AYRTON SENNA: A REAL MODERN HERO
by Maximiliano Catania/FUNO
Buenos Aires (AR), 21 Mar 2001
Ayrton Senna da Silva was born on March 21, 1960 in São Paulo (Brazil). He is considered as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time. A whole life dedicated to motorsport, a man who conquered the affection of the people and the respect of Formula 1 pundits. He had a gift for driving and that allowed him to be the best everywhere. His charming, young smile made of him a real modern hero...
Ayrton's passion for cars began as a child when his father - a wealthy businessman and landowner - built a little go-kart for him at their home workshop. Then, his motor skill problems seemed to disappear as he was getting into the world of motorsport. Supported by his father, Senna took part of a Brazilian Karting Championship race in 1973, and it would not take him too long to demonstrate his driving skills: his first-ever win came on the 1st of July, at the Interlagos circuit.
Being South American Karting champion and World Karting runner-up in 1980, Senna left his beloved Brazil to set foot on European soil, where the major Formulae had reserved a place for him. Thanks to the financial support of his father, Ayrton signed a contract to drive for the Van Diemen team in the 1981 British Formula Ford 1600 Championship. He was crowned champion in his maiden season. The following year, he won the European and British championships of Formula Ford 2000. The next step of his career was the British Formula 3 (1983), where there were exciting racing duels with Martin Brundle, and Senna drove his Ralt-Toyota to clinch another title. That year, Senna was invited by Frank Williams to test an F1 car. He then tested other machines, such as McLaren and Brabham; however, his Formula One debut (1984) would be made with the modest Toleman team.
The Rio Jacarepaguá circuit, at his home Brazil, was the scene of Ayrton's first F1 race. It was not a good start: he started from the back of the grid, and had an early retirement due to turbo-related problems of his Hart engine. However, he did not give up. Weeks later, in South Africa, he had a similar performance in qualifying but scored his first single point by placing his Toleman number 19 in sixth position. Halfway through the championship, Senna achieved his first podium by finishing second to winner Alain Prost in the rain-soaked Monaco Grand Prix, a race that would be questioned for having been completed earlier than expected. Ninth in the Drivers’ standings at the end of season, Ayrton was recruited by Team Lotus to partner the Italian Elio de Angelis from 1985 onwards.
Ayrton, in his second GP for the British team, got his first-ever F1 win, in the rainy Estoril circuit (Portugal), with a one-minute gap over Michele Alboreto (2nd). The Brazilian driver would win again later in Belgium, closing the year with two wins and seven pole positions.
The following year, the car racing pundits already considered him as one of the best four drivers of that time, alongside Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. His breathtaking win in Spain against Mansell would prove that Senna's induction into the top-four was no coincidence.
In 1987, Lotus would be powered by Honda (during 1985 and 1986 the engines were supplied by Renault) and Ayrton got the first of his six wins at Monte Carlo, where he greeted the mechanics euphorically before spraying the Royal Family with champagne on the podium. At the end of season, Ron Dennis announced Senna as McLaren driver for 1988, alongside Prost.
During that season, the McLaren-Honda partnership was unstoppable: 15 wins out of 16 races. It was the year of Ayrton's first championship, thanks to his 8 victories against Prost’s 7, despite having earned fewer points than his team-mate. But the 1988 campaign was not only the best year of McLaren's history, but also the first milestone of one of the most attractive and exciting F1 rivalries ever.
Proof of that was, in 1989, an infringement of a supposed deal between Senna and Prost to not overcome each other at the start of the San Marino GP - pact that apparently Ayrton did not respect, igniting the rivalry with Alain. The next stage would be the Suzuka race, where controversy reached unsuspected limits. The Frenchman was leading the race with the Brazilian in second. With few laps to go, Senna attempted to overcome Prost at the chicane before the main straight, but both cars collided and were out the race. Although Ayrton managed to restart his car (thanks to race marshals) and in fact then won the Grand Prix, he was later disqualified, automatically giving the third title to Prost. 'I was robbed by the system,' Ayrton said. The president of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre, imposed a fine on Senna due to these statements and in addition his F1 driving licence was temporally disallowed.
Ayrton Senna recovered his licence by paying a US$100,000 fine and after apologising to the heads of FISA. It was 1990 and Alain Prost had flown to Ferrari, justifying his move on the fact that McLaren were playing in favour of the Brazilian driver. Fate determined the championship to be defined among them again and, after another collision in Japan, Senna clinched his second title.
The following year would be that of Ayrton's third championship. Nigel Mansell of Williams failed once again in the search for the world title. The Brazilian driver started the campaign with four wins in a row (United States, Brazil, San Marino and Monaco); the Briton experienced a mid-season recovery that lasted until the Japanese GP, when a spun-off of his machine cut his hopes short. Earlier in the season, Senna had got his first win on home soil after 7 failed attempts, much to the delight of the Brazilian torcida attending the race at the Interlagos circuit. Ayrton then entered the glorious list of Triple World Champions: Brabham, Stewart, Lauda, Piquet, Prost...
Things turned out to be different in 1992, courtesy of the formidable work of Frank Williams's team. Mansell won his single F1 championship by winning 9 out of 16 races that year. Ayrton Senna struggled with his car, but got three well deserved wins: Monaco, Hungary and Italy - the first of them, at the Principality, was obtained thanks to a puncture in Mansell's car with ten laps to go...
Without Honda engines, and full of internal problems, McLaren had to use Ford engines during the 1993 season. Prost returned to the category after a sabbatical year, driving for Williams. Senna, far from predictions, would be a honest rival to the Frenchman, recalling their duel of the yesteryears. This time, Prost managed to snatch away the title. Senna won 5 races and Alain scored 7 wins. Two remarkable victories of Ayrton were the one at Donington (European GP) because of the excellence in his driving, and that at Interlagos (Brazilian GP) when he was euphorically greeted on the podium by Juan Manuel Fangio (the Argentine five-time World Champion pointed the Brazilian as his successor). Senna said farewell to McLaren with a win - the last of his career - at Adelaide (Australian GP). By the end of the year, it was anounced that Senna would drive one of Frank Williams's cars for the 1994 season, alongside Damon Hill.
'The best driver with the best car cannot have other result but the championship itself,' it was said. Nevertheless, the year started with difficulties for Ayrton: despite having scored two pole positions in the first two Grands Prix (Brazil, Pacific) he retired in both, while his challenger, Michael Schumacher of Benetton, won both races. The next episode - the final one - would be that of San Marino. Things started complicated with a serious accident of Rubens Barrichello during the Friday session, followed by the death of Roland Ratzenberger on Saturday. Senna, visibly worried, had a kind of a premonition but he entered to race the same. He started from pole, and it was on lap seven when he left this world at the Tamburello corner.
Countless things have been said since that 1st of May. Brazil cried for its idol. Even Alain Prost did not hide his sadness.
Ayrton Senna scored 41 victories, 65 pole positions (record) and 19 fastest laps during his F1 career. But mere statistics do not create an idol. The relationship between him and the people went beyond any performance in a Grand Prix. The Brazilian driver had unlimited talent inside the tracks, and outside the circuits he was tender-hearted and kind with people.
A survey conducted in Brazil in 2000 revealed that Senna is considered the greatest hero of his country. One more proof to say that Ayrton is a real modern hero.