25 years on from one of motorsport's darkest days, we look back at the career of the man who changed Formula 1 forever
1 May 2019

Twenty five years have passed since Ayrton Senna was killed in an accident during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, but he remains revered by those who knew him, raced against him and were inspired by him.

In a series of interviews conducted in 2014 and reproduced here, Autocar was shown just how profound an impact the Brazilian prodigy had on the worlds of motorsport, technology and popular culture. 

Damon Hill - World champion, 1996; Senna’s team-mate at Williams in 1994

I only had such a brief time working with Ayrton, but through all of it, I would say that he was a pretty serious guy.

I had read about him and studied his performances before I had got to Formula One and then when he joined the team, I spent a while trying to marry up the public image that had built up in my mind to the guy that was now sitting alongside me in the team truck. I have to say they were pretty similar. I don’t think the guy had a mask, as such, but he was genuine to himself and that is the man that he was.

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In terms of learning from him, I was at such a different level that it was hard for me to get too much out of a working relationship. I didn’t expect him to invite me around his house for tea – he wasn’t that kind of guy – but I did get an insight into how it was to be such an established name in the sport and the expectation that comes with that when you are a world champion. But, from whatever the public have seen of him, I think he was pretty true to being that man and that is a very valuable – and possibly unusual – quality.

Ron Dennis - Chairman and CEO, McLaren Group; signed Senna to McLaren for 1988 season

When he first tested for McLaren [in 1983] he was very keen to get an advantage, making sure the car wasn’t damaged by other young drivers that were testing [and] asking about fresh tyres.

He was quick but [for the 1984 season] we had Alain Prost and Niki Lauda, so we let him go and cut his teeth somewhere else. 

One of the differentiators between great racing drivers and good ones is the great realise the importance of the team, and implement actions that get them right drive. Ayrton made it apparent he wanted to join and the Honda engine [McLaren would join forces with Honda for 1988] was becoming more and more attractive. 

Ayrton was living in a rented house in Esher and nearly all the meetings took place at his home. There was the discussion about money and we started to head-butt on the numbers. I suggested the idea of flicking a coin. There was some debate about who would throw it. He had a dark brown shag pile carpet, which was trendy at the time. The coin went off like a rocket and we could hear it rattling underneath the curtains on a piece of hardwood. 

We were arguing over half a million dollars in his first season. Neither of us had tweaked that it was a three-year contract so it was over 1.5 million dollars…

Murray Walker - Formula 1 commentator; one of last media to interview Senna

I probably conducted one of the last interviews with him on the Sunday morning at Imola. Everyone thinks that the media is great chums with the drivers – and that is true in some exceptional cases – but Senna was a very private man. Professionally, he was fantastic, but I would hesitate to say he was cheerfully friendly. 

What he was, when you spoke to him, was authoritative and hugely eloquent in what was, don’t forget, a foreign language for him. While I didn’t know him well, the people that did got to see him as a warm hearted and extremely kind man. Once you had his confidence, there was a deep side to Senna that I never knew.

He was superbly talented and a bit of a mystical human being – he had a combination of qualities that I don’t think we had seen before that time. I don’t think anyone has quite matched up to it since, either.

Ian Harrison - Williams team manager at the time of Senna’s death

To begin with when Senna got to Williams, the relationship with him was a bit distant. You could tell that he was trying to weigh the place up – after all, he had been at McLaren for the previous six seasons and we were completely different.

I met him at the factory for the first time, and I remember him as being very quite and very polite. He seemed like a down to earth bloke, the kind of guy that it was going to be great to work with.

He was demanding though, but he didn’t scream and shout. He had spun off at the opening race of 1994, and he simply returned to the team, apologised and said it would never happen again. He was honest and up front.

That weekend at Imola, his reaction of going to the medical centre after Rubens Barrichello’s Friday accident and Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal shunt on the Saturday were just the reactions of a humane guy. He knew what life was about and he cared deeply about things. My regret is that we had such a short time with him.

Dennis Rushen - Prepared Senna’s Formula Ford 2000 car in title-winning 1982 season

When Senna was coming up through the ranks, there was none of the data or the simulation technology that you have today – there was just a tachometer and that was about it. What struck us immediately was his ability to know on any given track in any given weather exactly how much grip each corner had. What a massive advantage that gave him over everybody else. There was one race at the Osterreichring in Austria in FF2000 when he went out on slicks on a damp track and came around at the end of the first lap five seconds clear of everyone else. He had that natural feel and that is when people started taking notice of him. 

Ayrton – or ‘Arry’ as our mechanics called him – was a private man, but remembered the people who had helped him on the way up. We were in regular contact, and I spoke to him in 1994. You could tell that he wasn’t enjoying F1 at that time. His body language changed; he wasn’t smiling any more and I think that he was on the verge of walking away.

Ralph Firman - Ran Senna in a Van Diemen RF81 in British Formula Ford in 1981

The first thing that struck me was that he was just a genuine bloke. He was polite and very appreciative of all the things that were being done for him – but he always wanted to be pushing things forward.

I didn’t mind that because I wanted to win too, but even if we had a really successful weekend, he would still come in to the factory on the Monday morning and complain that the engine wasn’t quite where it should be or that the chassis needed improving. It was a constant quest for perfection, and he was only 20 at the time. I always believed what he said, because I quickly learned that he was always right. 

I had waited for two years for him to come over from his karting career in Brazil, and I had all these reports about how good the kid was. I knew he would make it even before he arrived in England. And the lovely thing was that even after he made it to F1, he kept in regular contact. In fact, on a couple of occasions when he was driving for Lotus in F1, I would get home from work to find him waiting on the doorstep to see us. He was a lovely man and a wonderful racing driver.

Terry Fullerton - Karting champion, named by Senna as his toughest rival

Senna stood out to me immediately as a gifted newcomer when we karted together, but there were things he needed to add to his game before he was ready to move on. But, by the end of three years karting with him, he was getting all the pieces of the jigsaw together.

He became a more complete driver. He had raw speed and he needed to up his game in terms of the technical side of things and his feedback. He also needed to rein in his emotional side – although I never think he totally got on top of that. He was cold and calculated on the track but still took a few things to heart too quickly.

I knew that he would be able to go all of the way, because he was obsessive, determined, passionate, dedicated, quick and intelligent. How wouldn’t he have made it with those qualities, all blended so perfectly. He was the sort of talent with the mix of skills that only comes along once every 50 years or so. Jim Clark had it, Ayrton Senna had it and I still think that we are waiting for the next one.

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Comments
5

2 May 2015
Will Schumacher in the future be remembered like this also?

Peter Cavellini.

1 May 2019
Peter Cavellini wrote:

Will Schumacher in the future be remembered like this also?

but Lewis Hamilton will be

jer

1 May 2019

 .... A couple of years later. It was in the days where at least to begin with they showed everything. It looked like he moved in the car and thoughts were he would be ok. He was a ruthless competitor that makes MS look like childs play. For all.his talent he like all had indifferent races. He wasn't super human. Donnington in the wet was a great drive.

1 May 2019

 As an F1 driver, in his time he was the man, the man that could find that few tenths where nobody else could, he had his failing though to, he had a Latin temper no question, but off track he was like the rest of us, a human with some bad characteristics.

Peter Cavellini.

1 May 2019

But Hamilton is closing in on the greatness. Like they said about Senna, he understands teamwork, unlike Alonso who frankly squandered his career away with his antics.

Vettel doesn’t seem to possess the edge of Hamilton these days. 

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