A look back at the career of the great Brazilian
Ten years on from his death at Imola, Ayrton Sennas star shines as brightly as ever. While the history books may say that Fangio or Schumacher are the greatest ever, ask the public and Senna will almost always come out on top. His talent, speed and an unerring commitment to his sport captured the imagination of fans in a way managed by no driver since. A decade after his parting and even Schumacher has (as yet) been unable to match Sennas record of 65 pole positions.
Born in Sao Paolo on March 21, 1960, Ayrton Senna da Silva received his first kart before the age of five and by his early teens he was winning championships in his native Brazil. He twice finished runner-up in the World Karting finals just about the only title he would miss out on in his meteoric rise to Formula One. Senna knew he was destined for great things and for the 1981 season he moved to Britain and was instantly winning Formula Ford 1600 series.
Struggling to find the necessary sponsorship, Senna returned briefly to Brazil, but was back in England for the start of the 1982 season. His winning ways continued and he took the British and European Formula Ford titles, paving the way for a move into British Formula Three for 1983, a season which would throw up one of the greatest rivalries of his career that with Britains Martin Brundle. There was little to choose between the pair and their on-track battles did on occasion end up off track. Few were surprised when the championship went down to the wire, with Senna taking the crucial win to lift the title at the final round. He topped off his season by winning the highly regarded Macau Grand Prix, beating the best Formula Three drivers from around the world.
By this time, Formula One team bosses were well aware of Sennas talent. Williams, McLaren and Toleman gave him tests during the 83 season and the young Brazilian left them all suitably impressed. It was with the least prestigious of the three, though, that he made his Grand Prix debut in front of home crowd. Despite the relative mediocrity of his equipment, Senna scored his first world championship point in only his second race and repeated the feat in his third. By June he was on the podium, finishing second to Alain Prost in Monaco, in a race many thought he would have won had it not been stopped early due to heavy rain. It was early confirmation of the wet-weather prowess that would become one of Sennas trademarks. Two more podiums for Toleman followed, at Silverstone and Estoril, before he made the switch to the more competitive Lotus team for 1985.
The Renault-powered Lotus 97T was far from being the best car on the grid that year, but it was good enough for Senna to show his true potential. At the second round of the season in Portugal he took his first pole position and his maiden Grand Prix win, finishing over a minute ahead of Michele Alboretos Ferrari in wet conditions. He won again in Belgium and ended his second season of Formula One racing fourth in the drivers championship. He stayed with Lotus for 1986 and another two victories (in Spain and the US) again netted him fourth in the standings. A third season with the British team in 87 saw him rise to third in the championship and brought his first of six Monaco Grand Prix wins.
In 1988 Senna finally got the car he had been craving when he moved to reigning world champions McLaren to partner Alain Prost, signalling the start of another great rivalry. Such was the pairs dominance that only once did another driver win that season (Ferraris Gerhard Berger at Monza) and they were so evenly matched that just three points separated them in the final standings. Prost actually scored 11 more points than his team mate over the course of the campaign, but with only the 11 best results counting, it was Senna and his eight wins to Prosts seven that took the title.
The battle raged on the following year, though it did not start well for Senna, who, after taking pole position, failed to score at the opening round in Brazil after spinning in a clash with Berger. Normal service was soon resumed though and over the season the Brazilian took six wins to Prosts four. However, on the occasions Senna retired, the Frenchman kept scoring and going into the penultimate round in Japan, Senna needed a win to keep his title hopes alive. Prost had the edge around Suzuka though, forcing Senna into an ambitious and now infamous passing attempt at the chicane. It left the two McLarens almost locked together, but while Prost was forced to retire, Senna eventually managed to continue and win the race. He was, however, subsequently disqualified for not rejoining the circuit where he had left it and the drivers crown was Prosts.
Prost moved to Ferrari for 1990, but he was still Sennas main rival for that years title. In a reversal of the previous season, it was Prost who went to Japan needing the superior result. Senna took pole, but his rival made the better start. The Brazilian refused to give way at Turn one, though, and it inevitably ended in tears. The pair crashed out of the race, handing Senna his second world crown in less than glorious fashion. Only years later did he admit that the collision was perhaps not entirely unintentional.
Staying with McLaren for 1991, Sennas third and final world championship came relatively easily compared to the previous two, following an excellent start to the season with four wins from the first four races. Williams provided an intermittent threat, but further victories for Senna in Hungary, Belgium and Australia sealed the affair. He could even afford to move aside in Japan to let team mate Berger through for his first Grand Prix triumph.
In 1992 McLaren were outclassed by the Williams-Renaults of Nigel Mansell and Ricardo Patrese, and on occasions by the Benettons, in particular that of a young Michael Schumacher. In fact, despite Sennas three wins that year to Schumachers one, it was the German who finished third in the standings behind the two Williams men, one spot ahead of Senna.
The triple world champion fought back in 93, though, in what many consider to be his finest season. Despite the obvious superiority of the Williams-Renault (Alain Prost had returned to the sport to lead their campaign), Senna won five Grands Prix that year to finish runner up to his old rival. Those wins included his legendary victory in the wet at Donington, where he came from fourth on the grid to lead by the end of lap one, eventually taking the chequered flag over 80 seconds ahead of runner up Damon Hill.
Forever in pursuit of the finest machinery, Senna made the long awaited move to Williams for the start of the 1994 season. But he was never to win for the team. Pole positions in the opening two rounds both led to retirements a rare mistake saw him spin off in Brazil, and then a first-corner collision ended his hopes at Aida. Qualifying at both events had been strictly Senna-Schumacher affairs and the pattern continued at Imola. Schumacher had scored maximum points so far, Senna none, and the public was itching for the chance to see the pair race over a Grand Prix distance. Sadly, it was never to be.
Leading lap six of the San Marino race following a restart, Senna ran off the circuit at Tamburello, plunging into a concrete wall at close to 140 mph (225 kph). In the course of the impact a front-suspension member pierced his helmet and he was declared dead at a Bologna hospital later that afternoon.
At Imola this year, on the 10th anniversary of that San Marino weekend, organisers are determined that the event should serve as a celebration of Sennas life rather than merely a commemoration of his death. Friends and family of the great man will be out in force to ensure this happens, as will an army of fans from around the world for whom the memory of Senna will never die.