This week marks the 25th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death.
He was killed in a crash at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, near Imola, in Italy. To this day, Formula One fans pay tribute to Senna, many declaring him the best driver to have ever competed.
If you glance over Senna’s resume, that greatness is perhaps not readily evident. A strict by-the-numbers evaluation places him fifth in overall wins, and tied with five other drivers for sixth in championship wins. Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher were statistically better.
Further, Senna was also known to be a bit of a controversial driver, even ramming his teammate Alain Prost. He also was hot-tempered, once taking a swing at rookie driver Eddie Irvine for having the audacity to pass him (Senna had lapped Irvine, and was annoyed that a back-marker would get in the way of the battle of the leaders).
If you took facts and figures and sprinkled them with Senna’s well-publicized worst behaviour, you might want to write all this hero-worship off as wishful thinking. Senna put a pretty face on the whole doomed hero business, and perhaps there was nothing more to all the fuss than that.
That is, however, until you saw the way he drove in the rain.
At some point in the near future, it’ll be possible for a robot to accurately calculate the fastest way around a racetrack, and then apportion out grip and power with speeds that a human could never match. The chess game of setting a blistering pole position will then be solved.
But we’re not there yet, and racing isn’t only a game of numbers. At its highest level, it’s essentially an art form, and Senna was both a brilliant athlete and a virtuoso behind the wheel.
Do yourself a favour and look up some of the onboard footage from one of his qualifying runs. Monaco in 1990 is a standout: with his signature yellow and green helmet bobbing around, showing just how rough the surface is, Senna threads his McLaren through the narrow streets, seeming to blur the edges of tire and aluminium barrier.
He swings it around a corner, catching a slide with a flick of the wheel, reaches down to grab a shift (no paddle shifters!), and then boots it down the pitch-black tunnel at warp speed. It’s utterly mesmerizing – how is he able to do this?
He very nearly wasn’t. Nothing was particularly remarkable about Ayrton da Silva’s upbringing in Sao Paulo, Brazil, other than a boyish infatuation with karting. Like so many racing greats, Senna had some success here, winning the South American championship in ‘77. He then moved to the U.K. to drive Formula Fords, but then headed back to Brazil to take up a role in the family business.
But just before he got on the plane, an offer was made to drive for a Formula Ford team. He elected to return to the U.K. and, da Silva being a common Brazilian name, decided to race under his mother’s maiden name, Senna.
From there follows the usual rung-climbing to F1 which I won’t bore you with. However, one anecdote is worth examining. At the 1984 running of the US Grand Prix, Senna spun, then clawed his way back up the field, but then hit a wall and broke his car’s driveshaft. He was heard to complain that the wall had moved.
Well, surely such a thing is impossible? But when a racing engineer went out to look, it turned out that one of the concrete blocks bordering the track had pivoted slightly as a result of another driver making contact. It was just a few millimetres, but that’s the degree to which Senna was driving on the edge.
Today, racing engineers have all sorts of ways of measuring a car’s performance, and can tell if a particular tire compound is doing well, or if adjusting the aerodynamics slightly picks up the pace. In Senna’s day, it was up to the driver to provide feedback, and he could tell you exactly what was happening with his car.
This mechanical sympathy extended into the road car world. As his championship-winning McLaren was powered by a Honda engine, Senna was invited to have a go in the Acura NSX during development. Actually, Honda’s engineers thought they were finished with the car, and giving Senna the chance to take the NSX for a spin would be straightforward confirmation.
Imagine the looks on their faces when the F1 champion returned to the pits and apologetically pointed out a host of flaws with the car. It was back to the drawing board, with Senna brought in to help properly tune the NSX’s chassis. His expert input helped create a lasting legacy for the car, and if you’re lucky enough to own a first-generation NSX, then Senna’s hands helped shape the car you love.
Beyond the near-supernatural talent, the racing victories, and the spectacular pole-position laps, Senna was also beloved for being a symbol of bravery, and for his kindness with other drivers. Yes, he would lose his temper occasionally, and was sometimes ruthless when racing. But that was just the way he lived, using the entire racing surface provided. He was fiercely competitive and confident, but not arrogant.
Ayrton Senna was also the last driver to die in an F1 race, as safety standards improved considerably after his death. The day before he died, a young Austrian driver named Roland Ratzenberger was killed at the same spot. When the crew came to remove the wreckage of Senna’s car, they found a tightly furled Austrian flag in the cockpit.
Senna had planned to win, then wave that flag in tribute to his fallen comrade. The first part makes him a great racing driver. The second part is what makes him one of the greatest of all time.
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.