In the fast-paced, glamorous world of Formula One racing, many fans consider Ayrton Senna the greatest driver who has ever lived, pointing to his raw talent, record-setting speed, and passion for racing. Fighting the sport’s politics and acknowledging that an F1 car is a coffin with gasoline, he didn’t quit—until the engine stopped.
“There were three things that Senna always wanted to achieve,” said Asif Kapadia, director of the BAFTA-winning 2011 documentary “Senna.” “He wanted to win a race, he wanted to win the world championship, and he wanted to win in Brazil.”
Senna, who came from an affluent São Paolo family, started karting throughout South America. His father wanted him to run the family business, but loud engines beckoned and the aspiring racer moved to England when he was 17, according to a New York Times article.
Six years later, he won the British Formula Three championship, and in 1984 entered Formula One driving for Toleman, a new team at the time. Senna also drove for legendary teams Lotus, McLaren, and Williams during his career.
“This passionate Brazilian had to win, he had to be the fastest,” said Kapadia. “He drove to the absolute limit.”
Senna won three world championships and 41 races in Formula One. He’s ranked third in terms of most wins, behind German Michael Schumacher and the pragmatic Frenchman who was Senna’s greatest F1 rival—Alain “The Professor” Prost.
The two became teammates at McLaren in 1988 and had a tension that was as hot as the Goodyear tires that burned on the track. That tension exploded at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka.
“They had very different styles of driving,” said Kapadia. “They would crash into one another to stop the other from winning. That didn’t happen before.”
At the chicane, which is where the cars can overtake, Prost crashed into Senna causing both drivers off the track. Senna was determined to win to keep Prost from the championship, so he restarted his car, continued driving, and won.
Enter Jean-Marie Balestre, the then head of the governing body of auto racing, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Balestre, a Frenchman and Prost’s confidant, disqualified Senna for cutting the chicane, handed him a hefty fine, and suspended his racing license for six months—Prost became the 1989 champion.
A news clip in “Senna” shows the Brazilian in a press conference saying, “I was treated like a criminal and that’s totally unacceptable.”
“He took on the establishment, fought the politics and corruption which seemed to be a part of Formula One at the time,” said Kapadia.
Prost and politics aside, the handsome and religious “Senninha” was beloved by the world and revered by Brazilians. He donated money throughout his career to Brazilian charities.
“He had the hopes and dreams of 200 million people following his every race,” said Kapadia. “He was the one person they could be proud of at a time when Brazil was just coming out of years of a military dictatorship, a Third World state in the eyes of the globe.”
In 1991, he won in Brazil for the first time and it was legendary. He was winning when his gearbox failed and he had to finish the race stuck in sixth gear—impossible to do—but he didn’t quit and made it to the checkered flag. Senna’s body was worn-out and he had to be driven to the podium in the FIA medical car.
“You see what he has done to his body after he’s won the race,” added Kapadia. “What he was putting himself through in order to win. He refused to give up even when it came to lifting up the trophy, because he wanted to do it for the fans.”
In 1994, the San Marino Grand Prix took place on May 1st in Imola, Italy. A dark cloud loomed after the death of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying on the day prior to the race and Senna too felt the impact of the death.
“Senna generally had his helmet on, focused at the start of a race,” said Kapadia. “On that last day, he chose not to wear the helmet and looked in such a state—he looks in the wrong place, he looks so lonely, so unhappy, so out of love with the sport.”
During the race, Senna drove into the high-speed Tamburello corner at 190mph, then 135mph, then he crashed. Senna died of a head injury at the hospital. He was 34. His death is the latest fatality in the modern era of Formula One. A driver hasn’t died since then.
Current F1 driver and 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton was at a karting race the day his hero died.
“When you’re young, you believe people like Senna are invincible,” recalled Hamilton in the book “Lewis Hamilton: A Dream Comes True.” “And then you realize that they’re also mortal.”
“Senninha” didn’t quit—until he had to.
“Ayrton has a small problem,” Prost said in “Senna.” “He thinks that he can’t kill himself because he believes in God…I think that’s dangerous for the other drivers.”
Senna won races, won championships, and won in Brazil—his three goals.
“He transcended his sport,” said Kapadia. “He had an intensity and a charisma that separated him from all of the others. Not only was he a genius on the track, he was maybe the best driver of all time. He also had an amazing humility.”
Senna said, as featured in “Senna,” “By being a racing driver you are under risk all the time. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing, competing to win.”