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Ayrton Senna

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Ayrton_Senna_(F1_racer).jpg
Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna da Silva (March 21, 1960May 1, 1994), better known as Ayrton Senna, was a Brazilian racing driver who won the Formula One world championship three times. He is regarded by many as one of the greatest racers ever. His death in 1994 is still mourned by Brazilians and he remains one of the most beloved Formula One personalities, although during his career he was a rather more controversial figure than subsequent accounts have tended to portray.

Contents

Early life

Senna was born in So Paulo. As the son of a wealthy Brazilian landowner, he quickly developed an interest in motor racing. Encouraged by his father, a racing enthusiast, Senna got behind the wheel of his first kart at the age of four. He entered karting competition at the legal age of 13. In 1977, he won the South American Kart Championship, and was runner up several times in the World Championship but never won.

Heading for Europe in 1981, he entered the British Formula Ford 1600 competition, which he won. He also adopted his mother's maiden name, Senna, as da Silva is a very common name in Brazil. In 1982 Senna combined the British and European Formula Ford 2000 Championships, winning both. In addition to winning the prestigious and high-profile Macau Grand Prix, Ayrton saw off the challenges of Martin Brundle in the 1983 British F3 championship and secured a seat with the Toleman-Hart F1 team in 1984. His talents did not go unnoticed, especially after he impressed at the Monaco GP under wet and difficult conditions. The next year, Senna joined the Lotus team and won the Portuguese Grand Prix, his first Grand Prix victory, on April 21, 1985 at Estoril, Portugal under treacherous conditions.

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McLaren career

In 1988 Senna joined the McLaren team with Alain Prost as his team mate. The foundation for a fierce competition between Senna and Prost was laid, culminating in a number of dramatic race incidents between the two. The pair won 15 of 16 races in 1988 with Senna coming out on top, achieving his first World Drivers Championship. The following year, their rivalry intensified into a physical war on the track and a psychological war off it, with Prost taking the championship in 1989 after the infamous Suzuka chicane incident. The following year 1990 Prost moved to Ferrari, but it was more of the same, culminating in the notorious 'professional foul' committed at the beginning of the title-deciding Japanese Grand Prix in 1990.

Pole position had incorrectly been designated on the 'dirty' side of the track. Senna made a request to officials before qualifying but after achieving pole position, found the placement unchanged. At the start Prost indeed pulled ahead but when attempting to take the 1st right-hander, found Senna plowing into him. Telemetry showed Senna never even lifted. Both were removed from the race and Senna took the championship for 1990. Senna later hinted that it was payback for Prost taking them both out the year before in the 1989 Suzuka chicane incident. For many, it was an act of breathtaking cynicism and one for which Senna received much criticism. He was accused of introducing a "video game" mentality of "win at all costs" into the sport, a legacy that was repeated often in the career of his successor, Michael Schumacher.

On the track, Senna could be ruthless, showing extreme determination and precision, especially in qualifying, a discipline he had mastered like no one before (resulting in a record 65 poles). In the wet, Senna was unchallenged, and in 1993 at the European GP at Donington Park, Senna demonstrated his exceptional wet driving skills by humiliating his opponents at the wheel of an inferior car. Starting from 5th position, Senna was in 1st place before the end of the first lap, and went on to victory. Senna also won the Monaco GP six times, a record in itself, and a tribute to his skills earning him the title, "Master of Monaco".

Death

In 1994, Senna finally left the ailing McLaren team for the top team at the time, Williams-Renault. He failed to finish his first two races, despite taking pole position at both events. On May 1 1994, he took part in his third race for the team, the San Marino GP. Senna took pole position yet again, but would not finish the race.

That weekend, he was particularly upset by two events: On the Friday of the Grand Prix, during the morning session, Senna's protg, the then newcomer Rubens Barrichello was involved in a serious accident that would keep him out of the race. Senna visited Barrichello in the hospital (he jumped the wall in the back of the facility after being barred from visitation by the doctors) and was then convinced that safety standards had to be reviewed. On Saturday, the death of driver Roland Ratzenberger in practice forced the issue and even caused Senna to consider retiring. Ironically, he spent his final morning in meetings with fellow drivers, determined by Ratzenberger's accident to take on a new responsibility to re-create a Driver's Safety group to look at safety changes in Formula One. As the most senior driver, he was asked (and accepted) the role of leader in this effort.

He was leading the race on Lap 6, after an early accident had caused the safety car to go out. When the safety car had just retired, Senna's car left the track in the Tamburello curve and struck the concrete wall. Telemetry shows he left the track at 186 mph and managed to slow the car to 135 mph in less than two seconds but it was not enough. The FIA and Italian authorities still maintain that Senna was not killed instantly, but rather died in hospital, to where he had been rushed by helicopter, although the medics had performed an emergency tracheotomy before moving him. Many believe, however, that this was not the case, and the only reason why Senna was not declared dead on the scene is because this would have caused the race to be cancelled. The FIA dismisses that conception as an unfounded conspiracy theory. Senna was 34 years old.

The lack of information on the cause of death led to much speculation as to what might have been the immediate cause of death. At first it was said that one Senna's car's tires had become loose on impact and had hit him on the head, which would have caused the fatal trauma. Later, some speculated that this had not been the case, but that the quick change in speed had caused Senna's head to move forward violently, with layers of brain tissue sliding forward and the brain essentially "guillotining" itself. The second theory was quickly abandoned, as images of Senna's battered helmet seemed to indicate that some sort of puncture had occurred at the top of the visor, just over his right eye. This led to the theory that one of the car's suspension bars had came loose and, like a spear, impaled Senna through the head. Finally, slow motion analyses of the accident led to the currently most accepted theory: that Senna hit his head on the concrete wall as his car crashed into it. The helmet would not have been effective in protecting the head, given the considerable violence of the impact, causing Senna to suffer severe traumatism, which probably caused a cardiac arrest and possibly a respiratory one as well.

In 2000, he was posthumously inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

In 2001, a television documentary called "Going Critical: The Death of Ayrton Senna" was screened on the UK's Channel 4. The programme considered the available data from Senna's car to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the fatal crash. The programme concluded that an unusually long safety-car period had reduced the pressures in Senna's tyres, thereby lowering the car. As the car entered the Tamburello bend, it bottomed-out and the loss of the ground effect led to a sudden reduction in downforce, and hence grip. As Senna instinctively corrected the resultant slide, the downforce and grip suddenly returned, and Senna effectively drove off the circuit. The programme came to the conclusion that if Senna hadn't been such a great driver, his reactions to the slide wouldn't have been as quick, and he might have survived the crash.

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Ayrton Senna driving in the rain
However, those who had worked with Senna knew this was unlikely.

There are other causes to be considered - Senna did not like the position of the steering column relative to his seating position and had repeatedly asked for it to be changed.

Another factor was the F1 ban on computerized active suspension aids that had propelled the Williams car to the championship the year before. Now Senna found himself in a car with his team's engineers struggling to cope and adapt to the ban. Patrick Head and Adrian Newey agreed to Senna's request to shorten the FW-16's wheelbase, but there was no time to manufacture a shortened steering shaft. The existing shaft was instead cut, shortened, and welded back together with reinforcing plates. Many surmise, based on video evidence of Senna turning the wheel left and right with no movement of the front wheels, that steering failure was the ultimate cause of the crash.

Senna's helmet
Enlarge
Senna's helmet

The Williams team was entangled for many years in a court case with the Italian prosecutors over manslaughter charges, but they were found not guilty and no action was taken against Williams. In 2004, the case was re-opened.

His death was considered by many of his Brazilian fans to be a national tragedy. Senna is buried at the Cemitrio do Morumbi in his hometown of So Paulo.

Off the track, Senna was a deeply religious and compassionate man. After his death, his family created the Ayrton Senna Foundation, an organization with the aim of helping poor and needy young people in Brazil and the world. As a result, Senna continues to impact the world today and has become a beacon of hope to millions of his countrymen and an example of professionalism and humanity to those who remember him.

In 2004 (when, ten years after his death, the Brazilian media revisited the entire life of Senna), a book called "Ayrton: The Hero Revealed" (original title: "Ayrton: O Heri Revelado") was published in Brazil. The book recalls several passages of Senna's career, and adds a lot of never written before information about his personal life. As the title suggests, the book "reveals" the human side of a hero.

Many books have been written on the life and death of this legendary driver who continues to be an inspiration to millions.

External links


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