Summer brings memories of F1’s darkest weekend

Updated: May 2, 2012

May 1st, the official first day of the Summer has passed however for motor racing fans it will always be a black day. The date marks the anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna.

That weekend at the Imola circuit in 1994, Formula 1 had some of its darkest days in the sport’s modern history. Having not seen a death in Formula 1 during a race weekend since Riccardo Paletti in 1982; F1 was to be rocked to the core by the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.

On the Saturday in qualifying Ratzenberger went off the road at Villeneuve corner and crashed almost head on into the retaining wall on the outside of the circuit. The cause of death was to be a basilar skull fracture (a fatal injury that became all the more famous in Nascar circuits with the death of Dale Earnhardt). The cause of Ratzenberger’s crash was a broken front wing following an off track excursion that damaged the wing. As the aerodynamic loads weighed on the damaged wing; it finally gave way and rendered Ratzenberger a passenger as his car went directly towards the impact point. To anyone that’s seen the footage they’ll understand it when I say that you see a horror on the other driver’s faces as they come to the realisation that although they had come to think that they were safe; this was no longer the case.

Ironically as fate would later conspire, one of the worst affected was Senna. He was visibly shaken at the rookies crash. Senna had taken a noticeable interest in driver safety to the point where he had learned about incubating a person from F1’s resident doctor Sid Watkins. He’d been terrified at the scene of Martin Donnelly’s qualifying crash at Jerez in 1990 and had jumped out of his car to help a stricken Erik Comas following a horrific crash at Blanchemont in qualifying in 1992. Comas credited Senna with saving his life that day. Having already had to visit compatriot Rubens Barrichello in hospital on the Friday after a nasty crash at the track, the Ratzenberger incident further upset Senna. Senna commandeered a track car with a marshall and drove to the crash scene. Dr. Watkins recalls Senna being tearful despite only having conversed with Ratzenberger for the first time the day before. Watkins has recalled many times in interviews since that weekend that he asked Senna to re-consider racing and joked that they both enjoyed fishing, so maybe they should both retire to enjoy their hobby.

One has to remember at this point; Senna had nothing to prove to anyone but himself. Even today drivers still idolise the man and most hold him as the greatest as evident by the excellent Top Gear video piece last year (visible here As he was once quoted (and a video release about Senna was titled) “Racing is in my blood”. Going into that Imola weekend Senna had achieved almost as much as anyone in the history of the sport. He’d won 3 world championships, 41 victories and a record 65 poles to his name. He was one of the best paid sportsmen on the planet at the time making a reported £1,000,000 a race. He was adored in his native Brazil where he had an almost God like following. He’d been part of one of the greatest rivalries in the sport’s history with ex team-mate Alain Prost.

His skills were still at their peak as had been evident in his 1993 season in an underpowered McLaren Ford with which he would claim arguably one of his most memorable victories at Donnington. 1994 was meant to be his year as far as the motorsport world was concerned. He’d became the lead driver of the then dominant Williams Grand Prix Engineering team. The team that had dominated the previous two championships and Senna had campaigned openly to join. Offering to race for nothing at one point to join the team.

What Senna came to find at the start of that 1994 season did not please him. With the change of regulations that robbed the Williams’ of most of it’s technological masterpieces that had helped the team’s drivers to numerous wins over the previous 2 years now gone due to a change of regulations to remove driver aids. Senna found a car that was nervous and aerodynamically imbalanced to the point where it’s grip levels could vary massively in the middle of a corner. This was later to be re-iterated by Damon Hill when recalling the handling of the Williams during the trial related to the Senna accident. In particular; the confines of the cockpit and the steering were two other issues of concern to the point that Williams had to alter the steering column. This was to be a point of argument and cited as a possible cause of what was to occur on that fateful day in May. After two races that season; Senna had retired in both. Schumacher and his Benetton had claimed victory in both races. Senna was suspicious of the young German’s Benetton Ford and more so following the second race at Aida where he was sure that the Benetton was using some form of traction control. Revelations later in the year regarding a software program hidden in the Benetton’s engine management software may have proved that Senna had a point but it’s unknown to this day whether Benetton actually used the program.

So back to that weekend at Imola. Senna decided that he was going to race following numerous conversations with various members of the F1 paddock and his then girlfriend Adriane Galisteu. He’d also started talks on the Sunday to reform the Grand Prix Drivers Association so that safety issues could be raised from a drivers perspective.

As outlined in the excellent Richard William’s book “The Death of Ayrton Senna”, death can do a funny thing to people’s memories. There has been many stories about Senna’s behaviour on the morning of the race. Varying from rumours of him holding his breath on the first lap to other stories of superstition regarding his actions on the race day. A lot of these things are addressed also on the Senna Files website which is full of useful information about the subsequent trial.

On the initial start Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto collided on the starting grid following a stall for Lehto. The impact sent debris in all directions; a wheel cleared the debris fence and injured 8 people in the crowd and a police officer. A safety car period followed (the safety car being a new introduction to F1 that season). There had been arguments about the choice of car (an Opel Vectra) and it’s suitability to keep up a pace that would not effect the F1 car’s tyre pressures too adversely. Senna was seen to gestate at the safety car to drive faster.

The race in earnest began on lap 6 and Senna fought his car to attempt to build a gap over Schumacher. Lap 6 would turn out to be Senna’s final full racing lap as at Tamburello on lap 7 his car veered off track and hit the wall. As you will see with the last frame of the onboard footage; the car has already started it’s trajectory and Senna’s head appears to be looking down. Was this from the deceleration or had Senna noticed an issue with the car? Whatever the answer we’ll never know as sadly the footage from the car’s onboard camera was cut by a director on a split second call who decided to pan out the shot to the exit of Tamburello and caught the moment of impact.

Senna had fought the car up to the moment he hit the wall. It had been seen in data recovered from the Renault engine in his car that he corrected a slide and had managed to slow the car down from his entry speed of approximately 205mph to 135mph inside 2.5 seconds before hitting the wall. In what can only be described as a freak occurance as many had crashed into the wall at Tamburello and survived, Senna was struck on the head by his right front tyre. It appears that a suspension arm may have also pierced his helmet visor causing a further entry wound to a fractured skull.

One of the most startling sights for me as a kid was Senna’s motionless in the car after the accident. I’d grown to think of the drivers as invincible over my 4 years of watching the sport at that point. Being an impressionable ten year old at the time I still can’t really put into words how watching my hero lay on the track whilst medics went to work trying to save him left me feeling. It’s an image I’ll never forget. From the blood on the track to the scenes long after the race when they announced his death. Sid Watkins was to later comment that he could see that Senna’s injuries were to be fatal as his fully dilated pupils indicated that there was a severe brain injury. Add to that a burst temporal artery and it was only a matter of time until Senna was to join the long list of lost legends. Of course most of those lost legends were from a bygone era where death at the race track was almost as common an occurrence as every race was. Watkins comments in the Senna movie about the extraction of Senna from the car and hearing him exhale. Watkins who is not what you could call religious by his own admission said he believed this was the moment Senna’s soul vacated his body. Senna being a deeply religious man who’s spiritual nature was deeply private in how he celebrated it had once remarked about seeing God’s presence at Suzuka when he won his first world championship in 1988.

Another sad element of Senna’s death was to emerge when one of the medics who extracted Senna revealed that they had found a bloodied Austrian flag hidden in the cockpit. It appeared that Senna had planned on waving the flag had he been victorious on that Sunday in Imola.

18 years on and the name still resonates with any motorsport fan. Anyone that is unfamiliar with Senna and has a passing interests in documentaries should have a look at the Senna documentary that was released last year. It’s an amazing film and will give you an insight into why the man is still loved to this day and idolized by millions. You can view the trailer here

We’ll look at some of the positives that have come from that terrible weekend in a later post. Thanks for reading.

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