Ayrton Senna’s death 20 years on – How 1993 finally made me a Senna Fan

I’ll be honest. When Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola, May 1st, 1994 my opinion of the racing driver and the man changed completely, from being almost hated and despised to respected. Why? He wasn’t the enemy anymore.

I’m comfortable with this admission. 20 years on I am happy to discuss how at the time I was just of starting to appreciate to the Brazilian driver.

I was 14 when he died and I was far from his biggest fan. His loss was more profound to me than that the loss of a generation’s greatest F1 driver. His passing that day was that of a famous person being injured severely live on TV while I watched from the comfort of my living room. Something I was Ill prepared for mentally.

I became an F1 fan in towards the end of the eighties. When exactly, I’m not sure. I remember from an early age than Nigel Mansell was the British hope to get behind and whenever I seem to watch F1 at home with my Dad, Nigel’s grit and determination captured my imagination.

However at the end of the eighties to be a Mansell fan was seen as a joke. He wasn’t winning and was starting to look like the typical “British Lion” that was destined never to win the championship.

That, mainly was in part due to the fact that the Senna and McLaren partnership from 1988 to 1991 won 3 out of 4 championships.  The Brazilian in the red and white car was the man to beat every race, every year.

Don’t get me wrong. Alain Prost was also a key figure in the sport at this time, but Senna, at the height of his powers with his on the limit, aggressive and utterly ruthless driving style was the bench mark for the rest of the F1 during this time.

Senna had driven his way in to the top team in F1 at the time, yet when he got to Mclaren he turned the aggression and speed up to 11, this never more evident that his qualifying performances and wheel to wheel battles with Prost and Mansell, with Senna more so than not, winning through.

However, Senna seemed to have little or no understanding of where the line was for sportsmanship, this never more on display than his 1990 incident with Prost in Suzuka.

From afar, I watched the Senna v Prost era as an impressionable young man. These two racing giants seemed to disregard their responsibility as sporting role models as for two years running they were unable to fight on the track without colliding in two one another and from1990 onwards my perspective of Senna was tarnished. I’ll admit to thinking that Senna has no class, despite his all his speed and skill.

He’d happily take off another driver to win a race or championship. That’s not a wild statement from me, Senna admitted so in 1991. Because of my support towards Mansell I almost by default had no affinity with Senna back then, so it was to easy criticize and get on my high horse and more often than not, that is what I did. To me, despite being the number 1 driver in F1, I saw Senna as reckless and to an extent, out of control.

In 1992 for the first time Senna found himself not driving the best car and his early performances of the 1992 season were telling, confirming to me that Senna was still an incorrectly “programmed” and flawed sportsman.

Take Brazil in 1992: Senna was driving a McLaren that was rushed in to action in response to the dominant Mansell-Williams partnership that had wiped the floor in the early rounds of the season. Shortly in to the race Senna was experiencing difficulties with the McLaren and backing up a large train of cars deployed desperate weaving and blocking tactics as early as lap 5 or 6 in an attempt to keep the others behind.

There were other low key events in 1992 for Senna; Montreal and Adelaide to name just two, with both ending in collisions with Nigel Mansell.  Remember, I will be bias here because of my affinity to Nigel, but it seemed more than coincidence that my favorite driver was once again taken out by the Brazilian. It seemed to confirm my assumption. Senna was the dark side of F1.

However Monaco 1992 was a game changer for me.  I was able to respect the driving skills of both these two fierce competitors without either resorting to crashing in to each other during the race. I really wanted Nigel to win at Monaco, he had never won there (and still hasn’t) but as the pair took the chequered flag I was full of praise for Senna for that drive.

By this time the performance difference between the Williams and McLaren was evident, Nigel was enjoying a huge car performance that Senna had previously for the last 5 years. For the first time Senna was an underdog in battle and proved that racing could indeed be conducted at the highest level without the inevitable contact.

As Mansell and Senna were out maneuvered by Prost for the Williams seat in 1993 and Senna was left to drive a Ford powered McLaren meaning that for the second year running the Brazilian was the underdog yet again and was the 16 races that year turned my opinion about the Brazilian.

1993 was a watershed year for me and my understanding of Senna, mainly because there was no Nigel Mansell. F1 seemed empty from the start of that season. To me I was left with the two drivers I had no personal affinity to, Prost and Senna. One had taken my favorite driver’s seat at Williams, the other who spent that last two years trying to get in to it. For the first time in F1 I was a neutral with no clear favourite, but then came Donington Park and the European Grand Prix.

I went to my first Grand Prix that day. It wasn’t with my Dad, but a friend of my Mum’s and his son. I remember almost backing out the night before, thinking I would enjoy it. To be honest up until the green light I wasn’t. Standing on the boggy bank down at the old hairpin in the cold rain that grey Easter Sunday seemed to be the worst decision I had made as a 13 year old, but then came Senna’s now legendary performance.

I was transfixed for lap after lap. How could Senna in an inferior car walk all over both Williams in such a dominant fashion. Senna looked on the limit,he was flying. Prost and Hill less so, pedestrian almost. The qualities in Ayrton I had become ignorant to a few years before were now brought together in a masterful performance of the highest level.

I knew as I was driven home that day that my perception of Senna was going to change, it had to change. How could you deny the man’s brilliance in such tricky conditions?

1993 was tough on Ayrton, he probably had the third fastest car to the Benetton of Schumacher and Prost’s Williams, who were both enjoying factory engines, so the final couple of race wins from Senna in Japan and Australia capped off a year that despite not winning the title he had probably won many admirers for his performances.

As we know, Senna got his move to Williams in 1994 and with Damon Hill as his team mate due to Prost’s retirement, Senna was the only “heavy weight” driver left in F1. An opportunity had been made for a younger breed of drivers to step up to the mark. Senna would be the hunted, expected to win while the hot shots of Schumacher, Hakkinen and Hill would have a clear opportunity to put pressure on the established Senna. Senna was a marked man again.

Throughout winter testing in 1994 as pictures broke of the new Rothmans Williams in its now iconic livery, it seemed a perfect fit for his destiny and his 4th World Championship. How different it was.

Both the Brazilian and Pacific Grand Prix’s couldn’t have gone worse for Ayrton. I’ll admit that yet again it was mildly amusing to see the championship favorite stumbling early on but by the time the championship reached Imola I now didn’t want Schumacher to win, the narrative I wanted for that weekend was for Senna to get back on track in the championship and for the early lead that Schumacher had built to start to be eroded.

Imola 1994 was the first race I actually wanted Senna to win. I remember watching Friday practice on Eurosport and seeing Senna struggle and fight the car. I knew and understood  at that point that Senna had a massive fight on his hands just to keep the car on the track. His determination and skill were now being tested to the maximum. I was backing the underdog again.

The events of the San Marino Grand Prix have been written and re written many times, and this 20th anniversary will provide another opportunity to go through the terrible events that day yet again, but for me his death had an impact on me not because of the relative loss of the driver or the legend, but it was in fact the first time I had been exposed to real life death.

The vulnerability of life was my overriding emotion on the Bank Holiday Monday, the day after as I sat with my family reading through the papers. I had never had any reason to believe that racing drivers could killed. Sure, it had happened in the past. It happened in the books and magazines I read. Giles Villeneuve died in a book I read, it was never on live TV.  The Senna accident and aftermath were broadcast live for hours and endless news reports went on for days after.

This was the moment the fragility of life and death hit home as a 14 year old.

As the tributes and the emotions from Imola 1994 have been reflected upon I came to fully appreciate the multiple facets of Ayrton Senna.  As a Mansell fan I had been on the wrong end of his driving style many times but thankfully 1993 presented an opportunity for me to appreciate the man’s skill for what it was. The highest. The pinnacle of the sport.

Now with countless films, books and documentaries F1 fans are allowed to see Senna in a romantic way. A racing God if you like, and I am certainly not one to argue that statement, however I spent most of the time he was alive driving unappreciative of the man because of his cold hearted ruthlessness, yet just before his untimely death I was a convert.

20 years on, there hasn’t been a driver to divide my emotions. Schumacher came close but the advantage he enjoyed over his competition in the early 2000’s brings his achievement down, in my opinion.

I did miss Senna as a racing driver after Imola 1994 and really felt the impact of his death on the sport, not just the changes to safety and circuits but in the driving spectacle he brought. I feel, however that I would have liked Ayrton Senna the man, the human even more had he made it round the Tamburello in’94 and we’d all been able to see him take the fight to Schumacher.

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