Motor Racing: How great could Senna have been?

The death of one of Grand Prix's outstanding talents five years ago changed racing for ever but gave rise to one lasting question
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THE TIME is one minute before two o'clock on the afternoon of Sunday, 2 May 1999. The 22 cars of the Formula One circus are assembled on the grid at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix, the third race of the season. In pole position sits the McLaren-Mercedes of Michael Schumacher, the defending world champion, already a winner in Australia and Brazil this year. Next to him is Ayrton Senna, the six-time world champion, in a Ferrari, so far without a point to his name. With seconds to go, their engines scream.

Schumacher is looking straight ahead, thinking about getting himself into position for the long left-hand curve known as Tamburello, "the little drum", which follows the contour of the concrete wall bordering the slow green sweep of the Santerno river. He will be sweeping through it at something over 190 mph, barely lifting his foot from the throttle as the car judders over the notorious ripples in the asphalt at the apex of the corner.

Senna is thinking about Schumacher, and about how the McLaren seems to behave as though a computer were co-ordinating its control systems. For an instant his thoughts go back five years, to another May weekend at the same circuit, when Schumacher was also in a car - a Benetton, that time - displaying an uncanny degree of responsiveness, and one which was to take the German driver to the first of his two world titles, despite Senna's herculean efforts in an outpaced Williams.

But, as he glances at the figures flickering on the digital read-out set into the Ferrari's steering wheel, a more sombre thought overtakes the urgencies of the moment. The 39-year-old Senna is thinking about Ricardo Zonta, his young compatriot, who suffered serious head injuries three weeks ago in practice at Interlagos when his BAR folded up around him in a 100mph impact with a steel barrier. It's time, Senna is thinking, to get the governing body to do something about improving cockpit safety for the drivers.

The red lights go on - one, two, three, four, five - and then disappear. In a cloud of dust the cars dash down the straight, accelerating past the grandstands, through the funnel of trees, heading towards the long left-handed curve...

NO, no. That's not the way it is. Because this Sunday it will, of course, be five years since Ayrton Senna, trying to keep his Williams ahead of Michael Schumacher's Benetton, lost control for some still-unexplained reason on the ripples of Tamburello and crashed into the concrete wall bordering the Santerno, suffering fatal head injuries when a suspension arm snapped and bent back, piercing his helmet.

Those five years have been filled with tributes to a man whose global reach became evident only after his death. Some memorials were ephemeral in nature, like the drivers' silent vigil on the grid at Monaco two weeks later, or their parade around Interlagos, his home track, the next year, each of them waving a small Brazilian flag as he used to do on his laps of honour. Or the countless posies and poems and other keepsakes left at the places of his death and of his burial, an ocean and thousands of miles apart. Or even the judicial inquiry, which lasted three years and yet drew no conclusion.

Some were more lasting. A handsome bronze statue of a pensive Senna stands on the infield at Tamburello, where the old sweeping bend has been completely reprofiled, turning it into a left-right-left chicane devoid of character. At Estoril, on a mound above the big 180-degree bend which launches the cars into the pits straight, there is an elegant monument bearing some words of Senna's on the subject of mortality: "Ayrton once said concerning death: `The day it comes, it comes. It could be today... or not for fifty years. The only certainty is that it will come'." And, as if in proof, there is a small bronze plaque set into the lawn of a cemetery high on a suburban hill above Sao Paulo.

And there are less tangible but even more significant consequences of that dreadful day. The activities of the Ayrton Senna Foundation, raising money through the sale of artefacts bearing his likeness or signature, from baseball caps and fountain pens to mountain bikes and speedboats, have helped educate and encourage many Brazilian children born into otherwise hopeless poverty. And, within his own profession, the most lasting memorial - beyond the imperishable statistics recording his victories - lies in the changes to the technical regulations which forced Formula One's circuit owners and car designers to protect the drivers more effectively. The provisions undertaken as a consequence of his death range from better barricades and run-off areas to higher cockpit surrounds using impact- absorbing materials (which may indeed have saved Ricardo Zonta's life at Interlagos three weekends ago) and better ideas about mounting data- collecting black boxes to avoid destruction in accidents, which is what happened with Senna's car.

But he is also memorialised, with a so-far undiminished clarity, every time someone looks wistfully at the present generation of grand prix cars and drivers, at the cars he might have driven and the drivers who might have challenged him, and wonders, "What if..."

This is motor racing's most popular spectator game. Even the insiders play it all the time. All sports encourage it, to some extent. How would Laver have got on against McEnroe or Sampras? How many of this year's Manchester United squad would have made it into the 1968 side? Would Warne's flipper have bamboozled Hobbs? In Formula One, the rapid advance of technology adds another layer of uncertainty to the debate - but it's hard to believe that Fangio, say, would have been given problems if faced with a semi- automatic gearshift, great fat sticky tyres, and the black art of generating downforce. He would still have been Fangio and still, surely, a length ahead of the rest - except, perhaps, Ascari, whose career overlapped with his, and Clark, and Senna... and that way lies an evening's argument.

Had Senna not died in a freak accident on 1 May 1994, he might well have exceeded Fangio's record of five world championships by now. He died trying to keep ahead of Schumacher's Benetton, which he suspected of using banned electronic aids. He had joined the Williams team at the beginning of the year, after watching glumly from the seat of his waning McLaren as their absolute dominance presented the title first to Nigel Mansell and then to Alain Prost in consecutive seasons. When he finally took a seat in the Williams at the start of the 1994 season, he was at the height of his powers and had been firmly expecting to step into the best machine on the grid.

To his consternation, it didn't work out that way. The Williams design team had been caught on the hop by the banning of electronic driver aids, and their new car was proving awkward for Senna and his number two, Damon Hill. At Sao Paulo, Senna had spun into retirement while trying to meet the challenge of Schumacher - who, at 25, was nine years his junior and clearly the pick of the next generation. In the second race, at the Aida circuit in Japan, he had been eliminated in a shunt at the first corner, and Schumacher won again.

The makings of a classic season were being laid out. A veteran virtuoso in a car that needed all his experience versus a fearless young charger in a machine of widely questioned legality. It may seem a small forfeit next to a man's life, but the incident at the beginning of the seventh lap of the San Marino Grand Prix cost us a battle that would surely have developed into an epic.

Schumacher might still have taken the title that season, one way or another. But although Senna was deeply upset by Roland Ratzenberger's death and Rubens Barrichello's serious accident during practice at Imola, he would have been sufficiently encouraged by his team's progress to have remained with Williams to enjoy the fruits of their labours over the next three seasons, meaning that he would surely have picked up three more titles. Damon Hill, who took over the leadership of the Williams team, failed to deny Schumacher the championship in 1995 only through his own frailties, before going on to win it himself in 1996, while Jacques Villeneuve won the 1997 title in what would have been Senna's car. By 1998, one imagines that Schumacher, in his desperation to challenge Senna, would have found his way not to the struggling Ferrari team but to McLaren, where Ron Dennis would have broken the bank to sign the only man capable of mounting a real challenge to his former champion. And Schumacher's move would have coincided both with McLaren's ascendancy and Williams's decline, which might have handed the German a second title and sent Senna off to Ferrari, where a huge Marlboro retainer would have encouraged him to fulfil a fantasy, once confided to Adriane Galisteu, his last girlfriend, of finishing his career in one of the red cars.

THIS is nonsense, of course. He died, and that's it. Nothing can devalue the titles won by Hill, Villeneuve and, most recently, Mika Hakkinen - although there will always be a faint question mark hanging over the way Schumacher got his name up alongside theirs.

No question about his inherent talent, though. Formed, like Senna, by kart racing, his driving style had similar features - notably an unorthodox willingness to play with the throttle while in the middle of a corner, in a constant search for the limit of adhesion. But Schumacher also borrowed elements of Senna's competitive personality, principally his dedication to hard work, which brought him the adoration of his mechanics, and his utter ruthlessness on the track, which is the expression of a self-belief so extreme that it borders on a psychopathic condition.

There had been hard racers before Senna, but it was he who turned Formula One into a contact sport, by bringing to it the sort of bullying tactics that had served him well in karts and Formula Ford, where teenaged drivers share a belief in their own immortality. Senna was the first to see the benefits it could bring to the first man to try it at the top level, and Mansell and Prost were among his victims. He sincerely believed that they had no right to be in front of him, so he acted as though they and their cars didn't exist.

His charisma - a combination of good looks and a curiously spiritual air - helped him get away with it more often than not. Schumacher, who commands none of the Brazilian's off-track graces, has been less lucky. Blatant obstruction worked for him when he punted Hill off in the last race of 1994, but a similar attack on Villeneuve three years later was not only unsuccessful but did lasting damage to his reputation. It would have been interesting, to say the least, to witness a few more years of battle between a mellowing Senna and a hungry Schumacher.

But you could say something similar about Ascari v Fangio, or Fangio v Moss, or Moss v Clark, or Clark v Stewart, or Stewart v Lauda, and so on. That's the way motor racing goes. Had Senna not become the first man to die during a grand prix in 12 years, there is a good chance that he might have carried on until the end of the decade, when he would have been approaching his 40th birthday. Whatever we might have been saying about him then, even had he beaten Fangio's record, the feelings would be unlikely to match the awe and admiration with which a shockingly premature death endowed him, and with which he will be remembered at Imola and elsewhere this weekend.

A revised and updated version of The Death Of Ayrton Senna by Richard Williams is published this week by Bloomsbury (paperback, pounds 7.99).