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Ayrton Senna's legacy

Maurice Hamilton May 1, 2014
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Ayrton Senna continues to stir as much interest in death as he did when taking part in 161 Grands Prix. When you consider the F1 drivers killed in action during the past 60 years and filter the shockingly high number down to winners and world champions, it is feasible to argue that Senna continues to generate more coverage than the rest put together. Why is that?

There are several reasons, not least because he was charismatic, controversial and blindingly quick. But perhaps the most significant explanation is the context of his fatal accident on May 1, 1994.

To put it bluntly, this was the first time the death of a driver had been broadcast live into the world's living rooms. It may have been 20 years ago, but society was rapidly moving towards a mindset that demanded explanations. Never mind that Senna was competing in an inherently dangerous sport, a reason for the tragedy had to be found and, rightly or wrongly, offered immediately.

Motor sport had moved on from the 1950s and 1960s when fatal accidents were almost a casual 'well, what do you expect?' irrelevance compared with the horrors of World War II. A new sense of responsibility fuelled by an increasingly reactive media was heightened by the sport having been lulled into a sense of safety security thanks to the absence of a fatality in an F1 race for 12 years.

If Roland Ratzenberger's appalling accident stirred subliminal concern, the death of an icon 24 hours later would send 5,000 volts through the system. It would also remind us that motor sport will suffer from freak accidents just as surely as rigorously maintained and marshaled aircraft occasionally fall from the sky. The problem was that such an unfortunate fact was startling news for a younger generation accustomed to seeing racing drivers dusting themselves down and walking away from wrecked cars.

Apart from the establishment of the enormously productive Senna Foundation discussed with his sister Viviane shortly before his death, Ayrton's legacy has been the rapid escalation of safety measures thanks to the tireless work of Max Mosley and the late Professor Sid Watkins.

It's true that the bar would have been raised eventually, perhaps in another 15 or 20 years, but think of the hundreds of thousands of lives that would have been lost on the roads had the process not been shaken from top to bottom by the chilling sight of that Williams at rest in the run-off at Tamburello. Mosley is in no doubt that the introduction of vastly more stringent crash tests for road cars is due directly to the effect of Senna's death.

If the practical implications of Imola 1994 are long-lasting, then personal memories endure just as strongly. Another product of Senna's passing has been more publications about the Brazilian than any other driver.

When approached by McLaren to write a book on their time with Senna, our first thought was how to make it different. The answer was to speak to the people who knew him best; members of his family and McLaren employees past and present who had worked with Ayrton but whose voices had not been heard. The result has been a heart-warming series of anecdotes that paint a revealing picture of the man who won 35 races and three world championships with the team.

It quickly became clear there were two Ayrton Sennas; the gentle, caring, family-orientated man and the intensely focused racing driver. Most of us never saw the former.

It quickly became clear there were two Ayrton Sennas; the gentle, caring, family-orientated man and the intensely focused racing driver. Most of us never saw the former. But many team members did during relaxed moments away from the race track. The moment that best sums this up came at the end of 1993.

When a driver leaves a team, the need to hide weakness and emotion means that his departure is dealt with in a pragmatic and formal manner. 'It was great working with Carlos and we wish him all the best for the future. Now, have you met Luigi? Brilliant driver. We're so fortunate to have him join us. We're in for an exciting season.'

There was none of that when Senna left McLaren. The impression you have is of the team losing a member of family. And the important point is that these memories are not rose-tinted by time and the emotion of his loss. There was huge affection for a driver who could be difficult, did not suffer fools, expected 100% commitment and yet genuinely cared about each and every person working, not for Senna, but with him. The sense of loss expressed at McLaren to this day refers to more than the terrible events on the May 1, 1994 and helps explain why Ayrton Senna da Silva remains unique.

Click here to buy Ayrton Senna - McLaren by Maurice Hamilton (Blink Publishing)

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