20 years ago Ayrton Senna died as a hero, today he lives as a legend!

Published: May 2, 2014
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Ayrton Senna was only 34 when he died but his life was spent in a fast lane full of excitement, courted controversy and millions of admirers.

Ayrton Senna was only 34 when he died but his life was spent in a fast lane full of excitement, courted controversy and millions of admirers. Ayrton Senna was only 34 when he died but his life was spent in a fast lane full of excitement, courted controversy and millions of admirers.

The scene was the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the script writer had ordained something no one was predicting. It all went horribly wrong when, at the start of the weekend, Rubens Barrichello crashed horribly in his Jordan 194 and was lucky to survive. The following Saturday was even worse when the Austrian driver, Roland Ratzenberger, went airborne and hit the barriers at frighteningly high speed resulting in Formula One’s first fatality for 12 years.

I can still remember the expression on Ayrton Senna’s face whilst watching the events of the crash on the screen. Maybe he knew what was coming his way but none could predict that. Starting from the pole with Michael Schumacher following, prediction was a Senna victory.

What happened on May 1, 1994 at Imola changed Formula One forever. Watching the race live and observing the high speed impact on replay, with a Williams badly damaged after hitting head on into the concrete barriers at the Tamburello at roughly 180 mph was a bad sign indeed. The race was red flagged, and the frenetic activity on the track that followed and an unresponsive looking Senna sent jitters into every Formula One lover’s spine watching their sporting idol. Very soon we came to know of his death.

It was probably the first and last time I ever shed tears on the death of a sporting personality. But for me, he was not just another person or a World Champion. There have been many before and after him, no doubt winning more titles and races than him. But he was one of a kind, the charisma exuded from him. He was the reason I started watching Formula One in the first place and my first memories of racing are of his and Alain Prost’s duels on the race track, one of the greatest sporting rivalries in Formula One.

Senna was just 34 and the current World Champion when he died; with three Formula One titles and a lot of records including fastest laps and most pole positions in the bag. In a dangerous sport, known to have fatal accidents, the drivers are at the edge all the time. Senna being aware of it, having seen a few horrible crashes, was quite vocal about the safety of the drivers, even though he was the best of the drivers in adverse conditions, especially in rain when he reigned supreme!

In the wake of the accidents and fatalities at Imola, the drivers reformed the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA). At one point, there were doubts about the continuation of F1 till it was deemed safe enough. But it survived and is much safer; no driver has died since that fateful Sunday.

The accidents of Robert Kubica in 2007 and Mark Webber in 2010, and many others could have easily been fatal had Senna not died that day.

As Schumacher said after winning the race in a sombre mood,

“We should learn from this and never let that happen again”.

Senna was a Brazilian but his popularity encompassed the whole world. He was a sporting legend and was worshipped like a god in a football crazed Brazil. He cared for the poor and laid foundations for an Ayrton Senna Foundation, which was formed by his sister, Viviane, after his death. He was a successful entrepreneur as well as a philanthropist in native Brazil. He was, arguably, the most talented driver in Formula One, voted in many polls and by his peers to be the best ever. Not without controversy though, his on and off track antics with the clinical Prost, his team mate and great rival, earned him a few foes undoubtedly. He is best remembered for his heroic performances at annihilating the fields in rain at Estoril getting his first Formula One victory in 1985 and later at the European Grand Prix, when he lapped everyone on the field except second placed Damon Hill who was just ‘a minute’ behind. The Monaco street circuit was his famous hunting ground, where he won many races and hearts.

Senna and his death have been subject to many books, documentaries and discussions. His life won many admirers. The Brazilian World Cup victory in 1994 was dedicated to him. He wanted to dedicate his projected victory at Imola to the fallen Ratzenberger while holding up the Austrian flag found in his damaged car.

His funeral at Sao Paulo was a sight to behold. Approximately, three million people flocked through the streets, there was national mourning for three days and fighter jets escorted the plane carrying his coffin.

Aptly inscribed on his grave,

‘Nothing can separate me from the love of God’ showed his strong belief in God.

No race passes with great performances without mentioning his illustrious name and comparing his performances with the present drivers.

His life was spent in a fast lane full of excitement, courted controversy and millions of admirers, but what counts most is he made his exciting and dangerous sport safe for future drivers at the expense of his life, unfortunately.

Shakil Akhtar

Shakil Akhtar

A medical doctor, trained both in Pakistan and England as a surgeon. He is an avid history and world affairs follower, freelancer and a sports fanatic!

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.