Like most racing greats, Ayrton started his career in kart racing as a child. It didn’t take long for him to make the move to open-wheel racing, eventually winning the British Formula 3 Championship series in 1983. Due to this success, he made his Formula One debut in 1984 continuing his winning streak, taking six Grand Prix wins over the next three seasons.
In 1988, Senna joined McLaren-Honda, winning all but one of the 16 Grand Prix races for that season, securing Ayrton’s first world championship. As his professional career soared, so did his expression of altruism in his beloved Brazil. Senna donated an estimated $400 million of his own personal fortune to help poor children in his country throughout his career. The fact that this was not discovered until after his death was a further testament to his character and integrity.
Despite his success with McLaren, gaining two more world championships, Senna negotiated to race for Williams in 1994. It was Senna’s worst start to a Formula One season, as he was 20 points behind the chase for the championship that year. Senna would often take the pole position during qualifying, but would ultimately fall victim to car issues, leaving Benetton-Ford driver Michael Schumacher the advantage during race days.
On May 1, 1994, Senna competed in the San Marino Grand Prix, located at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit in Italy. During practice a few days earlier, Senna complained of the car’s handling, stating that the adjustments were made worse by the engineer’s tinkering. Senna was under a great amount of stress and had a heavy heart during this weekend in Italy, as rookie Formula One driver and friend Roland Ratzenberger was killed during Saturday qualifying. This event sat uncomfortably with Senna, as he was the most senior driver in competition and feared for other driver’s safety.
Those close to Senna had often talked to the star about retiring from racing, but Senna couldn’t stop, as it was his passion. He was quoted as saying, “The harder I push, the more I find within myself. I am always looking for the next step, a different world to go into, areas where I have not been before. It's lonely driving a Grand Prix car, but very absorbing. I have experienced new sensations, and I want more. That is my excitement, my motivation.”
While leading the San Marion Grand Prix, Senna lost control of his car, sending it into a retaining wall at 145mph. After being treated trackside, and airlifted to Bologna's Maggiore Hospital, Senna was pronounced dead at age 34. It’s believed that a piece of Senna’s front wheel and suspension struck the side of his helmet, prompting a tire rod to penetrate his visor and into his head, above the eye.
As a lasting act of his dedication to friendship, and the sport of racing, officials found a ruffled Austrian flag in the seat of Senna’s car. It was intended to be raised by him at the end of the race, to pay tribute to the young rookie Ratzenberger. Senna is highly regarded as the greatest racing driver of all-time, and quite frankly, I agree. There are few drivers of today’s age in racing who have as much courage, heart or passion as Senna.
Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons