The San Marino Grand Prix, 1994: one of the blackest race meetings in Formula One history. The motor-racing world was plunged into mourning that early summer’s weekend as Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna both tragically lost their lives.
For me, that weekend remains the only vivid recollection I have from when I first started watching the sport, the only memory that stands out in sharp relief against what is otherwise nothing but a blur of pictures and colour.
I first started watching Formula One in 1994. When I say I started watching it, I mean I sat around staring at the television screen while my dad, a huge sports fan, watched the races.
I would love to say I was blown away by the spectacle of it, watching drivers going wheel-to-wheel in exotic-looking cars at breakneck speeds, but I was just six years old and honestly can barely recall anything of what I saw.
Which is why, perhaps, that weekend in Imola stands out.
Now, when I say that weekend stands out vividly in my memory, I don’t claim to be able to visually recall Ratzenberger and Senna’s crashes.
No, I can’t play them back in my head unless it’s videos I watched later. Also, I had no idea whatsoever who Senna and Ratzenberger were, let alone what the great Brazilian’s death meant for the sport.
No, what marks that weekend out from the blur that was the rest of the season, or indeed the next few seasons, is hearing about two drivers being killed. These things stick in your memory and it was the first time the sport really caught my attention.
Over the next few seasons, I started watching the sport more regularly; keeping up with the major storylines, but it was still something I followed only casually, not yet with the obsession of an enthusiast. I was still young and apart from who won or lost, I understood very little.
I grew up in the Schumacher era and was naturally a fan of the great German. His quest to restore Ferrari to greatness captured my imagination and by the late-nineties, after having started out as a casual fan, I was completely hooked on Formula One.
By now, I was obviously familiar with the name Senna as I came across it again and again in books, magazines or newspaper articles as I read up about the sport. I knew he was one of the greats but still couldn’t fully grasp the sort of impact he had had when he was racing and what his loss meant to the sport.
Why was he constantly referred to as the greatest ever racing driver and held in higher standing than Juan Manuel Fangio who had won five titles? Even his great nemesis Alain Prost had won more titles and more races than him.
The typical questions of a naïve fan.
The first time I realised what an immense shadow Senna’s death had cast over the sport was at the Italian Grand Prix in 2000 when, just moments after equalling the Brazilian’s number of wins, Michael Schumacher broke down in front of millions of people on live television.
I knew Schumacher had been chasing Senna that day in Imola when he went off at Tamburello but surely, to make a man who had otherwise kept a tight rein on his emotions all his career break down so publicly, there must have been more to Senna than his three world titles, 41 race victories and 65 pole positions.
I began to read more about him and books like ‘The Death of Ayrton Senna’ by Guardian journalist Richard Williams or Malcolm Folley’s ‘Senna vs. Prost’ provided a fascinating insight into Senna’s character.
I watched old videos of Senna’s qualifying laps and races and finally began to appreciate the legacy the great champion had left behind.
I watched old interviews and was captivated by Senna’s magnetism and began to understand why he was so much more than those world titles, race victories and pole positions, why he burned so bright, why his appeal extended beyond the sport, and why he continues to inspire a generation of drivers who never saw him race.
The recent Senna movie only heightened my appreciation of his genius behind the wheel and of the person he was outside the car.
But watching it, I also felt a twinge of regret that I had never seen him race, that whatever I know of him or whatever thrill I take from his exploits on track comes only through the recollections of those who were fortunate enough to do so.
The closest I ever came to Ayrton Senna was when I walked the Suzuka circuit while covering last year’s Japanese Grand Prix.
It was pitch-dark and as I walked through the first corner and the final chicane, I knelt down and touched the tarmac, paying a silent tribute to the great champion in my own, small way. I just wish I could have watched him race.
Images via Wikimedia Commons.