Thirty years after his death, a look at how Ayrton became Senna

The Brazilian has influenced many F1 greats, but perhaps his greatest legacy has been how his fatal crash changed the sport

The pain of Ayrton Senna’s death was felt worldwide. The Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning and more than 3 million people poured into the streets of São Paulo to bid him farewell. In the U.S., Dale Earnhardt gave his condolences to Senna’s family after winning the Talladega 500. Fans left flowers at the Japan headquarters of Honda, the engine manufacturer Senna drove to three world titles.

Thirty years after that fateful May 1 crash in Imola that cut short the life of one of history’s greatest Formula 1 drivers, the figure of Ayrton Senna still stands tall. He might not resonate with younger racing fans but remains an icon in his native Brazil and an idol for racing legends like Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. He has also been an inspiration for songs, movies, and documentaries. A Netflix series by Brazilian filmmaker Vicente Amorim based on his life, is set for release in 2024.

Despite his sporting greatness, however, his strongest legacy may have been the aftermath of his final hour: his death at 34 contributed to major safety rules changes in F1 to ensure that tragedies like his never happened again. 

The two sides of Ayrton Senna 

Senna’s talent was obvious from early on, as was the glaring opposition in temperament that those around him couldn’t help but notice. A seeming contradiction in terms between the caring persona he was in more intimate settings and the dogged ruthlessness that appeared when he raced. Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde in racing attire, if you will.  

“I first heard about Ayrton in 1979, when he was still karting,” said Sergio Rinland, an Argentine engineer who worked for several Formula One teams. A friend saw Senna, then 16, race in Uruguay and was instantly convinced he’d become a world champion. Rinland and Senna met in 1981, when the Brazilian joined the Van Diemen Formula Ford 1600 team in the garage next door to where Rinland worked. 

Several race drivers, mechanics, and engineers from across South America lived in England during those years. On the weekends they weren’t competing, they would meet up and eat together. Senna, however, rarely tagged along. “He was very shy and focused on his work, but once he got into a racing car, he became Mr. Hyde,” said Rinland.

Senna (left) and Mansilla (right) ruffled each other’s feathers during their youth, but remained friends long after
Photo: Enrique Mansilla

Senna’s intense personality on the track could lead to some heated moments. He often clashed with his Van Diemen teammate, Argentine racer Enrique Mansilla. Things once reached boiling point at Thruxton Circuit, with the Brazilian chasing him for the lead. 

“He tried to muscle me out but I didn’t budge. We crashed and he went off track,” said Mansilla. A furious Senna went up to the Argentine after the race and the team had to separate them.

Mansilla, however, also remembers his former teammate’s kindness. Once during a wet track test, Senna insisted the Argentine lead the pack. His wet track mastery would become legendary — just three years later, he shocked the world with his first ever podium in a rain-soaked 1984 Monaco GP — but, in those days, he humbly insisted he wasn’t good in those conditions.

After returning to the pits, the Brazilian suggested they go out again with him leading and showed Mansilla a quicker line they could take. “He was more experienced than I, having raced karting since he was six,” said Mansilla. 

“It was a free lesson that he could’ve easily withheld, but he wasn’t selfish like that.”

That inner contradiction — Senna’s innate kindness clashing with his drive to win — was something that would follow him for the rest of his career. 

A man with no time to lose

Senna’s 1982 Formula Ford 2000 title put him on the radar of F1 teams. Up-and-coming team Toleman was the first to try to recruit him and offered to pay for his 1983 Formula 3 campaign, but the Brazilian refused. 

“He was very much a man of his own mind,” said Chris Witty, who met Senna in 1982 while working as PR & marketing manager for Toleman. “He knew he wanted to do it his way and didn’t want to be committed to anyone.”

Senna eventually joined Toleman for the 1984 F1 season after winning the F3 championship the year before. He secured the team’s first points of the season at the South African GP but ended up dehydrated and had to be put on a drip. Accustomed to shorter events, he wasn’t fit enough for two-hour F1 races. “We had warned him,” said Witty, “but Ayrton didn’t always take notice if you told him things. He often had to work it out for himself.”

Senna drove the Toleman TG184 to podiums in Monaco, Great Britain and Portugal during the 1984 season
Photo: Chris Witty

Senna’s singlemindedness meant that he was always determined to find his next step and had no qualms about loyalties. According to Witty, he didn’t have any issues with Toleman, but he simply couldn’t wait for the team to keep improving. “He was thinking about his next step, and he wasn’t waiting for everyone because he couldn’t afford it,” he recalled. 

Near the end of the season, it was announced that the Brazilian racer was leaving for Lotus, a bigger, more renowned team. 

In 1988, Senna won his first F1 world title, just four years after his debut, and would end up with a remarkable resume for such a short career: three F1 World Titles, sixth all-time for most Grand Prix wins with 41, third all-time for most pole positions with 65, and the most wins at the Monaco Grand Prix, with six.

A  legacy that has made the sport safer  

The Brazilian’s shadow has loomed large over many F1 greats. When seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton was gifted one of the Brazilian’s helmets in 2017, he became so emotional that his drink bottle fell from his hands. Michael Schumacher, who is tied with Hamilton for most F1 championships, wept inconsolably after his 2000 Italian GP victory, which saw him tie Senna for most wins. 

Senna’s most outstanding legacy, however, were the security measures that came into effect due to his death. 

Before then, most F1 designers focused on lowering the cockpit, which meant a narrower and quicker car. “During the 1989 Monaco GP, we had a meeting with the FIA to discuss increasing safety,” said Rinland. “I suggested limiting the cockpit width to a minimum, which would’ve made them taller and safer, but [current Red Bull team chief technical officer] Adrian Newey completely refused.”

All that changed with Senna’s death. FIA began mandating higher and wider cockpits, introducing stepped car floors and conducting more stringent crash tests in order to give the driver more protection. Since 1994, only one F1 driver has died in a race crash — Jules Bianchi in the 2014 Japanese GP — which prompted another plethora of rule changes.

Senna’s humanitarian legacy also lives on. His sister Viviane carried out his dreams of helping Brazilian kids get better opportunities in life and founded the Ayrton Senna Institute two months after his death. According to their reports, they support the education of over 1.9 million Brazilian students a year.

Ayrton Senna remains a national hero in Brazil
Photo: Wikimedia

For those who knew him, the tragedy of Senna’s death still stings three decades later. 

Rinland, who was watching the race on TV when Senna crashed and turned off before realizing he had died, was shocked when he found out the following morning: “It was very hard for me. Drivers like him make no mistakes, so you never think it can happen to them.”

Mansilla, for his part, recalls seeing Senna for the last time in 1989, during the Phoenix GP. “He rang and told me to come over as all the guys from that era were getting together, so I spent the weekend with them,” he said. 

“Ayrton was the same funny, kind kid I had met, thinking about the future just as he was in 1981. It’s such a shame he died.”


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