Motor racing fans tend to have their ‘JFK moments’, like 25 years ago today: 1 May 1994. The day Ayrton Senna died. Do you remember where you were?
It’s hard to believe a quarter of a century has passed. I was a student at the time, but had returned home for a family occasion. At sunny Imola in Italy, Formula 1 was already reeling from Rubens Barrichello’s narrow escape from a flying accident on the Friday. Then there was the horror of Saturday as popular newcomer Roland Ratzenberger lost his life when his Simtek smashed into a wall almost head-on. This was the first F1 fatality at a grand prix since 1982. It wasn’t supposed to happen anymore.
A pall of gloom hung over the circuit on race day. Then at the start, a collision catapulted debris into the crowd, causing minor injuries. Whatever next? The unthinkable, that’s what. The greatest, most famous racing driver of his generation would die at Tamburello when his Williams inexplicably shot off the track and into the wall.
I saw the accident on TV, then had to leave for a church service. I could think of little else. After the service, I scanned the car radio (no mobile phones or internet back then), but news only broke after 6pm. When I returned to university the next day, friends treated me as if I’d suffered a family bereavement.
All these years on, Senna remains an F1 colossus; like rock stars who are lost too young, a figure deified in death. But to those who knew him, and to those of us who watched him, Senna was no saint. He was much more interesting than that.
For years, to most British fans he was a villain, too cold and cut-throat to be a hero. For me, that began to change at the British GP in 1988. I spent the day sitting miserably in driving rain at Stowe corner – but I also witnessed Senna’s mesmeric dominance in the wondrous McLaren MP4-4. Yes, he had a car advantage, but I knew what I’d just seen.