“Every era has someone who changes the sport and he was one of those people.”
The words of Damon Hill when remembering Ayrton Senna, the charismatic and iconic Brazilian driver whose talent behind the wheel of a racing car ensured he transcended the sport in which he made his name.
Wednesday, May 1 marks the 25th anniversary of the triple world champion’s death at the San Marino Grand Prix. Imola 1994 was a dark and traumatic weekend for Formula 1.
Roland Ratzenberger, the Austrian Simtek driver, was killed in an accident in Saturday qualifying. Senna then lost his life in a crash during the following day’s race.
A quarter of a century has passed, yet Senna and his career story remain as inspirational and illuminating as they ever have. So what was it about a brilliant yet intense racing driver from Sao Paulo that so captivated the world? Sky Sports F1’s Damon Hill and Johnny Herbert, who raced against Senna and were part of the grid on that fateful Imola weekend, give illuminating first-hand insights into the Brazilian below – while journalist Mark Hughes recalls Senna the driver.
“Every era has someone who changes the sport and I think he was one of those people. He changed the sport, he changed the approach. He was far more aggressive and far more committed, to the point of almost craziness. But he had such self-belief, and I think that inspired people – I think they were fascinated by him”
“I think he was a bit of a shock to the system when he arrived in Formula 1 because he was audacious. I think that’s why everyone wanted to have him in their team, because they knew that this was the guy who would give everything he absolutely had to get the very last drops out of that car.
“Sometimes it went wrong, sometimes he went too far – but fans loved him and he was a massive, massive symbol of hope and success to Brazilians, and people around the world.
“He had an air of uniqueness about him and he was also not messing about, he was a very serious person. He wasn’t here to have fun, he was clearly here to do business. So he was quite intimidating from that point of view. But whatever attitude he had off the track, it was backed up by his results on the track. It wasn’t like he was putting on airs or graces, he was the real deal.”
“I knew him from karting and the first thing I always remember was that he did things differently to everybody else. He was always thinking outside of the box.”
“And I think that strength allowed him to get the absolute maximum out of the team, and then he was able to produce the purest racing car for when he was able to get in and show those skills, like he did at Donington Park in 1993. It’s that type of skill that is very rare. The only one that sticks out now is Lewis Hamilton. The way he thinks about it, adapts to things, works very hard to produce a perfect car for qualifying.
“The pure skill he had seemed to work in the wet weather, in dry weather, in a race, in qualifying. He was almost like the complete package. It was always a challenge for him, and I think that challenge was to show he was the best.”
Mark Hughes, F1 journalist
“Two things about him that stood out, the obvious one is the amazing level of talent – the God-given talent that was just off the scale, that very few others have had. Through all the years of the sport, you can probably put others of that calibre, in terms of natural gift, on one hand.
“But what made him even more powerful was the emotionally-driven focus that he had to prove, every time he got in the car, his level. It wasn’t just about racking up the win and doing the minimum required, it was about showing the world, showing everybody what his level was. Which led to emotionally-driven decisions that you would conventionally say were errors. Thinking of the race in Monaco in 1988 in particular. But that was part of the parcel, so you can’t say he shouldn’t have done that. It’s all part of the same package.
“Sometimes, as part of his focus, he almost had to focus on having an enemy to make himself go even higher. History decided that Alain Prost was that focus but it could have been anyone I think, it was just whoever was the top guy at the time. Prost has since said that he amazed at how friendly Ayrton was as soon as Prost retired.”