Senna on the start line

The final lap

Senna dives into the high-speed Tamburello corner and never comes out of it


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The San Marino Grand Prix, 1994. Thirty years ago this May Day. Ayrton Senna sits on the start line and removes his helmet, which he never usually does. “The helmet hides feelings which cannot be understood,” he once said. Today, he doesn’t bother to conceal. The camera zooms in on him and holds. His expression is all focus, but below the surface melancholy currents of reflection run silent and deep.

Already the weekend seems cursed. His compatriot and protégé Rubens Barrichello broke his nose and arm in a crash two days ago, and yesterday the Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed when his front wing broke and sent his car into a concrete wall. The sight reduced Ayrton to tears, not just because he liked Ratzenberger — everybody did — but also because it was a mirror: here, your own mortality, come and see, come and see.

“I have a really bad feeling about this race,” he told his girlfriend Adriane Galisteu last night. “I’d rather not drive.” But drive he must, for he is Senna: the most talented, famous and storied driver in the world, up alongside Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark as the best in history.

Neither, however, had Ayrton’s complexities: his enigmatic charisma and otherworldly magnetism, his bewitching combination of charm and ruthlessness, the way he mixes rampant egotism with profound selflessness.

He is Senna, and he drives his car to the edge every time, banzai lap after banzai lap on the impossibly thin cusp between traction and flight. He is Senna and he never yields, not once, not to anyone. “I am not designed to come third, or fourth, or fifth. I race to win.”

He is Senna, sometimes touched by the hand of a God in whom he believes utterly, such as when qualifying way ahead of everyone else for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix: “I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel or on rails, just going and going, more and more and more and more.”

He is Senna, who two years ago saved Érik Comas’s life after a crash at Spa, who quietly gives millions to charities in his native Brazil. “Wealthy men can’t live in an island encircled by poverty. We all breathe the same air. We must give everyone a chance, at least a basic chance.”

Whenever Ayrton wins a race, he drives a victory lap with a Brazilian flag fluttering. Today the flag he packs is not yellow and green but red and white: Austria’s colours, which he will unfurl in Ratzenberger’s memory if he wins.

Now, finally, he puts his helmet back on and leads the field on their formation lap, off the start, and into the race proper. An early crash brings out the safety car. Ayrton is close behind it, the others line astern of him like baby ducks. The debris is cleared, the safety car peels off, and Ayrton puts the hammer down: 1:24.887 for the sixth lap, insanely fast for a car with a full tank and cold tyres.

The fatal crash on the Tamburello corner

Lap seven. Ayrton dives into the high-speed Tamburello corner, and he never comes out of it. He’s doing 190 mph when he loses control and still 130 when he hits the retaining wall: the car bouncing back across the run-off, tyres spinning loose, bodywork shedding like a snake’s skin through the dust. The vehicle pirouettes and comes to rest. Ayrton’s head moves once and is still.

Watching at home in Argentina, Fangio — now in his 80s and with only a year left to live himself — knows instantly what that head movement signifies: a brainstem reflex, the final involuntary twitch of a dead man. In the days when Fangio raced, death stalked the track on constant patrol. Fangio saw more than enough of his fellow drivers die. He gets up, turns the set off, and leaves the room.

Marshals sprinting to Tamburello. Red flags out to stop the race. Medics clambering over the car to get to the stricken driver. Professor Sid Watkins, F1’s medical director who yesterday was imploring Ayrton to retire and come fishing with him, performs an emergency tracheotomy, but even as he does so he knows it’s too late. “Ayrton looked serene. I raised his eyelids, and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am not religious, I felt his spirit depart at that moment.”

Three days of mourning in Brazil. Three million people on the streets of São Paulo to watch his coffin pass by. The grave to this day attracts more visitors than those of JFK, Marilyn and Elvis combined.

“People always think,” Ayrton once said, “that the start of the race is something terrible, that your heart beats like mad, that your brain is about to explode: but actually it’s a totally unreal moment, like a dream, like entering another world. Your spirit goes and the body sets itself free.”

That’s how I like to think of Ayrton: that when his race was done he simply went back to whichever higher plane of existence he’d come from, back to a realm which had, even for a short time, loaned us both him and his sublime talents.

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