As we mark 21 years since Ayrton Senna’s tragic passing at Imola, the legendary driver is remembered by those who knew him.
Damon Hill – World champion, 1996; Senna’s team-mate at Williams in 1994
I only had such a brief amount of time working with Ayrton, but through all of it, I would say that he was a pretty serious guy.
I had read about him and studied his performances before I got to Formula 1, and then when he joined the team I spent a while trying to marry up the public image that had built up in my mind to the guy who was now sitting alongside me in the team truck. I have to say, they were pretty similar. I don’t think the guy had a mask, as such, but he was genuine to himself and that is the man that he was.
In terms of learning from Senna, I was at such a different level from him that it was hard for me to get too much out of a working relationship. I didn’t expect him to invite me around his house for tea – he wasn’t that kind of guy – but I did get an insight into what it was like to be such an established name in the sport, and the expectation that comes with that when you are a world champion.
But, from whatever the public have seen of him, I think he was pretty true to being that man, and that is a very valuable – and possibly unusual – quality.
Ian Harrison – Williams team manager at the time of Senna’s death
To begin with when Senna got to Williams, the relationship with him was a bit distant. You could tell that he was trying to weigh the place up – after all, he had been at McLaren for the previous six seasons.
I met him at the factory for the first time, and I remember him as very quiet and polite. He also seemed very down-to-earth.
He was demanding, but he didn’t scream and shout. He had spun off at the opening race of 1994, and he simply returned to the team, apologised and said it would never happen again.
That weekend at Imola, his reaction of going to the medical centre after Rubens Barrichello’s accident and Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal shunt were just the reactions of a humane guy. He knew what life was about and he cared deeply about things.
Murray Walker – Formula 1 commentator; one of the last people to interview Senna
I probably conducted one of the last interviews with him on the Sunday morning at Imola. Everyone thinks that the media is great chums with the drivers – and that is true in some exceptional cases – but Senna was a very private man.
Professionally, he was fantastic, but I would hesitate to say he was cheerfully friendly. What he was, when you spoke to him, was authoritative and hugely eloquent in what was, don’t forget, a foreign language for him. While I didn’t know him well, the people who did got to see him as a warm-hearted and an extremely kind man. Once you had his confidence, there was a deep side to Senna that I never knew.
He was superbly talented and a bit of a mystical human being; he had a combination of qualities that I don’t think we had seen before that time. I don’t think anyone has quite matched up to it since, either.
Dennis Rushen – Prepared Senna’s Formula Ford 2000 in title-winning ’82 season
When Senna was coming up through the ranks, there was none of the data or the simulation technology that you have today; there was just a tachometer and that was about it.
What struck us immediately was his ability to know on any given track, in any given weather, exactly how much grip each corner had. What a massive advantage that gave him over everybody else. There was one race at the Österreichring in Austria in FF2000 when he went out on slicks on a damp track and came around at the end of the first lap five seconds clear of everyone else. He had that natural feel and that is when people started taking notice of him.
Ayrton – or ‘Arry’, as our mechanics called him – was a private man but remembered the people who helped him on the way up. We were in regular contact, and I spoke to him in 1994. You could tell that he wasn’t enjoying F1 at that time. His body language had changed; he wasn’t smiling any more and I think that he was on the verge of walking away.
Terry Fullerton – Karting champion, named by Senna as his toughest rival
Senna stood out to me immediately as a gifted newcomer, but there were things he needed to add to his game before he was ready to move on. But, by the end of three years karting with him, he was getting all the pieces of the jigsaw together.
He became a more complete driver. He had raw speed and he needed to up his game in terms of the technical side of things and his feedback. He also needed to rein in his emotions. He was calculating on the track but still took a few things to heart too quickly.
I knew that he would be able to go all the way, because he was obsessive, determined, passionate, dedicated, quick and intelligent. He was the sort of talent with the mix of skills that only comes along once every 50 years or so. Jim Clark had it, Ayrton Senna had it and I still think that we are waiting for the next one.
Ron Dennis – Chairman and CEO, McLaren Group; signed Senna to McLaren for 1988 season
When he first tested for McLaren [in 1983], he was very keen to get an advantage, making sure the car wasn’t damaged by other young drivers that were testing [and] asking about fresh tyres.
He was quick, but [for the 1984 season] we had Alain Prost and Niki Lauda, so we let him go and cut his teeth somewhere else.
One of the differentiators between great racing drivers and good ones is that the great realise the importance of the team and implement actions that get them the right drive. Ayrton made it apparent he wanted to join and the Honda engine [McLaren would join forces with Honda for 1988] was one of the reasons.
Ayrton was living in a rented house in Esher, Surrey, and there was a discussion at his home about money. I suggested the idea of flicking a coin. He had a dark brown shagpile carpet, which was trendy at the time.
The coin went off like a rocket and we could hear it rattling underneath the curtains on a piece of hardwood. We were arguing over half a million dollars in his first season. Neither of us had tweaked, though, that it was a three-year contract, so it was in fact over $1.5 million…
Ralph Firman – Ran Senna in a Van Diemen RF81 in British Formula Ford in 1981
The first thing that struck me was that Ayrton was just a genuine bloke. He was polite and very appreciative of all the things that were being done for him – but he always wanted to be pushing things forward.
I didn’t mind that because I wanted to win too, but even if we had a really successful weekend, he would still come into the factory on the Monday morning and complain that the engine wasn’t quite where it should be or that the chassis needed improving. It was a constant quest for perfection, and he was only aged 20 at the time. I always believed what he said, because I quickly learned that he was always right.
I had waited for two years for him to come over from his karting career in Brazil, and I had all these reports about how good the kid was. I knew he would make it even before he arrived in England.
And the lovely thing was that even after he made it to Formula 1, he still kept in regular contact. In fact, on a couple of occasions when he was driving for Lotus in F1, I would get home from work to find him waiting on the doorstep to see us. He was both a lovely man and a wonderful racing driver.
Steve Sutcliffe – Deputy road test editor at Autocar in 1994
Senna was the reason I went motor racing in the first place. There was something about him, not just the way he drove but the way he conducted himself that I found genuinely inspirational.
I saw him in the foyer of a hotel in Munich the week before he was killed. He was holding court, and you could tell from people’s expressions that they knew they were in the company of someone who maybe knew more about what goes on in the universe than us.
I don’t think there’s been anyone quite like him in a racing car. He did stuff in cars that no one else had even thought of, let alone tried. And that’s the reason why I still well up slightly, 21 years later, when I think about 1 May 1994.
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This review is about Ayrton Senna remembered by those who knew him.