I remember the day like it was yesterday…a bright May morning in 1994 awakened a nine-year-old who wanted to see one of his heroes race at Imola. I knew the race was on ESPN and the combo of Bob Varsha and Derek Daly called the action from somewhere, either Bristol, CT or Italy.
The savage crash of young Brazilian Rubens Barrichello and the equally horrific and tragic crash of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger laid the groundwork for what would be a day that altered Formula 1 forever.
Ayrton Senna is and was one of my heroes due to his tenacity behind the wheel and his ruthless passion for winning. Excellence was always expected from all who worked for Senna and he was racing for greater purposes between faith and his home country of Brazil.
I knew he was on pole for the race and his main rival for the World Driver’s Championship won the first two races of the year. Michael Schumacher’s role in the sport changed forever on that day and I wanted my driver to win.
After falling out of the first two races due to a spin at Brazil and first turn crash at Aida in Japan, Senna was 20 points behind Schumacher and needed to win at Imola to cut the gap before going to Spain and especially Monaco, where Senna was the greatest with six wins in the Principality.
The race started out with a crash on the start involving the stricken Lotus of Pedro Lamy and the Benetton of JJ Lehto…debris flying like confetti in the sky which went into the crowd and the pits. A stoppage of the race, normal for the day did not occur.
Instead, the drivers drove behind a safety car which is commonplace in the U.S. but not in European racing for the most part. All the drivers kept scrubbing the tires back and forth to keep heat in them behind a Fiat that the average Italian family may have used for long trips, not for pacing the highest level of motorsport.
Senna was said through reading, watching and listening to have driven up to the pace car with his eyes as big as saucers gesturing to go faster due to the fear of cold tires. He had watched a protégé almost pass two days before and was grieving the loss of a new driver in the series.
Senna always carried a Brazilian flag but he had an Austrian flag for Ratzenberger to hold after winning this race. His look on the pre-race grid was one of pain, anguish and contemplation of why he was driving that day. As a kid, I just wanted to see him where he belongs which was winning races. 20 years later, I realize that my hero was merely human on that day.
The legendary Professor Sid Watkins at the hospital after the Barrichello crash mentioned retirement to Senna due to him not having anything else to prove in the sport. Senna did not feel like he could at that point.
The weekend was different because the rivalry that ruled Formula 1 for six years ended in a truce…Ayrton Senna welcomed Alain Prost back to the track since “The Professor” had retired from F1 for good after a pretty dominant 1993 campaign leading to his fourth World Drivers’ Championship. Prost was there for French television and as a guest of Frank Williams, the owner of Senna’s car.
I was too young to understand the enormity of the entire weekend or what was to come. Senna took off on the restart and gapped Schumacher and close friend Gerhard Berger in a Ferrari. Sparks came off the titanium skids and smoke from the newly installed wooden plank under the cars for 1994 over the bumps in Tamburello and elsewhere on track.
Tamburello was the site of Berger’s fiery shunt in 1988 that left him burned but alive after a high-speed off in his turbo Ferrari. I remember the second lap after the restart was the moment everything changed…bottoming out going into Tamburello, something broke on Senna’s car and he slammed the wall.
Runoff areas were not a major concern just like putting tires in dangerous ares back then. Senna’s head and shoulders were basically exposed in the cockpit of the Williams like most of the cars.
Varsha and Daly’s reaction was strong but I don’t remember many words. I just saw the destruction and a motionless driver. Daly reacted to a pulse that Senna had when the helicopter flew over the grim scene and I thought maybe he was alive.
I had experienced the death of the defending Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki and my favorite driver Davey Allison in 1993. However, neither of those was in the race car…Ayrton Senna crashed and similar to Dale Earnhardt’s wreck, the sport shifted at that moment.
I would later find out on SportsCenter that Senna was killed in that crash. Schumacher won over Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen to take a commanding lead in the championship. However, the day was forever etched in my mind. I taped the race and hid the tape thinking I would never watch it again. I eventually did and probably taped something else over it in my youthful ignorance.
How can a child comprehend death and especially in that circumstance? I wonder about that every time I watch a video of Senna, the great documentary of his life, reading about the man and trying to understand everything about him. Senna’s death changed my view of racing but did not stop me from watching. I understood then that even the greatest were not invincible after that along with the danger involved.
I feel pain and sadness knowing what happened this day 20 years ago. However, my passion for motorsports has brought me to a place to be able to write about what I felt then and now.
Senna Para Siempre or Senna Forever!