Senna's troubled soul still casts pall

MOTOR RACING: This weekend's San Marino Grand Prix marks the first anniversary of the death of Formula One's greatest driver. Derick Allsop considers why the Brazilian's tragic end remains as enigmatic as the man himself
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Twelve months on, Formula One today returns to Imola, reviving the mental torment of that fateful San Marino Grand Prix.

The drastically revised circuit, notably at the two sections where Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed last season, serves as the sport's tangible memorial to the two drivers. Chicanes have been put in to neutralise the perils of Tamburello and Villeneuve, and about three-fifths of the track has been modified to improve safety standards. Indeed, the changes are so extensive that this year the drivers are being given an extra day to familiarise themselves with the track before Sunday's race.

The memory of Senna will pervade the whole weekend, even though he was not the only driver to die here 12 months ago. Twenty four hours before Senna's crash, on May 1, Ratzenberger, an unexceptional Austrian driver, died in practice for the race. It was tragic, but it was deemed to be an accident, a hazard of the job.

Senna, however, was exceptional. Here was a man who had won the World Championship three times, 41 grands prix and a record 65 pole positions, almost twice as many as the next best. Yet even the statistics do not adequately gauge the Senna phenomenon. He wore all the clichd mantles: he was moody; he was the ice man; he was hot-headed; he was mercurial; and he was charismatic.

The perception of Senna as supernatural, immortal, created the demand for inquiries and recriminations. The official investigation into his death blamed steering column failure, but the report is still being considered by an Italian magistrate.

The delays have meant that over the past year we have been treated to a variety of theories about the accident - some merely mechanical and technical, but others psychological and emotional. Much of what we have had, quite frankly, has been ghoulish gobbledygook.

Suggestions by some that the Brazilian had a premonition of death have been dismissed by others closer to him as nonsense. Doubts have also been cast over his supposed admission of foreboding to his girlfriend the night before the accident, particularly since doubts have been cast over the strength of their relationship. There is a belief that Senna regarded her as the latest decoration.

Senna may not have been happy at Imola, but then, according to a friend, he confided on the Friday evening, less than 48 hours before he died, that he had never known happiness.

Senna had been to see his boss, Frank Williams, a quadriplegic, who was strapped in an upright harness. The driver asked him how he was and Williams cheerfully replied that he was fine. Senna, walking away, remarked on the irony that here was a man with a desperate physical handicap, expressing himself at peace with the world, while he, for all his success, fame, wealth and health, still searched for contentment.

The build-up to the San Marino Grand Prix had not helped Senna's quest. He failed to finish the first two races of a World Championship for which he had started as favourite, and he voiced suspicions about the legality of the Benetton-Ford, which Michael Schumacher had driven to successive victories.

It is pertinent to remind ourselves here that Senna felt he had the right to the best car in Formula One. A prominent motor sport magazine posed the question: Can he take the heat? He did not like that.

On the first day of practice at Imola, Rubens Barrichello, a promising young Brazilian, crashed heavily and was fortunate to escape serious injury. Senna, as was his wont, was the first driver to check on his condition at the medical centre.

The following day, Senna went to the scene of Ratzenberger's accident. The Austrian was the first driver killed in a Formula One car for eight years. Senna always showed an interest in medical techniques and, perhaps acknowledging a responsibility as senior driver, concerned himself directly with safety precautions and procedures.

Little more than two hours before he climbed into his car for the last time, he orchestrated a drivers' demand for new safety measures to be implemented at the following race, in Monaco.

Were the pressures becoming unbearable? Senna's temperament had long been suspect. His displays of brilliance were punctuated by exclamations, and deeds, of fury.

More than once he physically attacked an opponent and he drove Alain Prost off the road in the infamous 1990 Japanese Grand Prix. A year later he confessed his transgression and launched into a foul-mouthed condemnation of the former president of FIA, Jean-Marie Balestre. Who said Eric Cantona was a one-off?

The man who succeeded Balestre, Max Mosley, spoke to Senna after the outburst and advised him he had behaved in an amateur, rather than professional manner. Senna thought long and hard - as he usually did - and conceded Mosley was right, but then vehemently reaffirmed his opinion of Balestre.

A colleague and I sought out Senna after he had thrown a punch at Eddie Irvine, also in Japan, in 1993. He eventually accepted he should not have resorted to violence, but then earnestly pleaded mitigation, that Irvine "showed no respect".

Senna repeatedly contended - often passionately, to the point where his eyes glistened - that no one outside the immediate motor racing circle could fully comprehend the pressures and requirements at the pinnacle of the sport.

Let us consider this for a moment and attempt to find some perspective. Most people have pressures. Ratzenberger did. He had to find the money to get a drive. Struggling football managers are under pressure. Parents on low incomes are under pressures. Racing was Senna's job. He was trained to do it and conditioned to cope with the risks. He was also handsomely rewarded. He perused aircraft and cruiser brochures as most thumb through the Argos catalogue. He had several homes in Brazil and Europe, a farm, a plane, helicopter, boats, myriad other play things and an expanding business empire. Many of his fans in Brazil lived, and still live, in shanty towns. They know about pressure.

Senna had qualified his Williams-Renault on pole position for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and he led the charge into Tamburello, a fast, sweeping left-hander, followed by Schumacher. Behind them, however, Pedro Lamy's Lotus had struck JJ Lehto's stalled Benetton. Debris flew into the crowd and one man was seriously hurt. The pace car went out and the racing cars filed behind as the track was cleared.

The race resumed on the sixth lap, the Brazilian again leading from the German. Schumacher would later reveal that the Williams appeared "nervous" through Tamburello. Next time round, Senna, still hounded by Schumacher, went straight on at Tamburello, smashing into a wall. He was the first driver to die in a Grand Prix for 12 years.

A final, fatal error by the driver some regarded as the greatest of them all? Was he pushed beyond even his limits this time by the pressure, the fear of being eclipsed by a young pretender, his judgement impaired by a sense of injustice?

Formula One had been lucky for so long that the shock was deep and lasting. Younger drivers and team personnel had suddenly been confronted with the terrible reality of their dangerous sport. A little complacency had probably crept in, but it is equally true to say it was a freak of misfortune which subjected them to so much that weekend and for a few subsequent weeks. Lamy, Karl Wendlinger and Andrea Montermini were all involved in big yet unconnected accidents. They were precisely that, accidents. Senna, like many greats of the past, had paid the ultimate price for his obsession. So had Ratzenberger.

Through three days of practice and in Sunday's race, 26 drivers will again compete at a San Marino Grand Prix, praying the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari will no longer demand that sacrifice.