Nineteen years… It’s such a long time, yet it somehow feels like last year when the wretched 1994 San Marina GP claimed its last and most famous victim.
When I lament Ayrton Senna’s death, I get angry with myself. By the time I really got into F1, it was the height of media hysteria as ‘our Nige’ battled that ruthless bally Brazilian Johnny during the 1991 and 1992 seasons – and I was a Mansell fan. The plucky Brit who overcame terrible luck in a Williams which was getting better and better. It also didn’t help that at that point I couldn’t conjure up much fever in the direction of McLaren – a team which practically overdosed on professionalism and race wins.
I was old enough to have taken an interest in Senna’s early career – I can remember Mansell at Adelaide in 1986 when a tyre and his championship hopes blew up – but that was pretty much it. Live GP coverage demanded too much attention and patience for this pre-teen schoolboy.
Nope, I only started to pay attention when Mansellmania moved to the US and when the Honda V12 left the back of Senna’s McLaren. The underpowered MP4/8 – it ran a customer-spec Ford V8 – in which he won the 1993 European GP at Donington, was a mesmerising display of talent which made me realise what all the fuss was about. And how wrong I’d been.
It was a fuss born of that rightful Monaco ‘win’ in a drenched Toleman, pretty much any drive in that maniacal turbocharged Renault Lotus or when he whooped Prost’s butt out-qualifying him in Monte Carlo when they were team-mates. Yet, there was more to Senna. Yes there is a degree of contradiction – risking his own safety to help Eric Comas at Spa in 1992, his charitable foundation and his obvious distress during the horrors of San Marino all contrasting with his ruthless focus out on track – but whenever he was interviewed following any controversy, you could see that he fervently believed what he was saying. There wasn’t any politicking, weaselling or whingeing to be endured whatsoever.
His move to Williams in 1994 – a team I ‘got’ more than the Woking chaps – really cemented my conversion to Senna-ism. It should have been a fantastic season, but regulation changes meant that the team was struggling in the face of stiff competition from Benetton. Tragically, and I use this oft-flogged and abused word advisedly, we all know for why the 1994 F1 season would be remembered…
Senna’s memory though, will live on for many years, as old sods like me continue to reminisce and reflect. I even remember someone trying to make the case for Michael Schumacher being the ‘best F1 drive of all’ and his best gambit went along the lines of ‘but who was behind Senna at San Marino, eh…?’ Clearly this un-named individual failed to see the irony of his own remark. Despite being in an inferior car, Senna was the one out in front.
Recently I undertook a road-trip through Spain with Rob Widdows from Motor Sport. Rob is an experienced and well-respected motor sport journalist, and when he brought the subject up, I asked him if he got to interview the demi-god. He did and he just said, “Senna didn’t really put himself about – but there was something about him…”
Luckily due to YouTube and Asif Kapadia’s excellent 2010 documentary Senna, he is a driver who will continue to be discovered by subsequent generations. Yes, his death was horrible – an avoidable twist of fate – but at least he lived during an era when F1 benefited from comprehensive coverage and professional footage. Which is something that cannot always be said for all those unfortunates who lost their lives before him.