Twenty years ago today, Ayrton Senna da Silva was killed at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, in Imola, Italy. The images from the tragic day are burned strongly into the memory – the veering off of his car as seen from Michael Schumacher’s onboard camera; the force with which he hit the wall; the slight movement of his head that seemed to give us hope but actually denoted a serious brain injury; the slightly listing wreckage of the Williams FW16 seen from behind the wall at Tamburello. Twenty years on, they live in the mind of every F1 fan still.
So much has been written and said about Ayrton Senna. He was supremely gifted, a force of nature; a man possessed of messianic self-assurance that frequently justified itself on the racetrack. He was also flawed – that self-belief bordered on the insane, and Senna was accused of endangering others on occasion. But his personal charisma, his magnetism, radiated even through a television set. It continues to do so today, through online videos, through the eponymous film, and above all through the mystique that surrounds him in stories. It may be that we as humans have a need to believe in preternatural qualities, but Senna can still provide us with a very good excuse to dream.
So how good was he on track? Late-nineties and early noughties revisionism suggested the level of admiration, beatification even, in the wake of his death was excessive. As Schumacher swept all before him in the dominant Ferraris of that era, the last we had seen of Senna was a man frantically trying to keep an unwieldy car ahead of his young pretender German rival. Perhaps it was even Schumacher’s speed which prompted the mistake some believe Senna made at his final corner. Indeed, Senna could not countenance the idea that Schumacher was quicker – he had alleged that the Benetton team were using illegal traction control. So we thought that had he lived, Senna would have lost out to Schumacher in 1994 and the cyclical nature of the sport would be clear once again. Schumacher even topped Senna in some ‘all-time greatest’ lists.
But then. What has happened since has given us cause to re-evaluate Schumacher. We now know, as we didn’t in the Schumacher-Byrne-Brawn era, that he had preferential tyre data at the time. We also share a consensus that his contemporaries of the time – Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Coulthard – don’t really merit inclusion in a class with Schumacher. So with a vastly superior car and no rivals to speak of, Schumacher won a lot. How many times did Senna have a vastly superior car and no rivals? Never at the same time…
So you turn to today. We have three contemporary drivers I believe will rank alongside or at least up there with the truly illustrious names in the sport – Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment: Hamilton makes mistakes often. Vettel appears to crack under pressure. Alonso has failed to galvanise a team.
Compare them to Senna. He and Hamilton share teams and one-lap speed; he and Vettel share ability to dominate a race and brilliance in down-the-grid teams; he and Alonso share spirit and guts. None of them gives us Senna’s other-worldliness, this sense of destiny. This magic. And so the ineluctable conclusion is that Senna was and is the greatest; that mere statistics and flaws cannot sully him now. Is it his death that makes him that? Perhaps. But it is his life that gives us the evidence.