Is it really 20 years ago today? My mind tells me it is – because 2014 minus 1994 equals 20 – but my heart can hardly believe it. It feels like it was only yesterday that I heard the news, at Michigan International Speedway, where I had just begun a flat-out full-tanks Indycar test, my crew chief interrupting it to call me into the Penske pit garage and pass a telephone to me, wherefrom my wife told me that Ayrton Senna had just been killed at Imola.
I have written a mclaren.com/formula1 blog about Ayrton before, but today I want to say some more about him. I want to try to describe the enormity of what his death meant – and means still – to Formula 1, to Brazil and to me.
But first I want to go back to Sunday April 7th 1968. I was 21, still in Sao Paulo. I was preparing to race a car of my own design, the Fitti Prototipo, in the Brasilia 1000km, the following Sunday, sharing it with my friend Lian Duarte.
I had never been to Europe, but my heroes were all European: Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark. And on that day – on Sunday April 7th 1968 – my father, who was a sports broadcaster on Brazilian TV and radio, learned that Clark had been killed in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim that afternoon.
When he told me the terrible news, I felt the most profound sense of shock – and, when 26 years later I learned of Ayrton’s passing, despite the fact that I was 47 rather than 21, I felt exactly the same profound sense of shock.
When racing folk get together to discuss their sport, and when the subject turns to who was the greatest ever, Clark and Senna are usually mentioned more often than any other drivers, challenged for ‘the greatest’ cachet perhaps only by Juan Manuel Fangio.
But Juan Manuel died in a hospital bed, aged 84, whereas Jim and Ayrton were killed at the wheels of single-seater racing cars, at 32 and 34 respectively, driving absolutely flat-out, and no-one will ever know the causes of their accidents.
But they had more in common than that they died young and had the ability to drive race cars faster than any of their rivals, for by the time of their deaths they were both considered almost immortal.
And so it was that, when my father informed me that Jim had been killed, all I could say was, “No, I don’t believe it.” That was not hyperbole; no, I really did not believe it. It could not be true. How could Jim, the greatest driver on God’s Earth, have been killed, in a Formula 2 race of all things, at Hockenheim of all places? No, it simply could not be true.
But it was true – just as, 26 years later, it was true that Ayrton had been killed in a Formula 1 race at Imola.
Like Jim, as I say, Ayrton was regarded as almost immortal by his rivals, his fans and his countrymen. The day before he was killed – in other words on Saturday April 30th 1994 or 20 years ago yesterday – 33-year-old Austrian Formula 1 driver Roland Ratzenberger had perished in qualifying. Everyone was deeply upset – his rivals, his fans and his countrymen – but, although Roland’s passing was every bit as tragic as was Ayrton’s, Ayrton’s had the greater visceral force. Inevitably, that was the case, because, like Jim, Ayrton had transcended the status of mere driver and had acquired a level of respect and envy that placed him on a higher plane than any of his rivals.
Even now, 20 years later, I still feel that sense of disbelief: “No, not Ayrton, it can’t be true, no way, he’s too good to die.” Yet die he did.
Did he die in vain? All deaths are dreadfully sad – literally a waste of life – and accidental or, worse, violent deaths are more upsetting still. But, no, Ayrton did not die in vain. He died because a front suspension wishbone pierced his helmet as his car smote the guardrail at Imola's superfast Curva Tamburello, and it could do that only because in those days a Formula 1 driver’s working environment – his cockpit – was open and unprotected from shoulder level upwards. Look at a side-on panning shot of any 1994-vintage Formula 1 car and you will see what I mean.
But, because Ayrton was Ayrton and not just any Formula 1 driver, his death was so perturbing to so many people that it became clear that Formula 1 simply had to become safer – and it duly did become safer, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Formula 1 commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone, then FIA president Max Mosley and then FIA medical delegate Sid Watkins. As a result, no Formula 1 driver has been killed in action in the 20 years that have elapsed since Ayrton's fatal accident, and the young Formula 1 drivers who today routinely jump, hop and skip out of their cars after almighty shunts owe their survival to those three Formula 1 stalwarts – and, indirectly, to Ayrton, too.
More than that, though, Ayrton's death has had a positive effect on the safety features of regular road cars. Max Mosley made the following remarks to the Reuters news agency just a few days ago: "That Imola weekend was the catalyst for change on the roads that has literally, without question, saved tens of thousands of lives. Without that catalyst, we [the FIA] would never have inaugurated Euro NCAP [European New Car Assessment Programme] and we would never have got the legislation through the European Commission that has upped road safety standards so markedly. So there are now tens of thousands of people walking around, alive, uninjured, happy, who would instead be dead if it weren't for what was done. And all of that started with Ayrton's accident."
We who have lived and loved racing can be very proud of our sport when we read those words.
When I think of the end of Ayrton's life, and the end therefore also of his Formula 1 career, inevitably I think also of Michael Schumacher, who was just beginning to be successful in Formula 1 when Ayrton was killed. Today, Michael remains in a hospital bed following his skiing accident in the French Alps at the end of last year. I pray for him often, and dearly hope that he will make a recovery of sorts.
Michael is, of course, the most successful driver in Formula 1 history, as measured by his seven world championships. But, had Ayrton survived unscathed his shunt at Imola in 1994, I feel sure that he would have won the world championship that year instead of Michael. After all, Ayrton’s Williams team-mate Damon Hill all but won the world championship that year – but for Michael’s questionable move at Adelaide at season’s end he would have done, in fact – and, in the two grands prix before Imola, namely Interlagos and Aida, Ayrton had been massively faster than had Damon.
Many pundits opined that Damon should have won the 1995 world championship – again, he was beaten to the crown by Michael – and of course Damon finally did win the world championship in 1996, defeating Michael fair and square.
It is my opinion that, had Ayrton walked uninjured from his Imola 1994 accident, he would have won the world championship for Williams in all three of those years – 1994, 1995 and 1996 – which would have given him a career total of six world championships to Michael’s five. Indeed, he may even also have won the world championship for Williams in 1997, at 37, instead of Jacques Villeneuve, raising his world championship tally to seven. But, as I say, that is only my opinion.
Anyway, that is what Ayrton’s death meant – and means – to Formula 1.
But what did – and does – Ayrton’s death mean to Brazil?
I was one of the pall-bearers at his funeral – alongside Jackie Stewart, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, Damon Hill and Rubens Barrichello – and I will remember until the day I die every nuance of the act of carrying his coffin to its final resting place.
Three million Brazilians lined the Sao Paulo streets through which Ayrton's funeral cortege passed – many of them crying openly – and I am told that it remains the largest single gathering of mourners in modern times.
Everyone in Brazil was stricken with grief – men, women, boys, girls, old people, young people, Formula 1 fans and non-fans alike – and our country was gripped by a shared sense of loss, of waste, and, yes, of the kind of disbelief that I alluded to above: “Not our Ayrton, not our boy, not him, surely not, no, no, no.”
As a result, Ayrton will always be a hero in Brazil – indeed perhaps his heroism has attained mythical proportions over the past 20 years. That is what the perception of immortality confers on a man when suddenly and cruelly he is proven not to be immortal after all.
Immediately after his death, Brazilian Formula 1 fans were too saddened to re-embrace their favourite sport with the same fervour as before, and as a result there is a generation gap in the Brazilian Formula 1 fan demographic. Guys who were in their 20s and 30s when Ayrton died – in other words boys who had been cajoled by their fathers to read about, watch and support me and, a little later, Nelson Piquet during our glory years – were less willing to encourage their young sons to watch Formula 1 after Sunday May 1st 1994, because they no longer had the heart to do so; they were too upset.
And so it is that a generation of would-be Formula 1 fans in Brazil grew up watching basketball, volleyball and, of course, football, rather than Formula 1. Yes, they were aware of Formula 1; yes, they were pleased when Rubens Barrichello or Felipe Massa won grands prix; but their passion for Formula 1 was less ardent than had been that of their fathers, who had been not only thrilled but also inspired by Ayrton’s illustrious successes a generation before.
Despite that, though, Ayrton’s name lives on in Brazil, not least via the wonderful work done by the Instituto Ayrton Senna, a non-governmental organisation which manages important programmes that help disadvantaged children in Brazil. The Instituto was founded by Ayrton’s family just six months after he died, and today it is run with energy and enthusiasm by his sister, Viviane Senna da Silva Lalli.
So that is what Ayrton’s death meant – and means – to Brazil.
But what did – and does – Ayrton’s death mean to me?
That is a difficult question, but I will do my best to answer it.
I miss him every day, and think of him often.
As a man of faith, I feel his presence in my life, and I am the better for it.
When I look at photographs of him, especially when he is smiling, I hear his inimitable chuckle still.
When I watch video footage of him driving a Formula 1 car – especially at Monaco, where he serially surpassed what any man had done there before, or has done there since – I feel a genuine and unmistakable sense of awe.
Truly, he was uniquely talented. Truly, he was brilliantly quick. Truly, we will never see his like again.
Let me leave you with a personal anecdote, which sums him up for me. In December 1992 I persuaded him to test my Penske Indycar at Phoenix International Raceway, a short oval. Before he drove it, he asked me to run a few laps, so that he could watch trackside. Soon I was driving fast, recording average lap speeds of well over 170mph (274km/h). Suddenly, as I flew through Turn Two, letting my car run out to within 3-4 inches (8-10cm) of the wall, he popped his face out through a gap in the fencing, the better to see the way I was getting the power down on the exit.
When I drove back into the pit garage, I said, “Ayrton, you’re crazy! I could have knocked your head off! Don’t you realise that when you’re driving an Indycar on an oval you run it right out to the edge of the track, right up against the wall, whatever speed you’re lapping?”
As I re-live the memory of that conversation, in my mind’s eye I can see that grin, and in my mind’s ear I can hear that giggle.
I miss you, my friend. I miss you a lot. I will always miss you. But I am consoled by the message on your gravestone, in the Morumbi cemetery, in our shared and beloved home town of Sao Paulo: ‘Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus’ (‘Nothing can separate me from the love of God’).