It’s been 20 years since that tragic weekend in Imola. May 1st 1994, I remember where I was, I remember what I was doing. It was a grey, rainy and miserable day. The entire weekend smelled like dirty wet socks. April showers failed to bring May flowers as the damp feel in the air translated into a numb weekend devoid of any colour.
I had celebrated my 20th birthday just a few days before. I remember the excitement of another Grand Prix weekend, which was always a big deal in my house (still is). My father and I share this special bond as we are both massive motorsport fans. In fact, I credit my father for my passion for everything that goes fast, especially on wheels.
We were still in a state of disbelief after Roland Ratzenberger’s death during qualifying in San Marino. It had been the third F1 driver death in the span of a decade or so. My father and I wondered if it just wouldn’t have been better to simply cancel the Grand Prix under the circumstances and perhaps even out of respect for Roland and his family. Reluctantly, I would imagine, the decision to continue was taken.
Ratzenberger sat helplessly in his car as a passenger. His front wing broke off and lodged itself beneath his race car under the heavy load on the back straight. It had been damaged on the previous lap. Failing to manipulate the direction of his car, he slammed into the wall at over 300km/h. The Austrian crashed out of qualifying, pushing harder and harder to gain that last grid spot for his Simtek team. He eventually succumbed to his skull fracture injuries.
If any of you watched the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, you may have witnessed a similar incident when Alonso’s wing wedged itself beneath the Spaniard’s front wheels. It too had become detached after contact on the previous lap. A decision not to pull the double world champion into the pits to replace the broken wing luckily did not cost Alonso his life. A foolish call. How quickly some forget the dangers of racing and the stark reality of its permanence.
This decision to continue with San Marino Grand Prix still haunts us all. One day after the tragedy, the Formula One world would mourn the loss of legend. Perhaps the best driver ever to climb into the cockpit of a Formula One car. Those closest to Senna, now admit that the Brazilian was preoccupied with thoughts of Roland’s death. Failing to finish the first two races, Senna was clearly under pressure to perform. Up to even moments before his own passing, thoughts of Roland’s death, Barichello’s massive crash and the accident at the start of the San Marino Grand Prix must have been an enormous weight on Senna’s mind.
Nonetheless, a pensive Senna sat in his car ready to compete at the highest level. After the debris from the first lap crash where Pedro Lamy slammed into a stalled J.J. Lehto had been collected, the race restarted behind the safety car. For six laps, the field crawled around the Imola circuit, losing brake temperature, losing tyre pressure and running hot. As the chasing pack was released, Senna lead a young Michael Schumacher into the Tamburello corner where the Brazilian left the track and met his tragic end.
You will find many articles, posts, tributes and videos about Senna and his death. There are many theories behind what caused the crash and subsequently his premature passing. I urge you to search for those written by people who were present, who knew Senna, or competed against him. They will do a far better job of conveying the reality and emotions of this sad event. It took the death of one of the sport’s greatest champions to incite change and proper consideration for safety. Ultimately, Senna’s death prompted the rule changes which have given us the end product that F1 has become today.
I will never forget this day. I will never forget hearing the words, “Formula One’s Ayrton Senna has been pronounced clinically dead”, which were uttered by a local news broadcast. I had never heard the term “clinically dead” before. I wrote these words down with the date and time on a notepad. Afraid that I might one day forget. I don’t know why. I still have this notebook. I have not once opened it again to that page. I find it difficult to write this without stirring up emotions.
I was not a big fan of Senna during his time in Formula One. I was selfishly and naively wishing my favorites to win. I can say it now, I was just too bloody stupid to realize the greatness that I had been witnessing. Surgical precision, unfathomable performances witnessed but not understood. Senna’s death was an awakening for me personally. It was the moment I began to understand that I must learn to love the sport over any driver or team. Never again would I miss the opportunity to appreciate exceptional talent in any form of motorsport.
I had been a Gilles Villeneuve fan since I was a young boy. His death was one I never understood until I was older. His loss is one I mourn more today than ever before. Senna’s loss was monumental but not without purpose. His death may well have saved many lives in Formula One and has left a legacy which has imparted an unmistakable mark on the sport.
Sadly, his mortality bestowed the label of legend on Senna far before his time. Tragedy has a way of making us reflect, ponder and remember. There were many sides to Senna, the driver, the person, the family man. Make no mistake, Senna was a true racer; ruthless, dedicated, committed and brilliant.
To Gilles, Roland and Ayrton and all our motorsport heroes that left us all before their time, you may be gone but you shall never be forgotten.
Images made available under Creative Commons.