Marking the 20th anniversary of his death at the circuit’s Tamburello corner, Imola will this weekend play host to a commemoration of the life and achievements of Ayrton Senna. Fittingly, tributes will also be paid to Austrian racer Roland Ratzenberger who was killed the day before Senna, in qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix.
It is expected to be a major event, with F1 racers past and present, including Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, in attendance, as well as team personnel from all eras and many thousands of fans.
Senna’s status as a legend of the sport is, of course, assured. Indeed, even before that fateful weekend in 1994, his three titles, 41 wins and a staggering 65 pole from, until then, 160 starts had already confirmed him as one of the sport’s greats.
It wasn’t just the Brazilian’s sublime abilities behind the wheel that made him and idol for millions, however. Senna’s lasting appeal is more complex than a simple list of record book statistics.
First there was his ferociously competitive nature, defined by what he called “an incredible desire to win”. Allied to this was a willingness to indulge that desire by frequently pushing himself right to the limit of his capability, and sometimes beyond it, attributes that often didn’t endear him to the sport’s authorities or his fellow competitors.
An insatiable will to win should be part and parcel of a champion’s make-up, however. What perhaps set Senna apart from other champions and certainly from his contemporaries was that behind the driven sportsman was a thoughtful and emotive individual deeply affected by his career, his racing, stardom and the riches that came with them. “We are made of emotions, we are all looking for emotions, basically,” he once admitted. “It’s only a question of finding the way to experience them.”
It was perhaps that duality, the contrast between hard-nosed, win-or-bust competitiveness and his fragile emotions, plus his ability to make his rarefied experiences intelligible to the outside world that made Senna more than just a champion or even a globally-recognised sports star and turned him into a legend.
The next four days at Imola are likely to bring back vivid memories of all those facets of the Brazilian’s personality and racing.
They will too allow Formula One to reflect on the legacy both Senna and Ratzenberger, who was killed at just the third race of his grand prix career, left behind.
The untimely deaths of both drivers gave rise to a concerted drive for better safety in Formula One, a movement that continues to this day. Indeed there is great merit to the argument that says that had it not been for the events of that terrible weekend in May 20 years ago, huge accidents like those suffered by Robert Kubica in Canada in 2007 and Felipe Massa in Hungary in 2009 might have altogether more tragic outcomes.
Meanwhile, as Imola prepares to open its gates to fans and Formula One stars alike for this weekend’s commemoration, we’d love to hear your favourite memories of Ayrton Senna or Roland Ratzenberger.