The poem had been written that day and pinned on the fence alongside a bunch of flowers, heads bowed in the rain. Per Roberta ed Ayrton, September 1st, 1994. The wall on the far side of the track had been painted battleship grey, but an ugly, diagonal gash betrayed the force with which Senna’s spinning Williams had rammed it four months before.

“Ciao, Ayrton” read a message daubed in blood red on the concrete. The thunder and rain echoed the storm which had broken the night after Senna’s death and sharpened the sense of foreboding. The Tamburello Curve at Imola, flanked by tall trees and high fencing, is a forbidding, joyless and lonely shrine.

Senna in Williams garage at Imola 1994

My journey to a bleak corner of an Italian motor racing circuit on a dismal September morning was driven partly by gratitude, partly by curiosity. I wanted to see where a great champion had died and pay tribute to his brilliance. Senna, 34, had been the Formula One world champion three times, won 41 of his 161 grands prix, claimed a record 65 pole positions and set 19 fastest laps.

The Brazilian’s greatness transcended the ordinary boundaries of sport and nationality, race and creed. He was Brazil’s pulse, but he was everyone’s hero, a man who controlled life in a way not open to ordinary mortals and whose death brought mortality a step closer for a generation. I also wanted to chart Senna’s emotional course through that turbulent weekend. Tamburello, where a steady trickle of visitors come to stare at the wall and leave flowers, keepsakes and flags, seemed a good place to start.

Even before the death of Roland Ratzenberger made him realise for the first time the true price of his profession, Senna faced enormous pressures at Imola. He was adjusting to a new team, a difficult car and a different routine. At McLaren, he had been treated like the only son in a big family; at Williams, he was the newest employee in a successful business. There was no time to settle in: Senna and Williams were expected to win immediately. Yet they had not scored a point in the first two races and Senna was convinced that Michael Schumacher, who had won both, was driving an illegal car. But Senna, the master psychologist, could control those forces and turn them into challenges.

Ratzenberger’s death was different. It was uncontrollable, beyond comprehension and Senna, who regarded himself as the guardian of the close-knit community of Formula One drivers, took it personally. Senna had outlined plans for an independent commission to oversee safety at the end of 1993, but shelved them because of the two-race suspended ban hanging over him. In the last 24 hours of his life, he began to renew the crusade almost as if he was trying to atone for not doing more.

Contrary to his reputation, Senna had known fear, but, with the help of his faith and his intellect, he had rationalised it into an unnerving force. He spoke eloquently and coolly about needing to explore his limits every time he stepped into a racing car. But he had never known doubt: about his own abilities, about the meaning of the sport which was his life, about his own mortality and his own beliefs. Senna was sensitive, gentle, thoughtful, courageous, intelligent, loyal, honest, humble. He was also temperamental, arrogant, ruthless, single-minded, opinionated, obstinate and possessed of a frightening will to win. Ratzenberger’s death brought the halves of his character into insoluble conflict. Senna knew he had to win at Imola to resist Schumacher’s charge and restore some credibility. He also knew instinctively that he did not want to race. If he had won the opening two races of the season, he might have considered withdrawing. He was, according to some reports, given the option to do so. But to pull out of this race would have been an irreversible sign of weakness and he would not contemplate it. His belief that Ratzenberger had been killed instantly and that, therefore, under Italian law, the track should have been closed reflected his desperate search for a way out of the emotional impasse.

Those close to Senna refuse to believe that he could have made a mistake at a curve as straightforward as Tamburello. Blaming a machine is far less complicated, though the hints of vulnerability only enhance the man. The results of an investigation into his death by the University of Bologna, due any day, will reveal some of the truth. Not all. That Sunday morning, Senna’s mind was still in freefall, full not of premonition of his own death but of a terrible uncertainty. Without him, the season has spun crazily on through rancour, suspicion, suspension and argument. But you do not have to scratch the tough skin of Formula One hard to draw blood. “I still cannot believe I will not see him, walking down the paddock with his yellow helmet,” Jo Ramirez, Senna’s closest friend at McLaren, said. For him and a million others, the season was defined for eternity on the afternoon of May 1.

Thursday April 28 (4pm): The helicopter carrying Ayrton Senna to the San Marino Grand Prix landed on the infield at the Imola circuit. With Senna were the president of Ducati, the firm making the Senna motorbike, and the chief executive of TAG-Heuer, who was masterminding the production of a Senna watch.

The Brazilian’s plane, an eight-seat British Aerospace HS125, had been taken by Owen O’Mahony, his personal pilot, straight to the little airfield at Forli. The landing fees were cheaper there than at Bologna and Senna, for all his millions, was not one to throw money away. Senna had been in Padua in the morning, launching a Senna mountain bike, but he wanted to see his Williams team before going on to the hotel. He checked on the car’s preparations and talked to Richard West, director of marketing for Williams, about his promotional commitments.

5 pm: Senna arrived at the Castello, a small hotel run by the jovial Valentino Tosoni, on the outskirts of Castel San Pietro, a spa town about 10 kilometres west of Imola. The Castello was the McLaren team’s hotel and Senna had stayed there for the San Marino Grand Prix since 1989. He always booked the same room, No200, a junior suite costing Pounds 150 a night consisting of a bedroom, a bathroom and a small sitting-room and he was not going to change his habits just because he had changed teams.

Frank Williams, the team managing director, occupied the room below, but most of the team stayed elsewhere. Ron Dennis, Senna’s old boss at McLaren, was in the room above. Senna knew Tosoni well and Tosoni understood the routine of his most famous client. He had already ordered extra supplies of profiteroles, Senna’s favourite dessert.

Senna travelled light to races. He did not need a vast entourage but liked to relax with friends away from the track. That weekend he was accompanied by his brother, Leonardo, Julian Jakobi, his business manager, Antonio Braga, an old friend from Brazil, Galvao Bueno, a journalist with Brazil’s TV Globo, one of the few journalists Senna trusted, Celso Lemos, managing director of Senna Licensing in Brazil, Josef Leberer, his physio and dietician, and Ubirajara Guimaraes, the head of Senna Imports. It was a bigger party than usual.

The one notable absentee was Adriane Galisteu, Senna’s girlfriend and, according to many, his future wife, who had become an increasingly familiar figure at the racetrack but who was not returning to Faro, Senna’s European base, until late the next day after finishing an English course in Brazil. Mindful perhaps of Leonardo and the delicate relationships with his family and of the importance of the weekend to his chances of a fourth world championship, Senna had decided she should stay in Portugal. Senna dined in the hotel that evening steak, pasta, profiteroles and mineral water was the standard menu and returned to his room at about 10pm, his usual curfew hour during race meetings. He rarely went to bed before midnight, but was a notoriously late riser.

Friday April 29 (9.30am): Free practice, timed but not counting towards qualifying, began. Senna completed 22 laps, recording a fastest time of 1min 21.598sec, more than a second faster than his team-mate, Damon Hill.

1.14pm: Fourteen minutes into the first qualifying session, Senna completed the fastest lap. Moments later, as he was returning to the pits, the Jordan of Rubens Barrichello hit the kerb in the middle of the 140mph Variante Bassa chicane, hurtled through the air, cleared a metre-high tyre barrier and smashed against a debris fence. The crash looked horrific, reminiscent of Gerhard Berger’s five years before, and it stunned Senna, who regarded Barrichello as his heir, the keeper of the tradition of great Brazilian racing drivers.

There are conflicting reports about Senna’s immediate reaction. Senna did not see the accident himself but sent Betise Assumpcao, his personal assistant, to the Jordan pits to find out more. Owen O’Mahony, Senna’s pilot who happened to be in the pits, thought that Senna had gone straight to the medical centre. Senna certainly went to the centre. Finding the front door blocked, he vaulted a fence to get in the back. Barrichello, who regained consciousness minutes after the accident, found Senna looking over him. “The first face I saw was Ayrton’s,” Barrichello recalled later. “He had tears in his eyes. I had never seen that with Ayrton before. I just had the impression he felt as if my accident was like one of his own.” The tears were the first of many that weekend, but within minutes Senna was back in the cockpit.

1.40pm: The qualifying session resumed. Senna bettered his time immediately and just before the close set what was to prove the quickest time of the weekend, a lap of 1min 21.548sec at an average of 138.2mph. The lap, in a car still unfamiliar to him and in the emotional aftermath of Barrichello’s crash, was an emphatic reminder of Senna’s supreme skill and courage.

But there was already a fragment of evidence that Senna was not as single-minded as usual. Walking past the Williams garage during practice, O’Mahony was surprised to hear Senna call him. “Owen, I have something for you,” Senna said, diving into his briefcase and producing three signed photographs of himself with O’Mahony. “That was odd,” O’Mahony said. “I had been meaning to ask him for the pictures for a long time, but never got around to it. He had made a particular point of doing them for me anyway. The other odd thing was that he gave them to me in the middle of testing. It was all so out of character for him to think about anything other than racing. It was almost as if he wanted to tie up some loose ends.”

Senna was not happy with his car. He had a long and animated discussion with his race engineer, David Brown, and later that afternoon, having arranged to meet a small group of journalists to talk about his business interests, cut short the interview because of a “big engineering problem” with the car.

Mark Fogarty of Carweek magazine, a well-known figure in Formula One, was one of the group. He recalled: “I was struck at the time by how much effort he had to make to focus on our questions. If Senna agreed to do an interview, he would always give it his full attention. Sometimes, he even took so long answering a question you wondered if he had heard it, but he was simply thinking about the implications. This time, he just wasn’t focused. His answers were halting and he looked glazed as if he was mentally worn out.”

After 20 minutes, Senna left to talk to Brown again. The journalists waited for an hour, but when Senna came back he postponed the rest of the interview until after qualifying the next day. He was too tired, he said, and it was too late. After leaving the circuit at 8pm, Senna dined at the Trattoria Romagnola, a small restaurant in Castel San Pietro, where his regular menu was antipasta, Parma ham, tagliatelle with a plain tomato sauce and fruit. He took no coffee, no alcohol, and liked his mineral water carbonated and slightly warm. He returned to his room just after 11pm.

Saturday April 30 (9.30am):

During the second free practice session, Senna completed 19 laps with a best time of 1min 22.03sec. At 1pm, the second qualifying session started.

1.18pm: Almost 24 hours to the minute after Barrichello’s breathtaking escape, Formula One’s 12-year run of good luck ran out. Unlike the Brazilian, Roland Ratzenberger, the popular Austrian, had no chance of survival. Witnesses said his Simtek car took off and hurtled at a speed of almost 200mph into a concrete retaining wall on the outside of the Villeneuve curve before careering back into the middle of the track. Ratzenberger suffered massive injuries and was taken to the medical centre before being flown to Bologna’s Maggiore Hospital.

2.15pm: The death of Ratzenberger was confirmed, the first at a grand prix since Ricardo Paletti was killed at Montreal in 1982. Drivers know when accidents look bad and Senna, who had seen it on the monitor as he prepared to go out in the Williams, went straight to the back of the garage and covered his face with his hands. He feared the worst and went to see for himself. Hurrying down the pit lane, he commandeered a safety car and drove down through the Tamburello Curve to the scene of the accident.

He arrived just after the Austrian had been taken to the medical centre, but saw the debris scattered over the track, the car twisted and lifeless. Having driven back to the pits, Senna went to find Professor Sid Watkins, the head of the international motor sport federation (FIA) medical commission. He wanted further news. Despite an age difference of more than 30 years, Senna and Watkins had forged a firm friendship. It was Watkins’s grim task to tell Senna of Ratzenberger’s death, the first in Formula One for 186 grands prix. Watkins recalled Senna’s reaction. “He was very shocked. He had never faced the reality of his profession before so starkly because no one had been killed during his time in Formula One. He was always fatalistic about death; he was a religious man and intelligent enough to think it through.

This was the first time it had come so close. He was very quiet, but he remained resolute, not questioning out loud the meaning of his sport or his own position.” Watkins and Senna talked for about five minutes. In the meantime, Martin Whitaker, the press officer of the FIA, had also gone to the medical centre for further news of Ratzenberger. He saw Watkins and Senna talking and hung back. “When they had finished, I asked Senna if he knew what had happened. He didn’t reply. He just looked at me and walked away,” Whitaker said. “I won’t forget the look. To say it was fear would be over the top. He was just very worried. There was something different about him. You can see it in the photos of him that weekend.”

When the qualifying session was resumed, Senna had no appetite for racing. Williams withdrew and he went back to the motorhome where he was left alone with Damon Hill and Hill’s wife, Georgina. Betise Assumpcao was also there for a time. “His spirits were so low. I just stroked his head, talked to him a little, but he was very quiet,” she recalled. Hill has never confirmed reports that Senna broke down and had to be calmed by him but Frank Williams was concerned enough about Senna’s emotional state to ask for a meeting with him later in the evening. He checked with Assumpcao how Senna was. Meanwhile Senna declined to attend the traditional pole position winner’s press conference. He should have been fined, but Whitaker advised that no action should be taken. His advice was heeded.

3 pm: Senna was called from the motorhome to attend a meeting of the race stewards. The stewards wanted to reprimand Senna for taking an official car to the scene of Ratzenberger’s crash. Senna was in no mood to accept the censure of the FIA and the race director, John Corsmit.

Corsmit’s point was legitimate. He said that Senna should not have taken a car without permission, however extreme the circumstances. Senna, still emotional, replied that he represented all the drivers, was a three-times world champion and concerned about Ratzenberger and about the safety of the track. He had also, he pointed out, got the permission of a pit-lane official before getting into the car. The exchange was highly charged, with Senna at one point shouting: “At least someone is concerned about safety.”

Corsmit, an old but respected adversary of Senna’s, took no further action. He thought the Brazilian was not himself the whole weekend. “He seemed bothered by lots of other things.” Senna was certainly too upset to continue his interview from the previous evening or to pose with the bride and groom when he returned to the Castello to find a wedding reception in full swing.

The strain on his face and his manner struck Fogarty so forcefully, almost four hours after Ratzenberger’s death, he told colleagues that night that he felt Senna had a sense of foreboding. “I know you can look back and make sense of a lot of things,” Fogarty said. “But I just got the impression he had a really bad feeling about it. He just looked dreadful.” Senna agreed to complete the interview by phone later in the week. Senna called Galisteu twice that night, the first time before dinner. He told her that he did not feel like racing the next day, but said nothing about fears for his own life. He felt it would be morally wrong to race. “He was shaken. Crying, really crying,” she said. “He told me he did not want to race. He had never spoken like that.”

Galisteu told Senna he did not have to race. Senna said he had to, it was his job. Later, after a dinner at the Romagnola which was planned as a celebration of Josef Leberer’s birthday but was, in the words of Julian Jakobi, a “sombre affair”, Senna found the message from Frank Williams and went to see him in his room. According to the Williams team, Senna seemed much calmer and more positive than he had been in the afternoon and confirmed that he would be ready to drive the next day. He also called Galisteu again, sounding, she recalled, in far better spirits. Senna said he was going to race, but that he couldn’t wait for the whole thing to be over. His last words to her were: “Come and pick me up at Faro airport at 8.30pm tomorrow. I can’t wait to see you.”

Sunday May 1 (7.30am): Senna was woken by a familiar voice on the telephone. “Baggage service”. It was O’Mahony, wanting to know what time to pick up the bags from the hotel. He also acted as Senna’s early morning alarm call. Senna flew by helicopter to the track and was comfortably fastest in the morning warm-up session. He told David Brown not to change anything on the car. He also recorded a televised lap for TF1, the French television network, for whom Alain Prost was working. “I would like to say welcome to my old friend, Alain Prost,” Senna said over the radio. “Tell him we miss him very much.” As the pair had been long-standing enemies and had barely spoken to each other for several years, the olive branch was quite unexpected. Prost was deeply touched and the pair talked “really talked” Prost said for a long time in the paddock that day.

Senna wanted the Frenchman to become involved in the safety commission. Prost agreed that they would meet before the Monaco Grand Prix two weeks later. Senna also talked intensely to Niki Lauda, another three-times world champion, that morning, enlisting the Austrian’s help too.

11 am: Senna went with Gerhard Berger, his old McLaren team-mate, to the drivers’ briefing. The meeting was short, but animated. The drivers stood in silence for a minute in memory of Ratzenberger. Senna was particularly concerned about the use of the pace car on the warm-up lap. The car had been used for the first time at the Pacific Grand Prix in Japan two weeks earlier to keep the field bunched before the start. Senna said the car did not go fast enough to get the tyres properly warmed up and, along with Berger, proposed that it should not be used again. He was also worried that the safety car, brought out to slow the race in the event of an accident, would also not be fast enough. From the drivers’ meeting, Senna went to the Williams hospitality area where, in a well-rehearsed show, he and Hill entertained the Williams guests with a corner-by-corner commentary on the track and a few comments about the weekend. Senna had not wanted to go, but knew promotion was part of the job.

12 pm: Senna began his preparations for the race. Usually, he ate a light lunch, then shut himself away to gather his thoughts. Often, at McLaren, he would turn the driving seat of the motorhome round and read his bible. He had his bible in his briefcase that weekend, but nobody saw whether he read it that morning.

1.30pm: Half an hour before the start, Senna went to the Williams garage. Jaime Brito, a Brazilian journalist, was with Senna in the garage and asked him to sign three pictures. It was the first time he had asked Senna for an autograph. “The photos were so sad. I remarked about it at the time,” he said. In Brazil, the images of Senna, the people’s hero, the symbol of Brazilian nationhood, looking gaunt and pale, were to shock and haunt the nation for weeks. “He did something that day I had never seen him do before,” Brito recalled. “He walked round the car, looked at the tyres, rested on the rear wing, almost as if he was suspicious of the car.”

His manner was also different. Betise Assumpcao recalled: “He usually had a particular way of pulling on his balaclava and helmet, determined and strong as if he was looking forward to the race. That day, you could tell just from the way he was putting on his helmet that he didn’t want to race. He was not thinking he was going to die, he really thought he would win that race, but he just wanted to get it over with and go home. He wasn’t there, he was miles away.” He also broke his usual routine on the starting grid by taking his helmet off. While most other drivers get out of their cars on the grid, waiting for the start, once in the car Senna almost always stayed in the cockpit, concentrating on the first corner. Assumpcao was more assured by the look in Senna’s eyes moments before the start.

2 pm: The starting light turned green and the cars, headed by Senna, streamed into the first turn. But there was trouble on the grid. Pedro Lamy’s Lotus slammed into the back of JJLehto’s Benetton which had stalled on the start line, scattering debris all over the track. A wheel flew over the debris fencing injuring nine people.

2.03pm: The safety car came out as the debris was cleared. Senna followed at a respectful distance, with Michael Schumacher, Berger and Hill behind him.

2.15pm: The Williams pit radioed to Senna that the safety car was about to pull off. Senna acknowledged the information. It was the last contact. When the race began again, Senna and Schumacher quickly opened a gap on the rest of the field.

2.17pm: Taking the Tamburello Curve for the second time after the restart, Senna’s Williams veered off the track just after the apex of the bend at a speed of 190mph and slammed into an unprotected concrete retaining wall. The front right side of the car took the full brunt of the impact, a wheel flew off, the suspension crumpled and the Williams catapulted back onto the track. In the split second before the car hit the wall, Senna had managed to slow it to 130mph. The monocoque had stayed intact and a slight movement of Senna’s head gave brief cause for hope. But he had suffered massive head injuries. Aerial pictures of the car, blood seeping from it like oil, were seen by millions of television viewers. Senna was lifted from the wreckage and taken by helicopter to the Maggiore Hospital. On board, doctors fought to revive Senna’s heart.

2.55pm: Thirty-seven minutes after Senna’s crash, the race was restarted. Berger led for the first 11 laps before pitting and retired on lap 14. He went straight to the hospital. In Faro, Galisteu had seen the accident on television and, for an instant, was pleased because Senna would be home early. She soon realised the full horror and was called by Luiza Braga, Antonio’s wife, who had arranged a plane to fly them both to Senna’s bedside. The journey was in vain. The plane turned back soon after leaving Faro.

4.20pm: Schumacher crossed the line to win his third successive grand prix. Soon after, electrical brain tests confirmed that Senna was brain dead and being kept alive only by artificial means. Under Italian law, doctors are not allowed to turn off the machines for 12 hours. But even this support proved insufficient.

6.40pm: The chief medical officer, Dr Maria Theresa Fiandri, pronounced Ayrton Senna dead.

Back at the track, in the shattered remains of Senna’s car, they discovered a furled Austrian flag Senna had intended to dedicate his 42nd grand prix victory to Ratzenberger’s memory.

Copyright © 1994 The London Times.