Saudade – Lest We All Forget… Ayrton Senna, Racing Driver, tragically killed doing what he loved 17 years ago on this day.

Ayrton Senna – March 21st 1960 – May 1st 1994 – Lest We All Forget


Authors Note: Chris Rea’s melancholy music written as a tribute to this great man can be found here – Chris Rea – Saudade. It is suggested that you listen along to get the atmosphere when reading this article.

Today the 1st of May is a day of celebration, the start of Summer, but for many it is also a day of sadness and reflection, for today is the 17th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest drivers Formula One has ever seen, 3 times World Champion – Ayrton Senna.

I’ve been a Motor Racing Fan for as long as I can remember. My mother almost certainly still has a drawing done by my Uncle, an accomplished Illustrator and Artist, of me aged about five or six in a red racing car typical of the period, around the mid 1960’s.

I have followed Formula One religiously from an early age, through the good times and the bad, I have almost never missed a race live on TV for the last 20 or 30 years, from whenever they started showing every race. I always rise early for the far off races in Australia and the Far East and stay up late on the odd occasion when they’ve been shown in the twilight hours. Formula One is the only sport I really follow, I do watch others like Snooker and Golf but only when I can, but Formula One is my passion.

Imola 1994

I still remember the race of the weekend of 29th April-1st May 1994 at Imola, one of the all time great circuits, the whole weekend was a tragic affair from the very start. Rubens Barrichello had a serious accident in Friday practice and almost died, and Roland Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying on Saturday, 30th April. Sadly Ratzenbergers death is, and probably always will be, overshadowed by the fatal crash on race day, Sunday 1st May.

The race and the crash itself are still quite vivid in my mind, if I sit and think about them as I do around this time of year. As too, is the aftermath – Ayrton Senna was dead, killed in only the third race of the season, a season in which Senna had not had a good start, having not finished in the first two races.

On the occasion of each incident on both Friday and Saturday, Senna was clearly shaken and upset.

Before the race on Sunday, he was seen to be pensive and remote, not going through his usual pre-race routine. He obviously was unsure about whether he wanted to race or not, but out of respect and honour to fellow driver, Roland Ratzenberger, he decided to race, with tragic consequences.

He only made it to Lap 7 after a difficult race start with more incidents and safety cars. Not an auspicious start… which ended in Ayrton Senna’s untimely death.

I remember not being able to function for about a week afterwards. My boss at the time thought I was just being silly, but I’d been following Formula 1 for around 30 years at the time and it hit me hard, so very hard. We had not had a driver killed at the wheel of a Formula One car for 12 years.

Ayrton Senna

What made it worse, I think for me, was that I was never really a fan of Ayrton Senna.

Like Michael Schumacher in his day, I always felt as though Senna liked to push other drivers unfairly but would not, or could not, accept being pushed by them when on the rare occasion someone did. Controversial decisions always seemed to go his way, not because he was always right, he was sometimes wrong and said so, but because of who he was, the great Ayrton Senna. Like Schumacher, he was the greatest and best driver of his era and I admired and respected him for it but I didn’t have to like him. Being English, I was always for the British drivers, in particular at the time, Nigel Mansell and James Hunt before him. During the Schumacher years, I supported David Coulthard and Damon Hill. So it was difficult for me to understand why Senna’s death hit me so hard. But it did.

What could have been

I’ve also never been a big fan of Ferrari. Again I’ve always felt they have got away with far too much because they were Ferrari, a trait in recent years which many other commentators have also raised and commented on.

But what a team Ayrton Senna and Ferrari would have made.

Ayrton Senna, determined, committed, hard driving, focused and at the time simply the best: Ferrari, it’s history as the most successful team in Formula One, it’s commitment to be the best, and… it’s huge budget. Although during the 1990’s they were not quite on form, with Ayrton Senna in the car, you can be sure they would have emerged successful again and probably long before their next Constructors Title in 1999.

The continuing story

That tragic weekend in May 1994 also had a profound affect on the sport and much has changed since then, some for the better and in my opinion, too much for the worse.

The cars now are restricted far too much in the name of safety.

Safety is a good thing but Formula One is about the thrill, the danger, the excitement, the speed!

Every year the rules are changed to slow the cars down or to make it easier to overtake, all in the name of entertainment. Apparently, according to the press and a certain Mr Ecclestone, the fans want to see more overtaking, but read any forum on Formula One and the overall message from fans is ‘Stop changing the rules and allow the drivers to do what they are employed for, Driving. Let’s get back to the time when the drivers were drivers, who employed their talent and skill to fight and win races.’

Unfortunately the sport today is governed by those yearly rule changes and by Gadgets:

Gadgets to make pitstops quicker, which have sometimes caused unforeseen incidents, for example: Massa taking a refueling hose with him almost to the track!.

Gadgets that are not really gadgets but none the less determine the outcome of the race. Tyres. Today we have tyres which cannot even last a race, where drivers are forced to slow down and drive more conservatively to make them last to the end, allowing a slower driver to win the race.

Gadgets to make overtaking easier, KERS and the Adjustable Rear Wing. We’ve only had 3 races this season and already we’ve seen some overtaking made so easy by the Adjustable Rear Wing, that it was like the cars were in different formulae.

This is not racing, it’s an arcade game. What will the FIA come up with next, I wonder?

What would Ayrton Senna have made of it all, if he’d still been around?

He obviously wouldn’t still be racing in Formula One, he would have been 51 this year, a year younger than me. But I’m sure he would still be involved in some form or another.

He would certainly have been in favour of all the safety aspects that have been introduced since that tragic race in 1994, but he was a racer, a hard-charging all out racer.

I’m sure he would have wanted to see drivers with skill and talent, pulling off overtaking moves on their own merit, not just because they can push a button and make the car go a little faster than the car in front, who is not allowed to press his button to conteract. He would have wanted to see battles of will and daring going into corners, seeing who could hold their nerve and brake the latest and win the corner, definitely not what we have now where a driver is only allowed to overtake at certain predefined parts of the track using the gadgets on the car.

Yes it was more dangerous in the old days, but it was also more entertaining, it was a better testament of a drivers skills at the wheel, of his determination and commitment to win.

We can still have all the safety, we already have, the cars are so much better than they were 18 years ago with regards to the safety afforded to the driver, just look at some of the incidents we’ve had in recent years, the flying Australian, Mark Webber last year for example, but we need to remember how it used to be when drivers such as Ayrton Senna were driving and entertaining all Formula One fans around the world, with their pure, driven and unquestionable talent and skill.

So Lest We Forget, we should remember on this day one of the greatest drivers of all time

Ayrton Senna – March 21st 1960 – May 1st 1994
Rest In Peace – You are still missed by so many.

Chris Rea – Saudade

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