Almost a quarter of a century after his death, Ayrton Senna still looms large over Formula 1.
The great Brazilian, who died at Imola on 1 May 1994, lives on more than any of the sport’s other lost champions. He is remembered in award-winning documentaries, through the drivers who model themselves on him, and with an endless line of memorabilia.
Each year, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, cars cross the start-finish straight and drop down through the Senna ‘S’, a combination of turns named after the circuit’s favourite son. Fans ensure that the whole weekend is peppered with reminders of Senna: hats, t-shirts, flags, even tattoos.
Many current drivers were not even born in May 1994, but Senna’s impact continues to be felt throughout motor racing, not just in Formula 1. He changed the sport, creating new levels of excellence, improving safety, and altering its aesthetic. His dark side still has an impact, too.
It is impossible to quantify who is the greatest grand prix driver of all time. But, when it comes to assessing who has had the most influence, it is hard to look beyond Senna.
SENNA THE BENCHMARK
Senna’s status in motorsport is comparable with Muhammad Ali: while talent made him famous, it was his personality that made him an icon.
Not that Senna was a bombastic character. A handsome, soft-spoken Brazilian, he charmed rather than cajoled. He could be moody, but at times he displayed a childlike enthusiasm. These traits made him immensely popular in life and almost religiously worshipped in death.
Senna’s gifts seemed to peak in the rain. The 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, when he steered his Toleman to a shock runner-up finish, and his maiden win at the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, both came in torrential downpours. Later, his stunning opening lap at the 1993 European Grand Prix – considered by many to be the greatest of all time – was also run in wet conditions.
Today, when a driver excels in the rain, they are immediately compared with Senna, as Max Verstappen was after his brilliant drive at a drenched Interlagos in 2016. Senna’s name is a byword for brilliance in treacherous conditions.
His incredible qualifying pace also set a new standard. The Brazilian took 65 career poles, almost twice as many as the nearest challengers at the time of his death, Jim Clark and Alain Prost (both on 33). Michael Schumacher (68) and Lewis Hamilton (73 and counting) have subsequently overhauled him, though both drivers have started considerably more races than Senna did.
Despite his record falling, the quintessential shot of a driver preparing for a qualifying run remains that of Senna sitting in his McLaren, eyes tightly closed, visualising every inch of the lap. That won’t change, even if Hamilton reaches 100 pole positions. He simply cannot compete with such an iconic driver.
As important as his success on-track was Senna’s commitment to improving safety standards. He was obsessively interested in this area of the sport, forming a close bond with F1’s safety and medical delegate, Professor Sid Watkins.
He even became actively involved. In 1992, Erik Comas crashed heavily during practice at Spa. Senna stopped and rushed over to the Frenchman, shutting off the engine and keeping the driver’s head stable. Comas credits Senna with saving his life that day.
In death, he was the catalyst for dramatic safety improvements. F1 is always moved to action when a driver suffers serious injuries or worse, but Senna’s death magnified the effect. As the most famous and enigmatic driver on the grid, his passing was global news.
The most visible change came in improved cockpit protection: during Senna’s career, a driver’s head protruded from the car, while just a year later the cockpit was visibly more robust.
Circuits were altered, medical standards advanced, and cars made to face tougher crash-safety tests. These may have happened eventually, but there is no question that Senna’s death accelerated the process. In this respect, his legacy lives on in a very real sense at circuits across the globe.
THE SENNA AESTHETIC
To say Senna changed racing does not restrict his influence to driving or safety. He also changed the aesthetic of his sport in a way that no other driver can match.
Consider the number of helmet designs inspired by Senna’s iconic yellow, blue and green colour scheme. Lewis Hamilton’s original design is the most obvious. Like Senna’s, it was predominantly yellow with blue and green bands (Hamilton also incorporated red to reflect his Grenadian heritage). He has since moved away from this, but there are still nods to the original in his 2018 design.
Eddie Irvine used a near-copy of Senna’s helmet early in his career, eventually changing the yellow to red when he reached F1. Sportscar ace Alexander Sims took his inspiration from Senna’s design and tweaked it, as have many others. The unmistakable Senna template is now widely used and adapted across the sport.
Then there are the namesakes. Senna Proctor, a 19-year-old from Yorkshire, recently took his first British Touring Car Championship win. Ayrton Simmons, aged 17 and hailing from Epping, currently leads the British Formula 4 standings. And Sennan Fielding, a 22-year-old from Chesterfield, competes in the British GT championship.
Ayrton Hirst, Roman Senna de Angelis, Ayrton Olsen – the list goes on. And these are just the namesakes who have raced at a noteworthy level. There are no doubt scores more named Ayrton or Senna across the globe, particularly in Brazil.
Suffice it to say that there is no army of youngsters named Prost or Schumacher. There will be some who go by Alain, Michael or indeed Lewis because of what these drivers achieved, but nothing compares to Senna’s legacy.
As you would expect there are corners named after him at circuits across the globe, and several streets that bear his name in Brazil. There is even an Ayrton Senna Road in Reading, where he rented a house during the early part of his career.
You can now add a car to the list too, after McLaren christened its new hypercar the Senna. This is primarily marketing, of course, but it shows how far-reaching the name is.
Indeed, a 2015 study by the Boston Consulting Group suggested that Senna ranked alongside Roger Federer and Michael Jordan when it came to product endorsement potential, despite the fact that Senna himself is not around to do the endorsing.
There is certainly no shortage of memorabilia, including t-shirts, hats, and phone cases. Your baby can wear a Senna jumpsuit, which can be kept clean at meal times with a Senna bib. For the more mature fan, TAG-Heuer produce an expensive Ayrton Senna watch. Clocks, figurines, keyrings – you name it, they sell it.
In the years since his death, Senna’s likeness and the colours he made famous have become a brand. It feels quite separate from the quiet man and the intensity he brought to his sport.
THE DARK SIDE OF SENNA
There is no debate to be had over whether Senna was a great driver. You’ll also hear no objections to the suggestion that he was a thoroughly decent man, both polite and generous, shy but possessing a great sense of mischief.
But there was a dark side to his character on the circuit. Senna’s determination to win sometimes marred his career, though following his death some of the Brazilian’s flaws have tended to be forgotten.
Above all, we cannot ignore the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, or at least the few hundred metres for which Senna was involved. Driving Prost off the road at Suzuka was beyond the pale. Senna was angry that pole was situated on the dirty side of the grid and you can’t deny that his grievances were legitimate.
Nevertheless, there is no justification for putting a rival into the gravel at in excess of 150mph. It is one thing to risk your own life – it’s part of the job – but endangering the safety of others is anathema to all sport. Besides Prost himself, a crash of this size could have injured other drivers, marshals, or even fans.
Senna’s off-track persona as a soft-spoken gentleman could not be further from what he was capable of on the circuit. When wronged he could be vicious. His strong sense of justice out of the car led him to do great things, but in the car it pushed him to acts of revenge.
In isolation, this would merely be a stain on Senna’s reputation, but his “win at all costs” approach carried over into the next generation.
Michael Schumacher was rightly castigated for his actions at Adelaide in 1994 and Jerez in 1997, but these were both moves that Senna might have made. Schumacher was an equally ruthless racer. He saw what Senna was prepared to do and knew that he would have to match it to compete at such a high level.
From Schumacher, the “win at all costs” mentality continued. Indeed, Kevin Magnussen’s squeeze on Pierre Gasly at last weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix had echoes of Schumacher about it. This is not to say Senna would have made the exact same move, but there has been a trickle-down effect, with the Brazilian’s actions influencing Schumacher and the German driver influencing the next generation.
Despite his faults, however, Senna towers above all other F1 drivers. His impact on motor racing touches almost every aspect of the sport and will continue to do so for many years to come. There will be more Senna-influenced helmets, more kids at kart circuits named Ayrton, and plenty more memorabilia featuring his likeness.
The strength of Senna’s legacy is the result of a captivating personality off the track and his utter brilliance on it. It was a uniquely potent combination – and one we might never see the like of again.