Sunday, December 20, 2009

Remembering Ayrton Senna

Tribute to Ayrton Senna on 15th Death Anniversary

Ayrton Senna da Silva: March 21, 1960 – May 1, 1994


15 years have passed since triple Formula One World Champion and Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna da Silva crashed fatally at Imola during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix race, and it seems like yesterday. Though a racing fan only since 2000 and the days of monotonous Michael Schumacher and Ferrari domination of the Formula One World Championship, I’ve dug up the past through various media and experienced (though only in a partial manner) what Formula One racing was with great drivers who weren’t just fast in the car, but struck passion in the minds of fans even when they took off their helmets – their flashing looks and manly contours evoking the beauty of speed itself!

Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna were two of those racing drivers whose eyes, emitting piercing looks through their helmet visors, evoked folk tales of bravery and an undying tenacity to extract the most from the car at their disposal throwing safety to the wind, and WIN! On May 1, 1994 though, Senna’s Williams FW16 Renault got the better of him at the Tamburello corner at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari racetrack, Imola, Italy, sending the Brazilian hurtling to the barriers at 217kph!

A lot has been said about the lack of safety in F1 and motorsport at the time. It was the same weekend when Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed and Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello seriously injured as they were pushing the limits of capability of their body and machine. Polish driver Robert Kubica’s spectacular crashing and tumbling at the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix in his BMW and Finnish driver Heikki Kovaleinen’s head-on impact against the barriers at the 2008 Spanish Grand Prix also reminded the world of the massive strides in safety initiated by FIA President Max Mosley and others. Neither Kubica nor Kovaleinen sustained serious injury, and these were probably two of the most horrifying crashes F1 had witnessed in recent times. However, Brazilian Felipe Massa’s serious head injury sustained when a mechanical part from another car hit his helmet at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, and Henry Surtees’s fatal head impact caused by another car’s detached tyre at the British round of the Formula Two race reminded us that safety still needs to be improved. Senna’s demise left a massive void in all concerned in the F1 fraternity, and one of the reactions was to give an unprecedented push for safety - of the cockpit, track, marshals and spectators. What happened to Senna should never happen again.

Debates have obviously raged regarding the exact cause of Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash, with a failed steering column and a possible bottoming of the car at the Tamburello corner being two of the most accepted conclusions. The death sent such a shockwave among fans that many couldn’t watch an F1 race for a long time after that fateful weekend. Another question that has done the rounds is what could have happened had not Senna crashed fatally that day. Could he have increased his tally of World Championships? Would Michael Schumacher ever have secured his first World Championship that year? Would Senna have eventually driven for Ferrari, as Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo claims Senna declared a few days before the tragedy?

Though these questions remain unanswered, the fascination they spawn enables the memory of probably the greatest driver till date in Formula One to linger on in the minds of his loyal fans the world over. The only good thing that has come from the tragedy is that safety became the No 1 priority in Formula One and all motorsport.