Ayrton Senna: How Senna's fascinating genius captured a generation that never had the privilege to see him ahead of the 20th anniversary of his death
Twenty years ago on Thursday, Senna was tragically killed in a crash while leading the San Marino Grand Prix, robbing the sport of its golden son
Tamburello has a chilling meaning for all motorsport fans. Whether it’s the chicane that now stands at the Imola circuit in San Marino, or the flat-out left turn that used to test the best drivers of yesteryear to the limit, the Brazilian flags tied to the fence on the outside of the corner remember one of the greats. Twenty years ago Formula 1 lost its golden son, Ayrton Senna.
Senna was an all thrills, many spills and naturally talented racer, whose career was defined by his enthralling rivalry with the skilled and precise driver that was Alain Prost – who was rarely out of his comfort zone and approached every race as if it was perfectly mapped out.
But what about those who don’t remember Senna, or his intense battles with Prost, Nigel Mansell, Michael Schumacher and the likes – those that were either too young or perhaps not even born that now consider themselves part of the racing community? There are only so many YouTube videos and films you can watch, but it’s never the same as seeing Senna live.
Unfortunately, for my generation, my memory comes in too late to remember the thrill of watching Senna. Yet even more unfortunate is that when asked what my very first memory is, it’s sitting on my father’s lap watching the San Marino Grand Prix on 1 May, 1994. It’s easily remembered as it was my parents’ first anniversary yet Dad had ensured that the appropriate time was taken out of the celebrations to watch the weekend’s action. After all, he never missed a race, but that day – like many others – he lost his hero.
It’s the stories he tells of seeing Senna, the stories you hear of the Brazilian great being seen in the flesh. Ask anyone that was at Donington Park on that wet April day in 1993 and their face will light up. “Sixth to first on the opening lap in atrocious conditions,” they say. “Rain like you’ve never seen it – you don’t overtake on the outside of the Craner Curves, you just don’t.”
The 2010 biopic Senna gave a younger generation – and an older one for that matter – a tremendous insight into the legacy of Senna. His ruthlessness, aggression, determination to win at all costs is hugely admirable. Not because it is the way to drive, far from it. Senna was often dangerous, not just to himself but to others too. Just look at the way he purposely drove Prost off the track at Suzuka in 1990 to clinch a second world championship. He intimidated rivals to either submit or crack under the pressure.
Senna and Prost clash at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, where the Frenchman would claim the World Championship But that hasn’t been seen for years, nearly a decade in fact. Not since Michael Schumacher during his dominant Ferrari days did a driver show a determination to win at all costs, and while Sebastian Vettel can be lauded for his four consecutive world championship he more often than not led from the front from lights out to the chequered flag, and you can even say he had the race one by Saturday evening.
Read more: Ron Dennis still struggles to talk about Senna 20 years on
Bruno Senna: My uncle Ayrton is still a driving force
While Senna dominated the 1991 season, and to a lesser extent the 1990 and 1988 seasons, fans were left astonished at his ability behind the wheel, a natural racer with talent not seen for generations. It was this that, while the face of F1 became more and more of a procession as the cars advanced aerodynamically, captured a generation that never observed Senna. Watch the onboard camera of Senna making his way around the streets of Monaco in 1990 or his incredible pole position lap in Japan in 1989 and you’ll be hard up to find another quite as exhilarating – you certainly won’t observe one from the past 20 years.
Did his tragic passing boost his reputation? Probably. McLaren CEO Ron Dennis admitted in a rare interview about Senna this week that his fatal accident meant Senna never went through his decline, a period that other greats of the sport had gone through after they stuck around beyond their cell-by date. Schumacher’s three-year comeback with Mercedes springs to mind. How the world now hopes that the sport doesn’t lose its most successful driver ever in such tragic circumstances.
Senna was unique. An enigma that broke the mould of what F1 drivers were. There was the supremely talented gentleman drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, the playboys of James Hunt and Graham Hill or the undoubtedly talented stars like Jim Clark, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart and Prost. But there was never a pure thoroughbred racer quite like Senna, with such an emotional attachment to his car, the track, the fans and his God. A commitment like no other before him, no other since him and probably no other that will ever grace the track.
Read more: Senna in his own words
Senna's top five best races
Senna takes his place in our top 10 F1 drivers
Motor Sport magazine’s editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck summed up the feeling when you watched Senna in a recent documentary for Sky Sports’ Senna Week titled Echoes of the Past: Ayrton Senna.
Roebuck said: “You watch Prost and what he could do with an F1 car and you’d think you can do that. You’d watch Senna and you absolutely knew you couldn’t.”
The books, the videos, the films and the races, you can watch as much footage of Senna as you want. Very few humans lead such a fascinating life, and it takes an incredibly interesting man to capture the imagination of today’s younger generation that is obsessed with game consoles, computers and mobile phones. To do that in a life spanning just 34 years is an achievement in itself, and long may Senna’s legacy continue to the next generation, and the next, and the next.
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