Ayrton Senna, a three-time world Formula One driving champion whom some racing observers called the best race driver of all-time, died Sunday of head injuries suffered when his car crashed during the Grand Prix of San Marino in Imola, Italy.
Senna, 34, was leading after seven laps when his Williams-Renault streaked off course at full speed--approximately 185 m.p.h.--at the Tamburello turn and crashed head on into a concrete wall. Doctors said Senna’s forehead was crushed and surgery was impossible. He was pronounced dead four hours after the crash.
The accident followed by a day a similar crash that killed rookie driver Roland Ratzenberger.
Ratzenberger’s death so moved Senna that the Brazilian driver did not attempt a qualifying lap on Saturday. However, his speed from Friday’s time trials enabled him to win a Grand Prix record 65th pole position.
A deeply religious person with a single-minded dedication to race- car driving, Senna had expressed apprehension about the 1994 season in a Brazilian newspaper last month.
“It’s going to be a season with lots of accidents and I’ll risk saying we’ll be lucky if something really serious doesn’t happen,” he wrote. “To survive in Grand Prix racing you need to be afraid. Fear is a very important feeling to have.”
In Sunday’s edition of the German newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, Senna wrote of the San Marino race, “My car reacts a bit nervously on this kind of surface. This stems from its special aerodynamics but it’s also got to do with a difficulty in the suspension.”
Late Sunday, race officials said they still did not know what caused Senna’s car to leave the circuit.
Michael Schumacher of Germany, who won Sunday’s race, was close behind Senna when the accident occurred.
“He looked nervous from the very first lap,” Schumacher said. “He took two or three bumps, but I can’t say what happened exactly.”
Senna’s death sent shock waves through the racing community.
Michael Andretti, who was Senna’s Formula One teammate last year, said by telephone from his home in Nazareth, Pa.:
“It was a horrible shock, I can’t believe it happened. Ayrton was a good friend, a truly great person and a great race driver. He was totally different from the image you get from European writers. He was very helpful to me all year, off and on the track. I feel like I would if I lost a member of my family.”
When Michael Andretti won the season-opening Indy-car race in Australia last March, one of the first congratulatory messages he received was from Senna.
Nigel Mansell, one of Senna’s most bitter rivals in Formula One before he left last year to join the Indy car circuit, said in a statement issued by the Newman-Haas team:
“I am in a total state of shock, as I am sure everyone in motor racing is at this horrific loss of life. I was stunned when the Austrian driver (Ratzenberger) was killed on Saturday, and for Ayrton to lose his life the very next day makes this a very black weekend in motor racing history.
“Ayrton and I shared some of the most exciting races ever staged, and it is impossible to put into words what a sad loss to motor racing this is, because when a truly great driver and a great champion loses his life, there is a very big void left behind.”
Senna won 41 races in 161 Formula One starts, second only to Alain Prost, and drove a McLaren to the championships in 1988, 1990 and 1991. In 1988, he won eight of 16 races, a record for one season until Mansell won nine two years ago. When Senna won in 1991, he was the youngest driver to win three world titles. After the 1993 season, in which he finished runner-up to Prost, Senna left McLaren to drive for the Williams team.
He followed two other Brazilian world champions, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet, into Formula One. For a time last January, it was rumored that Senna might also follow them into Indy car racing. He tested a Penske car at Firebird Raceway in Arizona, but said it was only at the invitation of his close friend, Fittipaldi.
His death is a devastating blow to Formula One, which has now lost its three most recent champions in two years. Mansell left after winning the 1992 championship and Prost announced his retirement after winning in 1993.
Senna’s reputation was enhanced by his remarkable ability to win in wet conditions. Senna won 12 of the 20 races affected by rain during his Grand Prix career. Three of his five wins last year were in the rain.
Born Ayrton Senna de Silva on March 21, 1960, he was a national hero in Brazil, where he lived near his parents in Sao Paulo.
“All Brazilians will feel this death,” said a TV commentator in Brazil. “After Pele, Senna is the country’s biggest hero.”
FORMULA ONE DRIVER DEATHS
DRIVERS KILLED IN SANCTIONED FORMULA ONE GRAND PRIX EVENTS:
Date Driver Country Event July 31, 1954 Onofre Marimon Argentina German GP* July 6, 1958 Luigi Musso Italy French GP Aug. 3, 1958 Peter Collins Britain German GP Oct. 19, 1958 Stuart Lewis-Evans Britain Moroccan GP June 19, 1960 Chris Bristow Britain Belgian GP June 19, 1960 Alan Stacey Britain Belgian GP Sept. 10, 1961 Wolfgang Von Trips West Germany Italian GP Aug. 2, 1964 Carel Godin de Beaufort Netherlands German GP* Aug. 7, 1966 John Taylor Britain German GP May 10, 1967 Lorenzo Bandini Italy Monaco GP July 7, 1968 Jo Schlesser Austria French GP Aug. 2, 1969 Gerhard Mitter West Germany German GP* June 7, 1970 Piers Courage Britain Dutch GP Sept. 5, 1970 Jochen Ridnt Austria Italian GP* July 29, 1973 Roger Williamson Britain Dutch GP Oct. 7, 1973 Francois Cevert France U.S. GP* Oct. 6, 1974 Helmuth Koinigg Austria U.S. GP Aug. 19, 1975 Mark Donahue United States Austrian GP* May 5, 1977 Tom Pryce Britain South African GP Sept. 10, 1978 Ronnie Peterson Sweden Italian GP May, 8, 1982 Gilles Villeneuve Canada Belgian GP* June 13, 1982 Ricardo Paletti Italy Canadian GP April 30, 1994 Roland Ratzenberger Austria San Marino GP* May 1, 1994 Ayrton Senna Brazil San Marino GP
AYRTON SENNA’S YEAR-BY-YEAR RECORD
Year Stng Victories 1984 9th None 1985 4th Portugal, Belgium 1986 4th Spain, Detroit 1987 3rd Monaco, Detroit 1988 1st San Marino, Canada, Detroit Britain, Germany, Hungary Belgium, Japan 1989 2nd San Marino, Monaco, Mexico Germany, Belgium, Spain 1990 1st Phoenix, Monaco, Canada Germany, Belgium, Italy 1991 1st Phoenix, Brazil, San Marino Monaco, Hungary, Belgium, Australia 1992 4th Monaco, Hungary, Italy 1993 2nd Brazil, Britain, Monaco Japan, Australia
NOTE: Senna, with 41 victories, is second on the all-time Formula One list to Alain Prost, who had 51.