1001 ways to die – (4) Ayrton Senna, Racing Driver (1st May 1994, Imola Circuit, Italy)

Senna in the Barcelona Grand Prix, 1993 (my photo)

On the 1st of May 1994, in the Imola Circuit in Italy, Ayrton Senna crashed in the wall of the Tamburello turn (See Circuit Map, turns 2, 3, and 4 – in 994 there was no chicane in the turn) with a speed of approximately 200km/h. A bolt from the front wheels penetrated his helmet, crushing his forehead and causing excessive brain damage, and ultimately, his death.

Senna was rushed to nearby Bologna by helicopter and was hospitalised. A race begun to save his life. It was a short and failed one. Senna died a few hours later. Some claim that Senna’s brain stopped functioning on the track but his heart was kept working in order not to stop the race. It has been confirmed that the drivers who were in their cars, waiting for the restart of the race knew only that Senna had an accident and was moved to a hospital.

I was there in Tosa (Point 7 in the circuit map). It was my second visit to Imola for the Formula 1 race. The first was in 1993. Tragically, another driver, the Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, had crashed heavily in the Vileneauve curve (points 5 and 6 in the circuit map) and died on the spot the day before, during the official qualifying session.

Roland Ratzenberger

Senna was shocked after the death of Ratzenberger, even though people were saying that it was a racing accident. The day before, in Friday’s free practice the 21 year old Rubens Baricchelo flew off the track and ended up on the tire wall unconscious. Senna almost got to the point of asking for Sunday’s race to be cancelled.

Senna in his MacLaren Ford in Barcelona, 1993 (my photo)

I arrived in Bologna on Friday evening, and stayed at a hotel in the old town. On Saturday morning I drove to Imola, some 40 km east of Bologna. The weather was great, the atmosphere in the circuit wonderful. My Saturday seat  was on the main  straight (21, 22 on the circuit map), just opposite the pits.

Senna in the pits during qualifying for the 1993 Imola Grand Prix (My Photo)

When the Ratzenberger accident happended, I could see Senna jump the pit wall and run to get in a circuit car so that he could go immediately to the scene.

1994 was Senna’s first year in the Williams team. From 1988 to 1993 he was racing with MacLaren. His teammate was Damon Hill, the son of Graham Hill, the only son of  a world champion to win the title (he won it in 1996). The irony of the matter was that in June 1994, one month after Senna’s death, I met Damon at the Montreal Airport and got his autograph(although faded, you can see it below the “Boss”mark on the lower side of the helmet).

MotorSport's cover in June 1994, with Damon Hill's autograph (June 1994, Montreal)

In 1993, Senna’s last year with the Maclaren team, I went to many races in Europe and was fortunate to see the great man racing in a totally inferior car, compared to the all powerful Renault Williams. In 1993 Maclaren had the V8 Ford engine and the chassis was not exactly perfect. On the other hand, Williams had the V10 Renault engine that had delivered them the title in 1992 (Nigel Mansell).

Senna in Magny Cours, 1993 (My Photo)
Senna in Hockenheim, 1993 (My Photo)

By far the best race I have been to was in England, in Donnington Park. Donnington Park is a racing circuit some 150 miles north of London, near the town of Milton Keynes.

Senna’s drive was sensational. His underpowered car was flying, while the Williams Renault cars of Prost and Hill were struggling. If I remeber correctly, Prost had to stop for more than 4 times to change tires, as the rain would flood the circuit, then stop, then start again.

Ayrton Senna in Donnington Park on Saturday qualifying, 1993 (My photo)

The race was thoroughly wet, and Senna turned everything upside down. He comprehensively beat the chief Williams driver, Alain Prost, and went to drive a stunning race in horrible conditions. It was one of the greatest races ever.

Senna overtakes Prost in Donington's race

If Donnington Park was the most spectacular race I Saw where Senna unfolded his immense talent, Monaco in 1993 was another splendid opportunity for Senna to exhibit his determination to win the “difficult” races of the calendar, the races where Renault Williams’ superiority was not enough, but had to be coupled with the driver’s talents.

L'Equipe: Senna in Monaco's 1993 race (with Dereck Warrick's autograph)

I was fortunate to see the Monaco race. Spellbinding!

I now return to the horrific incident that killed Senna. After the deadly incident, the race continued. And ended with a chill. Everyone was wondering what happenned to Senna and what was his condition. We were to find out very soon that he was fighting against death, and had almost lost the battle.

Why Senna died?

The Italian judicial system closed the case in 2007, having confirmed that Senna’s car never turned in Tamburello but went straight to the wall, due to failure of the steering column.

Back to Imola, on the 1st May 1994.

After the race ended, the crowd entered the circuit and walked to Tamburello. It is common to walk the track after the race is over, but usually this is a fun thing to do. It was not so in 1994. There was an eerie silence hanging over us. As if we all knew that Senna was no longer with us.

On the way back to Bologna I took the road that passes through small towns, rather than the Autostrada.  There were people out this Sunday afternoon, but they were silent. So uncharacteristic of the tifosi to be quiet on a Sunday afternoon after a Formula 1 race. But they weere.  Same in Bologna.

Next morning, on the flight from Bologna to Heathrow, I saw Flavio Briatore, who was at the time running the Benetton team. He was like a ghost.