20 years ago to the day, the world lost one if greatest competitors. Formula 1 was still in mourning and shock following the death of Roland Ratzenberger just the day before, the first death at a Grand Prix weekend in 12 years. Safety was greatly improved between the 70's and 80's, where death and injury in the sport went from being common occurrences to rare anomalies. As the cars got faster and more complex over the 80's though, the sport became complacent over the safety of the drivers, and many foresaw the warning signs creeping back to haunt motorsport.
The Grand Prix Drivers Association had been disbanded since 1982, the group having been responsible for much of the safety improvements up to that time. Having seen those warning signs, the drivers opted to reform the group, and on the morning of the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 action was finally taken to look into the safety once again. The death of Roland Ratzenberger was the spark needed to take action, but where safety is concerned it shouldn't take an incident to start the action. On it's reform, Ayrton Senna was appointed one of the groups directors mere hours before his own death.
Ayrton Senna never left any doubt when it came to commitment, leaving absolutely nothing on the table in terms of his driving, his technological understanding of the cars and even his sportsmanship. He was a pure thoroughbred in the sport, accepting nothing less than winning every race. His career was defined by races in which he either won spectacularly or risked just a little more than possible.
I was not even 5 years old when Senna passed away 20 years ago, so do not personally remember him driving. I started watching Formula 1 just a couple of years later though, and supported the Williams team initially before really understanding the sport and supporting the McLaren team and their ethos. Even in modern time though, Formula 1 fans can't escape the legacy left by one of Brazil's greatest legends. I regularly end up on YouTube watching video after video of his races, his TV appearances, and recently of course the incredible Senna documentary film.
My own fondest memory is looking back to the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix weekend. Ayrton Senna is captured brilliantly in 1 race, despite not even winning it. It was at the Monaco Grand Prix that he had first been able to show his raw talent driving the Toleman in 1984. It was Alain Prost in the McLaren that had denied him the win by virtue of the race being stopped early due to rain. Now driving for the same team, the drivers had the same machinery and the same expectation of winning. The McLaren MP4/4 was by far the best car, so it was a straight fight between the pair to realise that expectation. From the very first practice session, Senna dominated. Alain Prost was 1.2 seconds faster than Gerhard Berger in the Ferrari during qualifying, highlighting the advantage of the McLaren. Ayrton Senna was 1.4 seconds faster than Alain Prost, highlighting his own dominance over his team mate. His pole position lap is shown below, which he later when on to describe:
I was already on pole, then by half a second and then one second and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. Not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit was a tunnel. I was just going and going, more and more and more and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more.
He maintained the advantage in the race, pulling out a huge gap to Alain Prost and closing to within 12 laps of a certain victory for him. In order to protect that win and a 1-2 finish for the team, he was told to slow down and bring the car home. He duly lost concentration and crashed into the wall at Portier, handing victory to Alain Prost. 100% or nothing. He was full of anger as he stormed away from his wrecked car, and disappeared back to his home for the rest of the day.
Away from his circuit antics however, there was a man in deep connection with his Brazilian roots. He placed the pressures of his home country on his shoulders, feeling it was his destiny to lead the country away from the poverty and fighting that had consumed Brazil. He donated money but always wanted to do more and be involved on a more personal level. The Instituto Ayrton Senna was begun in his memory by his sister, and continues the hard work that he started in enriching the lives of Children across Brazil. He was buried a national hero, and will forever be remembered as fondly outside of Formula 1 as he is within the paddock.