Fox's 20th century: 1985-90: Ayrton Senna
Sunday 12 December 1999
There was no doubting his bravery. When he had fights with bigger boys he won, and his clumsiness left him after he took up karting. He was South American champion, and karting remained a passion long after he became Formula One world champion.
His car racing career began with the Van Diemen company of Norfolk. He was soon winning Formula Ford 1600 races. The stepping stones to becoming world champion took him through Formula Ford 2000 and on to thrilling British Formula 3 races against Martin Brundle. He made his Formula One debut in 1984 (with Toleman) and went on to achieve 41 grands prix victories and 65 pole positions. Who knows whether he was the greatest driver of all time, but undoubtedly he was the fastest.
A complex man, he was a devout Christian yet would openly talk of his hatred on the track of his rivals. He was at once humble and arrogant; immensely likeable at times, aloof at others.
After joining Lotus for the 1985 season, his first grand prix win showed all of his skills. The Portuguese race was run in torrential rain. He was on pole, next to Alain Prost. He confidently took the lead while most of the field struggled for grip. He was pursued by Michele Alboreto in a Ferrari, but after two thirds of the race he had a lead of nearly a minute. Yet Alboreto kept closing. Each time Senna felt threatened he accelerated and in a masterful exhibition won by over a minute.
He became a Marlboro McLaren driver with Prost and was world champion in 1988 with an amazing 13 pole positions. The following year, in the final race in Japan, Senna and Prost crashed together, leaving Prost as world champion amid controversy - no stranger to Senna (especially when racing against Nigel Mansell). Senna got his revenge in 1991, becoming world champion and keeping Prost in second place.
His death at Imola in 1994 remains unexplained. Yet before that last race he had been unusually circumspect. Roland Ratzenberger's death in practice shook him. Both crashes were terrible reminders that though motor racing had become safer it would never be safe. Senna never doubted that, nor his own mortality.
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