Though he only lived to the age of 34, Ayrton Senna da Silva is widely regarded by past and present racers the world around to be one of, if not the all-time, greatest to have taken a wheel in anger. It was 20 years ago today that the Brazilian, with three Formula One world championships, 41 wins and 80 podium finishes under his belt, died in a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Italy while driving for Williams. It was on lap seven of the race at the high-speed Tamburello corner where Senna’s car left the track and hit a concrete barrier at a speed in excess of 140 mph.
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For those fortunate enough to have known Senna intimately, many were able to recognize that he was not like other drivers. He had a belief in himself and a drive to win that belied his shy and somewhat humble nature off the track.
Behind the wheel he had an intensity that brought about some great rivalries. His bouts with Alain Prost, of course were paramount among them but the Brazilian battled Nigel Mansell and others in the F1 fraternity. He also fought Jean-Marie Balestre, head of the FIA, and whose French ancestry tended to find him on the side of Prost.
But when the race was over, Senna was much more than just a driver, especially to the people of his homeland. At a time when Brazil was in such turmoil, he seemed able to bridge the gap between rich and the immense number of poverty-stricken people in the countryside. He brought them together in his life and in his death.
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The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix will forever be known as one of the saddest in F1, not only because of Senna’s death but also that of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger who crashed during qualifying one day prior. Whether it was due to the design of the cars, due to mechanical failures or due to human error, we will probably never know. But what we do know is that the tragic events of that fateful race helped change the development of the sport, particularly with regard to safety. Since then, no driver has been killed during an F1 race weekend.