Ayrton Senna's 54th birthday: Remembering a towering talent that would have delivered so much more
The Brazilian's 41 race wins, 65 poles and three world titles are a towering monument to a talent that would have delivered even more
We are five weeks from the 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death, an event that retains the capacity to chill even at this distance. Weirdly Senna, a deeply religious man, would have readily accepted his fate since in his world view the crash at Imola’s Tamburello corner ushered him into God’s realm at the time of the Almighty’s calling.
When Senna slipped behind the wheel of a Formula Car he was communing with God, expressing through his own agency the will of the architect of all things. In death at the age of 34 he was immortalised as one of the greatest drivers in the pantheon. On Friday he would have been 54. Sadly we will never know how time would have treated him in middle age.
The memory, supported by the books, the documentaries and the films, preserves Senna in the full beauty of youth, as a driver who reset the parameters of what was possible, a genius who intuited the driving enterprise like few before or since. A record at the time of 41 race wins from 161 grands prix and 65 poles took him to three world titles, a towering monument to a talent that would have delivered even more.
If you were to pick a race that epitomised his gifts the 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington would be high on the list of most. In conditions that test the skill and nerve of the driver most, wet/dry, Senna went from fifth to first before the end of the opening lap. In a game of musical pit stops (Alain Prost made seven to Senna’s four) Senna finished almost a minute and a half ahead of the field.
Twelve months on there was a terrible sense of foreboding on that tragic weekend, which began with Rubens Barrichello’s violent accident in practice on Friday and 24 hours later the death of Roland Ratzenberger. As if foretelling his own demise Senna, seriously spooked by all that had happened, spoke of the fears he had for his own life on the day of the race. The night before in a telephone call to his girlfriend he expressed a desire not to participate.
It was a freak outcome that took him, his helmet pierced by a piece of suspension that came away on impact with the concrete wall. Ratzenberger’s death was the first Senna had experienced in his Formula One career. His own remains the last driver fatality to afflict the sport, though track staff have subsequently been killed by flying debris.
Senna was not only a brilliant racing driver, he transcended the world of Formula One so that his death stopped clocks across the world. The shock of his loss had a similar impact in the sporting milieu as the death of Princess Diana on the global community three years later in a Parisian underpass.
Senna struggles to lift the Brazilian flag after winning the 1991 Brazil Grand Prix It was beyond comprehension that one such as he might be vulnerable doing what he did better than the rest. That said, for those who share his religious beliefs it is perhaps a comfort that he met his end doing what he loved. Like all racing men, Senna lived on the edge of existence, racing the car on the limit of its performance. On May 1, 1994 he fell the wrong side of a fine line.
More than one million people lined the streets of Sao Paulo at his funeral. His grave in Morumbi, the affluent suburb where he grew up, is marked by a single plaque that bears his dates and the inscription: Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus (Nothing can separate me from the love of God).
The simplicity of the setting bears an inverse relation to the significance of his achievements and the power of a name that resonates as much today as it did when he raced.
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