger than life character.
“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high” – Ayrton Senna
Day - Friday, 29th April 1994; Place - Imola, Italy
1994 was a very interesting period in Formula 1. A time when new teams joined in and many rules were changed or re-written, trying to increase the role of the man (driver) and lessen that of the machine (car). No one knew what to really expect with the new rules and ironically expectations were sky high going into the Italian San Marino Grand Prix formula one race, one of the top draws every year.
Rubens Barrichello, a young driver then, who would later go on to achieve greater things in the sport, was driving for Team Jordan in the practice session. He hit a kerb at a corner at 225 KMPH making his car air-borne and becoming a mere passenger. His car flew side-ways with zero control and banged into the tyre-barrier. Rubens got knocked unconscious and ended up with a bruised nose and a few broken bones. Although the crash looked horrifying at best, he had a lucky escape with the few non-fatal injuries. However it did raise a few eye-brows among the officials about the safety of these men and measures that were needed and needed quick. Not one of those officials could have predicted what was to ensue over the weekend.
Day - Saturday, 30th April 1994; Place - Imola, Italy
Going into the qualifying session on Saturday, things were still just settling down with news that Barrichello was out of danger and was actually at the track to cheer on his fellow men. The cameras captured him looking over the monitors as a fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger started his lap.
Very early in his lap, Roland lost all control over his car and had a bigger and more disturbing crash than Rubens. He didn’t seem to be doing well when his car ground to a halt after what seemed like an eternity. He was immediately rushed to the hospital.
Sport is an innate part of human celebration that gives hope to many. However, that day, Formula 1- often viewed and enjoyed for the engineering prowess displayed, had its most human moment. Roland Ratzenberger succumbed to injuries after his accident
It was the first death on a Formula 1 race track in 9 years. Time stopped, things slowed down for the first time in the world of Formula 1. But the race next day was still ON, almost as if the world of motor sport didn’t want to lie down but wanted to challenge the unseen forces of the nature head-on. A dark cloud loomed over the race next day while Italy wept.
Race Day - Sunday 1st May 1994; Place - Imola, Italy
There’s only one way people described Ayrton Senna: Fast!
Ayrton Senna, Formula 1’s first darling child was arguably the fastest driver on the planet. He was the underdog from Brazil who conquered hearts everywhere he went with his sheer pace. He would dance a dance with his car, flying into those corners at insane speeds, braking much later than other cars and giving it his all every time he was in that machine. It didn’t just come naturally, he was as persistent a sportsman there ever was. He would sit down with his crew every day, suggesting the finest of changes to engineering, then practicing in the car at high speeds and then back to the garage with more modifications - until the changes yielded results – until every last millisecond of it was obtained. He was a phenomenon that the sport cherished.
In his debut season, with a mediocre team and an average car, he had given tough fights to the world champions. His talent was seen very early by bigger teams and he was soon picked up by McLaren, with whom he won won the world title three times in four attempts. It was the most successful pairing of a car and a driver of all time.
However, a couple of unsuccessful seasons followed as the rival Williams team’s engineering marvels put McLaren in the back seat. Senna’s McLaren car couldn’t compete with the new technology driven machines. Though he had some memorable drives and achieved a few personal milestones during the time, it still wasn’t the same anymore. After this dry run, the rival team – Williams – offered Senna a seat and he moved in as their main driver.
But as fate would have it, new rules were enforced that same season, to take away most of technology’s help to level the playing ground. Senna just shrugged and went about his business as usual wanting to do better despite the rules working against him yet again.
On lap 7 of the race that day in Italy, Senna’s car left the racing line at 310 km/hr and hit an unprotected concrete barrier. The car hit the wall at a very shallow angle incurring maximum head on damage and eventually spun to a halt, standing upright. Ayrton Senna lay motionless in the open cockpit, as overhead television cameras from a helicopter relayed the scene to the shocked millions across the globe. Ayrton Senna seemed vulnerable for the first time as doctors rushed towards him.
Senna was pronounced dead soon. Formula 1had lost its finest hero of all time. Ayrton Senna, the man who every child wanted to be like, died doing his favorite thing – racing a formula 1 car.
Dr. Sid Watkins, his close friend and doctor, later said of Senna after the accident, “He 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 not religious, I felt his spirit depart at that moment”.
It was later revealed that, as medical staff examined Senna, a furled Austrian flag was found in his car—a flag that he had intended to raise in honor of Ratzenberger after the race.
The dark clouds from that fateful weekend never left the sport of Formula One for years to come.