Twenty years ago on this date, Formula One lost one of its true giants, a driver who came to define in the public imagination what a racing driver should be...
Daring, committed, focused, impossibly brave, ruthless and relentless – Ayrton Senna was all of those things but in addition he possessed the rare ability to translate his experience of being a world class sportsman operating at the height of his powers into language the layman could understand and readily identify with. Ultimately, it was perhaps that approachability, that humanity and an emotional volatile nature, that made Aytron Senna not just a great Formula One driver but a legendary sportsman.
This weekend in Imola – the scene of the terrible accident that took the Brazilian's life on May 1, 1994, and the location at Austrian racer Roland Ratzenberger lost his life the day before in qualifying – the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari will open its gates to host a four-day commemoration of the life and achievements of the Brazilian superstar and of the rising Austrian star. Formula One drivers past and present will mingle with team personnel of all eras and thousands of fans who will gather to celebrate the two fallen racers. There are few people in Formula One, young or old, who do not harbour memories of Senna, and our team members are no exception.
Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey is perhaps best-placed to comment on Senna's talents, as back in 1994 the Brazilian, then a three-time champion, joined the Williams team, which had just enjoyed a dominant 1993 season winning the Constructors' Championships and the Drivers' title with Senna's great rival Alain Prost. The chief designer of that dominant Williams FW15C was none other than Adrian Newey. With a host of driver aids banned for 1994, the FW16 handed to Senna was a more difficult car but Newey was never in any doubt about the three-time champion's talents.
"Like all the greats, first of all people say he has a certain style, but I'm not convinced of that," he says. "The great drivers adapt their driving to the particular car and the particular regulations at the time, so I gather in the turbo era, people said his big ability was to be able to keep the turbo charger spinning, so that when he came out of the corner the boost pressure was already there, and therefore once turbos were banned then he was suddenly going to become this average driver, which wasn't the case.
"He adapted his driving style, he found other ways of getting lap time benefit, and I think that's, for me, because he had very good recall of what was going on in the car," he adds. "He could play it back in his mind, he had the mental capacity to be able to drive the car and be aware of what was happening at the same time and that allowed him to keep improving his driving."
Newey also recalls the Brazilian's attention to detail and his keenness to be involved in as many aspects of the process of building and racing a car as possible.
"His character was very, very driven I think, more than anything," Adrian explains. "He was interested in all angles of the car. I remember very clearly when he started at Williams, he wanted to come over and look at the wind tunnel model, see what we were doing, understand our development areas and what our philosophies were. And that's partly out of curiosity, but I think it was also so that he knew what our thinking was and he could try to understand that, so that when he drove the car he would have a better knowledge of it, and be able to give better feedback."
For Christian Horner, the Senna experience was all about an F1 fan's revering for the Toleman, Lotus and McLaren driver. Amazingly, he also once got to meet his idol.
"Ayrton Senna for me was a hero at that time," recalls our Team Principal. "I was a big Nigel Mansell fan initially and there was a huge rivalry between Senna and Mansell in the late '80s and early '90s. When Nigel retired, my allegiance switched to Ayrton.
"I also had the pleasure of meeting him once. I crawled under a fence at Silverstone to a tyre test they had there in June before the British Grand Prix and I will never forget coming face to face with him. What do you say to a guy who is a god of Formula One racing? I just asked him about his karting experience because I was racing go-karts at that time. He engaged in that conversation and ended up asking me a lot of questions. From that point on I was a huge, huge fan of his."
For our drivers, connecting with anything other the legend of Senna is more difficult, given that when the Brazilian was winning his third and final title in 1991, Sebastian was four-years-old and Daniel was just two years of age. Both, however, have strong memories of the legendary racer.
"The first memory I have of him was when he won his first home GP in Brazil 1991," says Sebastian. "Ayrton Senna had lots of races where he was outstanding. He had an incredible talent in the car, and he was a very humble and special guy. It seemed that he took this personal side into the car, which made him probably stronger and this is why people remember him so well."
For Daniel the link is stronger, with the Australian admitting that Senna was the first racing driver he was aware of.
"He did inspire me. He was my first memory as a kid, the first race car driver I knew of, and the most famous one," he says. "Dad was very passionate about him and would tell me stories and I saw a few races at least when I was young, before he passed, and everyone said he had something special. He had a grace about him which was really nice, but at the same time he was ruthless on track and that was, you know, I think the sign of a real champion, so I think he inspired me to be humble, but also to go for what you believe in."
And the Australian racer's favourite Senna moment came when the Brazilian delivered a spectacular performance in the European Grand Prix in 1993, at Donington in the UK.
"He lapped nearly the whole field in a wet race and that's what I remember of him," says Daniel. "When I started racing go-karts my dad would always bring him up when it was raining saying, 'this is your chance to be like Senna, be that rain-master, be that kid', so that's what I remember of him – being untouchable in wet conditions where that was the most pure form of driver skill."