Ayrton Senna : In life he ruled, and in death he changed F1 forever



In a sport that thrives on heroes and where mediocrity is cast away like unwanted trash, Ayrton Senna is probably the greatest hero Formula 1 has ever seen or will ever see. To the uninitiated, Senna is to Formula 1 what Sir Donald Bradman is to Cricket or Pele is to Football.

Senna was all of 34 when he died in a fatal accident while racing at the San Marino Grand Prix at the 190 mph Tamburello corner exactly 20 years ago to the day. By then, Senna had spent over a decade on the tracks, been champion thrice (1988, 90 and 91) and won 41 races in Formula 1.

More importantly, when the odds were against drving–be it because of a technologically inferior car or bad weather conditions–he was at his best. His legacy as the best of all times may be questioned but nobody doubts his ability as the best driver in wet conditions. It is when the track is slippery and traction hard to get by that Senna was in the driver’s seat. When others including the great Alain Prost or Michael Schumacher struggled, Senna was supreme.

Words cannot really describe his skill on the track. At the best of times, Formula 1 is a gruelling dangerous sport. In those days even more so. Yet, his penchant for speed and competitive spirit was unparalleled. The video below of him at the German Grand Prix in 1993 when he started and stalled and then re-started the race at the 14th position to overtake almost at will–one car after the other–is a glowing example.

German GP 1993 (click for video)

And there is one track where he truly ruled supreme. The Monaco Grand Prix, the only one that happens on actual production roads peppered with sharp blind corners and held notorious today as it gives next to nothing in terms of overtaking chances, was where he was always at his imperious best. He was so good at qualifying as the video below will testify that he held pole positions at Monaco 7 consecutive times–a record. Between 1989-93, he also won the race there for the fifth consecutive time–another record. That progression was cut short only by his death in 1994. Who knows how many more races he would have won there.

Qualifying at Monaco (click for video)

Senna’s death also heralded a tectonic shift in F1. It underlined the need for more safety and caution in a sport where daredevilry is worshipped. There was a sense of foreboding even on that ill-fated day May 1,1994. It had seen the death of another driver Roland Ratzenberger during the qualifying session the previous day when he was negotiating another 190mph Villeneuve corner. And the day prior to that Senna’s protege Rubens Barrichello also suffered a serious accident when his car was airborne at one of the chicanes.

Senna\’s death (click for video)

Back then, people mourned those who died on the track but it wasnt an unheard of thing. And life went on. Even when Senna died, the race had to be stopped only to be re-started. But the implications, as we now know, were far reaching. His death prompted a complete overhaul of the safety regulations at the races. Those included  improved crash barriers, redesigned tracks, higher crash safety standards and major cuts to engine power. The corner where Senna died (Tamburello) was also changed and converted into a chicane.

The most telling statistic however, is that since Senna’s death nobody has died on the track in Formula 1 till date. It is quite a price to pay but it would not be incorrect to say that Senna did not lose his life for nothing. While he remains an intrinsic part of Formula 1’s folklore, his legacy after death is even more profound. RIP Ayrton Senna (21 March 1960-1 May 1994)

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