It was a distressing ordeal.
Senna was a supremely gifted racing driver whose achievements and stature transcended his sport and all sport. As a contemporary, Martin Brundle, put it: 'When you think about it, he was one of the most famous people in the world.'
He had the wealth as well as fame. Towards the end of his life he was able to match the millions of pounds he made from racing with the millions of pounds his business empire earned. But racing was the obsession, the calling, and it was through racing that he reached every corner of the globe.
The three world championships, 41 Formula One wins, and a record 65 pole positions provide only a partial measure of his appeal. He had a rare presence, an aura, which set him apart.
They remembered Senna yesterday in their own ways: in Brazil, his home country, they began three days of national mourning; scores of fans, many weeping and carrying flowers, stood outside the mortuary in Bologna, Italy, where his body lay; other fans laid flowers at the Tamburello curve of Imola's Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, scene of his fatal crash during Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix; and a small boy took flowers to the headquarters of his team, Williams, at Didcot, Oxfordshire.
Many more admirers, past and present drivers, and administrators, sent their messages of sympathy. Nigel Mansell, one of Senna's fiercest rivals, if not a friend, before switching from Formula One to IndyCars, said: 'I'm in a total state of shock, as I'm sure everyone in motor racing is.
'I was stunned after the Austrian driver, Roland Ratzenberger, was killed on Saturday, and for Ayrton to lose his life the very next day makes this a very black weekend in motor racing history. Ayrton and I shared some of the most exciting races ever staged. When a truly great driver and a great champion loses his life, there is a very big void left behind.'
Ratzenberger's death, in qualifying at Imola, was difficult enough to take. He was the first driver to be killed in a Formula One car for eight years. Senna's fatal accident, the first during a grand prix for 12 years, left the sport in despair and bewilderment. Surely not Senna, they said, just as, in 1968, they said surely not Jim Clark. Back then, death lurked around almost every corner, but not in recent times, and not, we were convinced, for Senna. He was too good. So were his team, Williams.
How good was Senna? Brundle, who grappled with him throughout the 1983 British Formula Three championship (Senna took the title in the last race) and graduated to Formula One with him the following year, long ago came to the conclusion his old adversary was 'a genius'.
Yesterday, Brundle, who also competed at Imola, solemnly said: 'I fear whatever you say is inadequate. Because he was that good. I've always been in awe of him. Having him to drive against in '83 launched my international career. This is a sad household today.
'He had a natural gift. . . I'll give you an example, a race in Formula Three, in the wet, at Silverstone. We were on the front of the grid, I got a good start and led. When we arrived at Stowe Corner I took the normal line but he went on the outside and went by. He had found more grip there, where there were bits of dirt, while inside it was smooth and slippery. The race had to be stopped and before we started again there was more rain. When we set off this time I flashed down to Stowe and decided to try the outside. I went into a puddle and almost lost control. He went inside and was away again. We had a big fight and he won.
'On the podium I asked him why he changed his line. He said he knew it would be too wet this time. How did he know that? It was his sixth sense. He just knew how much grip he could get. He always had that. Even as a young driver.'
Senna had the touch and feel for a car few have ever possessed, but he also worked at his job. Often, deep into the night, he would study and discuss technical information with his engineers. He could relate to them every minisecond of every lap. There are those who felt he was too single-minded, too devoted to his own cause of keeping himself one step ahead. Michael Andretti, who had a brief and troubled spell alongside Senna at McLaren last year,
offers another view.
The American, now back in IndyCars, said: 'I knew him first- hand and 99 per cent of the things you read about Senna weren't true. He was a very good person, supportive of me and all the problems I had. He was one of the guys who really stuck up for me.'
Andretti's father, Mario, said: 'Ayrton's was one of the first congratulatory messages Michael got after he won his IndyCar race in Australia earlier this year.'
Having won three world titles with McLaren, Senna joined Williams for this season, describing the move as 'a dream come true'. The team principal, Frank Williams, said at Didcot yesterday: 'Ayrton and I enjoyed a long-standing relationship. I'm proud to say that the first (F1) car he drove was a Williams (in a test).
'His loss is impossible to quantify. Everyone who has ever met him in whatever capacity feels they have lost someone very special. He became a key member of our team in a very short time, and I hope that what we achieve in the future will be an honour to his memory.'
Senna believed the switch to Williams would bring him a fourth title, perhaps even a fifth. Out in front, that was the only place to be. Certainly for Senna.
On the weekend of his last race, however, Senna was a man under pressure. He had no points from two grands prix. Michael Schumacher, the dashing young German, had 20. Schumacher was hard on his heels when Senna crashed. Whether he could have exposed Schumacher as a pretender we shall never know.
----------------------------------------------------------------- SENNA'S GRAND PRIX VICTORIES ----------------------------------------------------------------- (championship finish in brackets) 1984: (9) None. 1985: (4) Portugal, Belgium. 1986: (4) Spain, Detroit. 1987: (3) Monaco, Detroit. 1988: (1) San Marino, Canada, Detroit, Britain, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Japan. 1989: (2) San Marino, Monaco, Mexico, Germany, Belgium, Spain. 1990: (1) Phoenix, Monaco, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Italy. 1991: (1) Phoenix, Brazil, San Marino, Monaco, Hungary, Belgium, Australia. 1992: (4) Monaco, Hungary, Italy. 1993: (2) Brazil, Britain, Monaco, Japan, Australia. Total: 41 (second behind record holder Alain Prost, 51). POLE POSITIONS 1985: Portugal, San Marino, Monaco, Detroit, Italy, Europe, Australia. 1986: Brazil, Spain, San Marino, Detroit, France, Hungary, Portugal, Mexico. 1987: San Marino. 1988: Brazil, San Marino, Monaco, Mexico, Canada, Detroit, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Japan, Australia. 1989: Brazil, San Marino, Monaco, Mexico, Phoenix, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan, Australia. 1990 Brazil, San Marino, Monaco, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Japan, Australia. 1991: Phoenix, Brazil, San Marino, Monaco, Hungary, Belgium, Italy, Australia. 1992: Canada. 1993: Australia 1994: Brazil, Japan, San Marino Total: 65 (Record ahead of Jim Clark, 33). -----------------------------------------------------------------