26 years after his tragic death on the racing track, the Brazilian champion lives on in the hearts of those who loved him and worn with pride on their skin
Over the course of his Formula One career – ten long years from 1984 to 1994 – Ayrton Senna Da Silva won three world titles (1988, 1990 and 1991), forty-one victories overall, and a total of sixty-five pole positions. Numbers which speak for themselves, but only go some way towards explaining the greatness of a driver who, even while still alive, had already become a true motor racing legend.
Senna was in fact “programmed to win”, to use a famous and much quoted aphorism of his. On the racetrack, he would never to give up – especially under adverse conditions – and his aggressive driving style was as adored by the public as it was deplored by his adversaries over the years (Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Berger , and the rest) who regularly wound up coming in behind him.
And yet, despite the controversy, Senna did drive fair and was always the most meticulous of the whole circus as regards the preparation of the vehicle. Whether it was a modest Toleman, a standard Lotus or the decidedly more aggressive McLaren and Williams. His greatest virtue, which at times turned into a vice, was undoubtedly the obsessive perfectionism he took to his job.
According to critics, his road holding was practically perfect and his speed during races was never in any way limited by weather conditions: the three times world champion from San Paolo went fast, really fast, whether the track was dry or wet.
Another distinctive trait was his genuine attachment to his Christian faith. The faith which in November 1988 in Suzuka, led him to actually see God on the race track during his last lap on a circuit where he won his first world title.
“He told me had come down to Earth for a moment to congratulate me…”, is what is told stunned reporters in the press room. Arrogant? If anything, he was possessed of a rare sensitivity. Sensitive in a sport where money and a movie star presence often, especially nowadays, counted more than true talent. Something Senna had in spades.
Just like the fierce self-denial Ayrton cultivated from a tender age when he learned to drive fast on a wet track. He did it when he was in kart racing and one day a friend humiliated him during a race held during a torrential rain shower. Senna didn’t take it that well (to put it mildly) and, because of that defeat, went back to the kart racing track every time it poured rain. He did it for months, years, until he became a specialist and known as the “rain master” as he is still remembered today in 2020.
He drove just four cars in Formula 1: the Toleman, Lotus and McLaren mentioned above, and the fatal Williams Renault FW16 of that fateful 1994 season. He would have liked to drive a Ferrari too, and it seems that in 1990 the Brazilian champion had even signed a pre-contract with Cesare Fiorio, the then sports director at Ferrari.
Pity that Fiorio got the heave ho at the end of 1991 and negotiations with Senna went no further. On the initiative of Jean Todt talks resumed of Senna in a Ferrari for the 1995, but Ayrton’s death (on May 1st 994, San Marino Grand Prix at the “Enzo e Dino Ferrari” track in Imola) meant it was not to be.
Senna’s father, Milton Da Silva, once told a journalist that his son, maybe at the end of his career, would have liked to race at least one season in a humble Minardi because of the high esteem in which he held the Faenza car builder Gian Carlo Minardi. Money would have been no issue there, as Ayrton would have worked practically for free with the sole objective of improving the Italian car.
Senna was laid to rest on 3rd May 1994 in the Morumbi cemetery in San Paolo and his gravestone bears a quote from the Bible, his favourite book: “Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus”, (“Nothing can separate me from the love of God”), from the Letter to the Romans 8:38-39.
Since that tragic day in 1994, somewhere on the Williams cars, there is always a little Senna logo, the famous stylised “S”, in his memory. And the owner of the team, Frank Williams, has a poster of the Brazilian champion on the wall behind his desk in his private office in Grove in the heart of Oxfordshire. The few people who have ever seen it say it is really lovely…