Ayrton Senna: What made him different?
There have been many iconic champions in F1, why does Senna stand above them all?
Despite not actually been born to see him in action for myself, I will always tell you in a round of 'who was the best F1 driver?' that my preference is undoubtedly Ayrton Senna. Senna, a native of Sao Paulo in Brazil who rose through the motorsport ranks to become a three-time F1 world champion, but a man whose fearlessness, determination, passion and sheer insane driving ability marked him as a true legend of Formula 1. Yes, there have been more successful drivers than Senna, drivers have won more titles than him and hold better records than him, but what made him truly unique? I am going to try and figure that out today.
Senna competed in F1 for Toleman, Lotus, McLaren and Williams in a career that spanned ten years before his tragic death during one of F1's most horrific weekends, the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. During this time, he racked up three world titles, forty-one wins, eighty podiums and sixty-five pole positions. These numbers were bested in more recent years by the likes of Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, but looking past the numbers, as the case with any driver in the history of the sport, shows just how special of a person Senna was.
Perhaps one of his more standout traits was his sheer driving talent, which was sometimes so much that it scared the man himself, never mind his drivers. Senna was known for a number of things that made him the driving god of the early ninties, such as his unbelievable qualifying performances. Off the back of some stellar performances with Lotus and Toleman during his opening years in F1, Senna joined McLaren for 1988 alongside the already two-time champion Alain Prost, the accomplished driver in the team.
Not willing to play second-best to his more experienced champion teammate, Senna astonishingly out-qualified Prost at Monaco to take pole position by 1.4 seconds in the exact same car! It was the start of bitter rivalry between the pair but we will get to that in a bit. Couple that with unbelievable overtakes and an untouchable sixth sense for becoming unstoppable in the rain a la Donnington Park in 1993, when he went from fifth to first in the one corner, there are so many examples of Senna's unique driving ability that it is merely impossible to fit it all into one article.
Senna himself explained after the session how he felt the circuit becoming a tunnel and how he was just getting faster and faster. Despite crashing out of that year's race, Monaco would become Senna's ultimate playground, taking six of his forty-one wins around the principality, a record that still stands today.
Nowadays in Formula 1, we are so used to drivers being kind and polite and trying not to show a bad side and that was another thing to Senna, he, well, didn't. Don't be fooled by the 2010 documentary, Senna was more often than not the villain more than he was the hero, and people loved him for it. Remembered for his rivalry with Alain Prost, a coming together between the pair during the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix amongst other incidents throughout the two years proved enough for Prost and he jumped ship to Ferrari for 1990. Despite not being teammates any longer, the jabbing and jarring continued, coming to blows once again in Japan at the end of the season when the pair collided at the very first corner to, unlike the year previous, make Senna champion.
Senna defended the move, saying simply that he was going for a gap left open by Prost as the pair approached the first corner. However, it would not fly with the majority of pundits, as Senna was somewhat known for his stark defences and do-or-die lunges. The irony of Aytron Senna however is that he didn't take to kindly to his own medicine, thinking of incidents such as when he attacked Jordan rookie Eddie Irvine after 1993's race at Suzuka when the young Irishman tried to un-lap himself from Senna's McLaren, or when a certain Michael Schumacher punted him off during the opening lap of the 1992 French Grand Prix, Senna confronting Schumacher on the grid over his antics before the race restart. Only Ayrton.
Senna was also adored in his native Brazil, where he was looked up to as a hero and someone for the country, which was going through desperate poverty at the time, to look up to. Shortly before his death, Senna set up the Instituto Ayrton Senna along with his sister Vivienne, which was organised to help Brazilian children with schooling and other opportunites, while it was also discovered after his death that he had donated over $400 million of his own fortune to help underprivileged children in the country. Senna was also a devout businessman, bringing car manufacturer Audi to Brazil in 1994 through his own company, Senna Import, while also developing his own merchandise brand, with the iconic 'Senna S' logo.
Senna was also a devoted Christian and had a deep interest in politics, with former team principal Sir Frank Williams remarking that Senna had the ability and mindpower to someday become the president of Brazil if he desired to do so. Despite also often putting drivers in a position to crash into him rather than overtake him, Senna also cared a lot for other drivers and people, such as when he stopped on-track and got out of his McLaren to help Erik Comas during qualifying the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, after the Frenchman suffered a major accident in front of Senna.
Senna was also visibly upset after the death of Roland Ratzenberger and the crash of fellow countryman Rubens Barrichello on the fateful weekend of his own passing, which urged himself and good friend and former McLaren teammate Gerhard Berger to reform the Grand Prix Drivers Association hours before the race in order to promote and instigate safety improvements in F1. The fearsome Tamburello circuit at Imola was one of the main things Senna and Berger looked about changing, not knowing it would be the very corner that would shock and sadden the world when Senna himself departed after a violent accident just hours later.
Back in 2009, Jeremy and Top Gear went to find out exactly why Senna was so special, and they nail it perfectly. Take a look below:
It's incredibly difficult to explain every reason why Senna is remembered so fondly today and why, at least in my opinion, he was the best driver ever to grace a Formula 1 car. Senna was fearless, a hero, a villain, a mentor, a proud countryman and so much more. You ask anyone, and they all have their one memory of Ayrton that etched in their minds. People loved him, people detested him, but he had the respect of everyone as a pure racing hero.
For me, I think this is why Senna stands out more than any other driver for me. He was always that extra bit special and you never knew what you were really going to get from him and he was a driver that never, ever gave up. He was a true champion, and definitely one of the best drivers that has ever lived.
What's your favourite Ayrton Senna memory? Why did you adore, or even dislike him? Make sure you share your comments!