Brazilian Formula One race car driver Ayrton Senna was honored on Thursday, 20 years after his tragic death when he crashed his Williams-Renault into a retaining wall, at 185 mph, on the seventh lap of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, at the age of 34.
As any high profile Brazilian athlete, Senna was idolized by fans and is considered by many as the greatest Formula One racer in the history of the sport.
On Thursday, hundreds — including family, fans, and current drivers — came to pay their respects on the 20th anniversary of Senna’s death in what resembled a podium celebration, but was instead a somber gathering with the crowd falling silent at exactly 2:17 pm, the time of the crash that killed the Brazilian.
The moving ceremony was held at Imola, in the curve called Tamburello where the accident happened in front of millions of television viewers and hundreds in the stands watching Senna try to begin his season, after failures to complete his two previous races.
Ronald Ratzenberg, the Austrian rookie who was killed in the qualifying the prior day, April 30, was also honored along with Ayrton Senna.
“I think we all agree that he was the best driver of all time,” former McLaren teammate Gerhard Berger said of Senna at the site. “Even if it’s a sad moment, we’re all very happy to be here and remember Ayrton.”
Undoubtedly, Senna left an indelible mark in Formula One, and anybody who saw the racing great in action will never forget his aggressive, yet precise style.
The weekend 20 years ago was marked by several events that would culminate in Senna’s tragic death. First on Friday qualifying, a Jordan driver crashed his car at 140 mph and ended up in the hospital with a broken nose, missing the rest of the weekend.
Ten years after, Damon Hill — Senna’s teammate in Williams-Renault — remembers the general feeling afterwards:
“We all brushed ourselves off and carried on qualifying, reassured that our cars were tough as tanks and we could be shaken but not hurt.”
Senna took his 65th pole position from Michael Schumacher — who would later break that record and earn 68 poles — and Berger at the end of the day.
Saturday, things turned even more tragic when Ratzenberg was killed during qualifying, after the front wing of his Simtek-Ford broke off while entering the Villeueve corner, sending his car straight into the concrete wall.
Following the accident Senna rushed to the accident scene and the medical center, where he met FIA Medical Chief Professor Sid Watkins, who told the upset Brazilian to retire from racing and go fishing, to which he replied that he couldn’t stop racing.
Ayrton Senna was later called out for driving an official car and climbing the medical center fence, which followed a heated argument, however, he was not punished for the violations.
The day of the race, Sunday, May 1, Senna spent time talking to former McLaren and nemesis, French driver Alain Prost. They spoke about the re-instatement of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association to attempt to improve safety in the sport. Senna was the most senior driver at the time and offered himself the leader.
Senna’s last race began with a crash that resulted in debris flying into the stands and injuring eight-fans and a police officer.
Following the accident, the lap car led the race for six laps, Senna attempted to get the driver’s attention so he could increase the speed. Later on, the action of the lap car was questioned, as investigators believed the tire pressure in the Formula One cars was reduced.
The race resumed on lap six and Senna quickly had the third best lap of the race, closely followed by Shumacher. On lap seven, as Senna entered the Tamburello corner he lost control, leaving the course at approximately 191 mph in a straight line and crashed into the concrete wall.
Senna was extracted from his car by Watkins and was treated by his medical team on the side of the circuit where he received a tracheotomy, due to the extensive injuries and blood loss.
Ayrton Senna died of fatal skull fractures, brain injuries, and a ruptured temporal artery.
It was later revealed that as the medical team examined the Brazilian driver, a crumpled Austrian flag was found inside the cockpit. Senna had planned to fly it at the end of the race in honor of Ratzenberg.
Senna’s death was a national tragedy in Brazil and an estimated three-million people flocked to the streets of his native Sao Paulo to pay their respects. It is widely believed this to be the largest crowd of mourners in modern times.
[Image via Twitter]