He streaked through the sport like a comet, an other-worldly superstar whose brilliance as a driver was matched by a dazzling intellect and coruscating charisma that illuminated Formula One racing as never before. No one tried harder or pushed himself further, nor did anyone shed so much light on the extremes to which only the greatest drivers go. Intensely introspective and passionate in the extreme, Ayrton Senna endlessly sought to extend his limits, to go faster than himself, a quest that ultimately made him a martyr but did not diminish his mystique.
Ayrton Senna da Silva was born on March 21, 1960, into a wealthy Brazilian family where, with his brother and sister, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He never needed to race for money but his deep need for racing began with an infatuation for a miniature go-kart his father gave him when he was four years old. As a boy the highlights of Ayrton’s life were Grand Prix mornings when he awoke trembling with anticipation at the prospect of watching his Formula One heroes in action on television. At 13 he raced a kart for the first time and immediately won. Eight years later he went single-seater racing in Britain, where in three years he won five championships, by which time he had divorced his young wife and forsaken a future in his father’s businesses in favour of pursuing success in Formula One racing, where he made his debut with Toleman in 1984. At Monaco (a race he would win six times), his sensational second to Alain Prost’s McLaren – in torrential rain – was confirmation of the phenomenal talent that would take the sport by storm.
Deciding Toleman’s limited resources were inadequate for his towering ambition, Senna bought out his contract and in 1985 moved to Lotus, where in three seasons he started from pole 16 times (he eventually won a record 65) and won six races. Having reached the limits of Lotus he decided the fastest way forward would be with McLaren, where he went in 1988 and stayed for six seasons, winning 35 races and three world championships.
In 1988, when McLaren-Honda won 15 of the 16 races, Senna beat his team mate Alain Prost eight wins to seven to take his first driving title. Thereafter two of the greatest drivers became protagonists in one of the most infamous feuds. In 1989 Prost took the title by taking Senna out at the Suzuka chicane. In 1990 Senna extracted revenge at Suzuka’s first corner, winning his second championship by taking out Prost’s Ferrari at Suzuka’s first corner. Senna’s third title, in 1991, was straightforward as his domination as a driver became even more pronounced, as did his obsession with becoming better still. Some of his greatest performances came in his final year with McLaren, following which he moved to Williams for the ill-fated 1994 season.
Beyond his driving genius Senna was one of the sport’s most compelling personalities. Though slight in stature he possessed a powerful physical presence, and when he spoke, with his warm brown eyes sparkling and his voice quavering with intensity, his eloquence was spellbinding. Even the most jaded members of the Formula One fraternity were mesmerised by his passionate soliloquies and in his press conferences you could hear a pin drop as he spoke with such hypnotic effect. His command performances were captured by the media and the world at large became aware of Senna’s magnetic appeal.
Everyone marvelled at how he put so much of himself, his very soul, into everything he did, not just his driving but into life itself. Behind the wheel the depth of his commitment was there for all to see and the thrilling spectacle of Senna on an all-out qualifying lap or a relentless charge through the field evoked an uneasy combination of both admiration for his superlative skill and fear for his future.
He drove like a man possessed – some thought by demons. His ruthless ambition provoked condemnation from critics, among them Prost who accused him of caring more about winning than living. When Senna revealed he had discovered religion Prost and others suggested he was a dangerous madman who thought God was his co-pilot. “Senna is a genius,” Martin Brundle said. “I define genius as just the right side of imbalance. He is so highly developed to the point that he’s almost over the edge. It’s a close call.”
Even Senna confessed he occasionally went too far, as was the case in qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, where he became a passenger on a surreal ride into the unknown. Already on pole, he went faster and faster and was eventually over two seconds quicker than Prost in an identical McLaren. “Suddenly, it frightened me,” Ayrton said, “because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding. I drove back slowly to the pits and did not go out anymore that day.”
He said he was acutely aware of his own mortality and used fear to control the extent of the boundaries he felt compelled to explore. Indeed, he regarded racing as a metaphor for life and he used driving as a means of self-discovery. “For me, this research is fascinating. Every time I push, I find something more, again and again. But there is a contradiction. The same moment that you become the fastest, you are enormously fragile. Because in a split-second, it can be gone. All of it. These two extremes contribute to knowing yourself, deeper and deeper.”
His self-absorption did not preclude deep feelings for humanity and he despaired over the world’s ills. He loved children and gave millions of his personal fortune (estimated at $400 million when he died) to help provide a better future for the underprivileged in Brazil. Early in 1994 he spoke about his own future. “I want to live fully, very intensely. I would never want to live partially, suffering from illness or injury. If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs my life, I hope it happens in one instant.”
And so it did, on May 1, 1994, in the San Marino Grand Prix, where his race-leading Williams inexplicably speared off the Imola track and hit the concrete wall at Tamburello corner. Millions saw it happen on television, the world mourned his passing and his state funeral in Sao Paulo was attended by many members of the shocked Formula One community. Among the several drivers escorting the coffin was Alain Prost. Among the sad mourners was Frank Williams, who said: “Ayrton was no ordinary person. He was actually a greater man out of the car than in it.”
Text – Gerald Donaldson