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Ayrton Senna – an appreciation, half a century on
Ayrton Senna – an appreciation, half a century on
Posted By: James Allen  |  21 Mar 2010   |  10:06 am GMT  |  208 comments

Today is the 50th anniversary of the birth of Ayrton Senna.

There are many dates to remember the great Brazilian by; key moments in his career or his very public death on 1 May 1994, but his birth should remain the key date in my view.

Senna wasn’t like other racing drivers. He had the same skills as the very best of them, but what defined him was his intellect and the spiritual dimension of his character; it was a passion, a calling above and beyond the simple desire to compete, which drove him on and raised him to a different level.

He was no saint; he drove others off the road and could be as ruthless as anyone, but he had principles and felt that his struggle was not merely against other drivers but against the politics and corrupting influences of F1.

People are not prepared to forgive Michael Schumacher for his various indiscretions on the track, like Jerez 1997 or Monaco 2006, but they forgive Senna for driving Alain Prost off the road in Suzuka 1990 because in some very human way it was a righting of wrongs, it leveled the score from the previous year.

But the reason why he is so celebrated today is his all consuming passion for driving on the limit and his extraordinary ability to analyse and articulate it.

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Senna`s strengths where qualifying (finding the perfect lap), overtaking and not losing anytime in traffic and in the wet he was simply on another level to his peers. His great weakness was “he was driving cars that where nowhere near as reliable as today’s machines”!.

Prost`s great strength was managing tires with his beautiful smooth driving style and usually having the better rubber at the end of a race.


I always felt that what made Senna great was his unrivalled winning attitude and abillity to push the car beyond limits. He literally put everything on the line when he did so, many argue that Prost was the most complete driver, but I preferred Senna since he was more daring, which is what makes the sport so exciting and interested for all viewers. Senna was truly a great, his death unfortunate but his memory lives on brightly.


The pressure is immense.You need everything you have,and you must lay it on the table.First qualifying,and then the race.You are looking for the best achievement you can possibly provide for your team and your fans.There can never be any deference to anyone.Ayrton knew anything less than total commitment would count him out of the championship,and he was there to win it.I also admire those with a more casual approach.They win championships too.But who in F1 history would you like to see at La Rascasse,Eau Rouge or the Variante Ascari?I saw Ayrton once.March 9-11,1990 was my brush with greatness.Phoenix,Arizona.All of the big four were there.The Saturday was wet.And on the Sunday Senna passed Alesi twice,on Jefferson Street,right in front of me.He never did much testing during the winter,preferring instead his time off with friends,rightly so.He was exausted,he had given his all.His fight with the FIA to keep his license,the fruitless battle for his Suzuka points.He regrouped that day,and set his eyes on a title he at least thought was stolen.He learned from the professor the year before how to win the championship,I guess he was guilty of not waiting until lap 46.


Senna was and is the greatest


thank you james for reminding me how exciting it was to watch ayrton and alain battle. it seems ayrton was right, computers and technology are burying the human.


Senna was the quintessential formula 1 driver, and champion. Mercurial, and temperamental to a fault, superstitious and lightning fast. That first lap in the wet at Donnington will always remain in my mind the absolute summit of F1 driving. Contemptuous, arrogant, and fearless, he backed down from no one. There are far too few drivers of his ilk. As a human being, he was generous, and charitable, and gave back to the community with great devotion. What more can I say. He is a hard act to follow for Bruno.


Senna was the greatest driver I can remember (F1 was so different in the days of Fangio, Clark etc, you just can’t compare drivers).

Forget speculation about what might have happened, look at Donnington 93. He lapped everybody including the superior Williams of Prost and Hill.

Look at his test at Williams in 83. An F3 driver at the time with no experience in an F1 car. Within 40 laps he was nearly a second quicker than any of the Williams team, including reigning world champion Keke Rosberg.

One of the trademaks of the true greats is the ability to instantly adapt their driving style to suit the car (look at how far Schumacher was in front of Barichello when the Ferrari was not the best car, yet when the Ferrari was the class of the field, so didn’t require the driver to compensate for it, Rubens was virtually as quick). Senna possesed this quality in abundance.

Prost deserved his title as the ‘Prof’. He spent days testing, fine tuning, saving a few thousanths of a second here and there which all added up. He set the McLaren up to get the maximum he could from it. Compare that to Senna who just jumped in and drove it. If it oversteered on a particular corner he just adjusted his technique to suit.

Comparing Prost and Senna is difficult. Prost looked at the bigger picture, he was happy to consistantly collect points. He would plan his race for the full distance. Senna was an all out racer, second was never good enough.


There is nothing in sport I can think so sad as that day at Imola.

I will never forget the scene after Estoril. Ayrton in that distinctive black of the John Player Special Lotus. What a pleasure it was to hear James Hunt on so many occasions to remark on Ayrton’s driving or read his post grand prix report in the Telegraph on a monday. You could rely on Hunt to cut straight to the rub.


Ok… I should be doing other far more important things right now.. so I shall try and keep this brief..

I don’t want to upset anybody, or annoy anyone but his has turned, inevitably, into a deluge of Prost was better.. Schumacher’s not great.. Schumacher is wonderful.. look at statistics, etc etc etc.. and a whole load of ifs, buts and maybes and I can’t help but think that this isn’t what it was supposed to be.

OK, Senna wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, no driver ever is, but I think it’s fair to say that whilst he was around, for far too brief a moment, he made the mad, bad and dangerous world of Formula 1 a much more exciting place to be, and the sport will always be the better for having had him in it.

*climbs down off soapbox and goes back to work*


Senna was better!:)

Seriously though lets just admire the great man.

Im an unabashed Senna fan, Prost etc are also greats. But none touched like Senna did, even if you didnt like F1, you listened when he spoke.

You FELT somthing. Could we say the same of Prost? Schumacher?


In the end when we are all dead and gone, The History books will show that Prost won 4 and Senna won 3 WDC.

Thats something that Senna nor his fans can ever change.(So Senna could never say he was better than Prost)

No doubt when Prost dies great things will be said about him as well, and he will be looked upon in the same like as Senna?


Senna was a genius at the wheel, but the problem was that being the leading light of F1 instead of adopting and practicing good and sporting racing he bred a new kind of mentality in F1 which believed in driving people off the track or intimidating them by threatening to crash into them. The Press was fully to blame in not criticising him for these acts but lionising them so they became legitimate in the eyes of junior F1 drivers like Schumacher, who took this unsporting behaviour to the next unsavoury level.

That’s the tragedy that F1’s two greatest drivers of recent times have taken the sport down an dishonourable route. A far cry from Stirling Moss or Gilles Villeneuve.


What Senna did in Suzuka in 1990 was unforgiveable. You don’t intentionally crash someone out in front of an entire field of cars. I lost all respect for him on that day. He should of been banned from the sport for a year.

Prost had him beat, I give Senna no credit for his 1990 WDC.


I agree. I thought that the punting off of Alain Prost at that race sent a terrible message throughout open-wheel motorsport that it was OK to punt your opponent off the track when it came down to the championship. That single unpunished action set the scene for further blatant moves like Michael Schumacher driving into Damon Hill at the last race of 1994. The loss of Schumacher’s points for 1997 after he drove into Jacques Villeneuve was an action taken 7 years too late.

I lost most of my respect for Ayrton Senna after that incident. He eventually more or less admitted that he did it deliberately, but never properly apologized. The FIA should have taken away his championship at the very least. He may well have been the greatest driver of the last 50 years of Formula 1, but IMHO he was allowed to drive in a manner not befitting world-class motorsport on several occasions, including 1990.


Senna was a legend, truly. Even coming into the sport well after 1994, I understand what he did for it – he is one of the true myths of F1.

But lets not forget Ratzenburger, either. The two drivers should be remembered together, as they represent two ends of the spectrum of drivers. Ratzenburger was a older man (37, I think) who had been trying to get into F1, his dream, for so many years.

Eventually, after becoming a pay driver, he got to drive for a not overly good team. Then he was killed in the accident, but at all times, had never given up on driving in F1.

Senna was a legend, driving some of the best cars in the best way. He had the skills to be the best in the world, and I bet he dreamed about it too. Ratzenburger was not anything like that, but he had his dream which he was trying to make good upon.

So, here’s to the dreamers. They’re not so far apart.


The discussion about his incredible driving skills will go on and on. Regardless of your standpoint he burns so bright in people’s memory because of his talent and because of his human touch. Senna’s character made him stand out from the rest at a time when there were already a number of stars in the field.

I don’t think the human touch is completely missing from the latest generation of drivers but for sure corporate influence has put a reign on emotional outbursts. If I remember correctly Senna was part of the reason Schumi cried in front of the cameras. It is significant that Senna also touched so deeply those he fought against and beat. Surely that is the greatest sign of respect from his peers.

James points to his intellect and passion. I think he was also extremely articulate, able to paint a verbal picture of what it requires to complete at the highest level. Now it is a shame that drivers and team owners have to retire before we can get a more detailed insight what it’s like to live so close to the edge.

He was no saint. But then he wasn’t looking for others acceptance. He was humble.

I think if Schumacher had been more human (emotional) fans may be more willing to forgive.


Senna was a hero of mine but that has to be contrasted with my massively partisan regard to Nigel Mansell.

Nice of you to mark his birthday James with such a fine tribute.

Like most people who were around at the time the shock of the death of Ratzenberger followed so closely by Senna was of tragic proportions.

I’ve re-watched some of my favourite battles between Mansell and Senna via youtube.

Wish we has those kinds of battles today AND turbo horsepower and marginal tyres!


I just read two Senna quotes on another website and it struck me that we could possibly pay attention to them to improve today’s racing.

On increasing technology: “The machines have taken away the character and it is the character that the sponsors and public are looking for. At the top, you have a few characters of conflicting personality; the rest, without good results, don’t have any credibility. We must reduce costs so that we return to an era where the emphasis is on people not computers.”

On computers in F1 cars: “I want to be challenged by my own limits and by someone who is made of the same skin and bone and where the difference is between brain and experience and adaptation to the course. I do not want to be challenged by someone else’s computer. If I give 100% to my driving, which is my hobby as well as my profession, I can compete with with anyone, but not computers.”


Statistics do not lie. Yes Senna was a great driver. Better than Michael may be…but in the years to come when first genaration Senna lovers cease to exist. One thing will remain and that is statistics. Numbers do not mislead! Michael’s glory at the top of the list will only increase. The argument used for Senna to be greatest (if…scenario) could be used for a lot of other great racers i.e. gilles, jim clark. While Senna has my respect, but did Senna possess the ability to build a team around him ?! Something Michael mastered! Moreover, you must remember Senna and Michael backgrounds. Micheal had humble beginnings whereas Senna was pretty well off and could afford to go expensive racing. You need to analyze the whole story. In short, I wouldn’t to sound rude, but Senna death made him into a leged…



George Best never played in the world cup, but he is still regarded as one of the best players ever. Many players who won one or more world cups have been long forgotten.

Many boxers have much better records than Muhammed Ali.

Statistically Schumacher is the most successful driver ever, but in years to come Senna will still be regarded by many as the greatest ever.

Senna embodies everything of legendary status. Schumacher just broke a lot of records.


Schumacher just broke a lot of records. You never really understaood my point. Fandoom would never let you! As F1 spreads into new territories, the first person the associate with it Michael Schumacher and not aryton senna. Like I said, no doubt senna was great driver. But please you cannot take anything away from Michael..if we go into ifs..Micheal would have ended up with about 9 championships…you need to remember facts. Senna did not heal aids ! When the first generation fans are not there anymore, statistics would prevail even more ! People in a lot countries would never know who senna is or was…but they for sure recognize Schumacher and his red helmet !


I was reluctant to respond at first as I felt that if someone started watching F1 when Ferrari was winning with MS, it is rather hard to have a discussion about F1 in a broader perspective.

I liked MS in 92 and 93 as he hard a fighting spirit even though he was still very green. However, the cheating car and fuel rig of 1994, the cheap shots at Damon Hill and Adelaide made it hard for some people to continue supporting him. Then, his Ferrari years of having yielding teammates (it does not matter whether it was Ferrari or his idea) and the assistance of FIA on numerous occasions really diminished what he achieved. His Qualifying records cannot be compared to records achieved in earlier era as it was not always the fastest car that was on pole in recent years.

While people are generally supporting the winners when they start watching a sport, that’s why I understand many people who started watching F1 in the last 10 years think that MS is the best ever.

For me, Senna is one of the greatest F1 drivers not only of his skills, but also the impact he brought onto the sport. Having said that, I have to state that I also like many drivers across the 60 years of F1, not necessarily race winners or Champions like Moss, Alesi, Gilles Villeneuve, Rene Arnoux, Martin Brundle and so many others.


Unfortunately fandon has got to you, but I expected that before I even posted.

Once in a while drivers come along who transcend the sport, Senna, in F1, Ali in boxing, Don Bradman, Pele, in other sports.

It is these people who are long remembered, not for their records, but their impact on the sport.

You say that many people “for sure recognize Schumacher and his red helmet”

I can assure you that the Yellow helemt is considered far more iconic for fans of formula one.

I am not a particular fan of Senna, but Sennas charisma and impact on Formula one was far more than that of Schumachers and in years to come,. people will see Schumachers records, but Senna will forever be looked upon be most people as the greatest ever driver in the history of F1.

As for new territiries and people associating it only with Schumacher, again your hero worship has got in the way of the evidence.

The new territories as you put it, many people there are supporting the likes of Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, etc, because they are the current superstars, but the people who go on to become fans of F1 and its history, for a majority, |Senna is looked upon as the greatest.

This post is irrelevant though, because it contradicts your beliefs, so you will never even consider any of its points.


Senna’s ability to built and inspire a team? Look at Toleman, look at Lotus and what happened to De Angelis, look at McLaren and what happened to Prost. Look at how all those team managers, engine designers, engineers and pit crew regarded him.

Perhaps you need to find out what happened in Senna’s times.



Did he we win consecutive 5 championships with them ?!


50 years from now people will still remember him, he’s deservedly one of the most legenday sportsmen of all time.

Mike from Medellin, Colombia

James, I remember you talking once about being in awe of Senna after you saw him perform some type of “handbrake” turn at Spa.

Was it 1993 that you were talking about?


Apologies for the tewwible commentary by Jonathan Ross.


Yes, Spa in the aftermath of the Zanardi shunt in practice


On that horrendous day at Imola, I was a 12 year old boy with no cares in the world, the previous day my father had told me a F1 driver had crashed and died, then the following day, he delivered the same message to me again. at the time being a kid, it didn’t have the impact on me that it has had for the last 14 years of being a f1 anorak. I look back ashamed of how I failed to acknowledge how these men go out weekend after weekend risking their lives, to do what they love, just for those two hours, battle wheel to wheel to be the best. But I was a snot nosed 12 year old.

Now a 28 year old who has seen almost all of Senna’s races, documentaries, countless books…. He is one of life’s few heroes, once every now and then they come along in different form’s and shapes, 50 years ago, one was born, Ayrton Da Silva, he went on to become a triple f1 world champion, but that wasn’t just the person he was. Primarily he was one of those few people that battle for what is right and fair, and no matter how it is looked at, his life off thetravk was one of a great man, every year I contribute to the Senna foundation that he set up to help and educate homeless children in the slums of Brazil. I wear the S Senna t-shirts from the foundation, the senninha one’s etc, and when someone asks about him, I give them a short but engaging review of the person he was. From helping on the track… (Eric Comas) to off the track. A great man, few have been seen, but knowing that people like that exist, should give us all hope.

Happy Birthday.


There are indeed tracks where starting from pole can be quite unfavourable even on the calendar today but it’ll never be fixed


There are lots of comparisons between Senna and Schumacher.

I am VERY grateful to have seen Senns and Schumacher and there are lots of what ifs if Senna had lived.

BUT I have seen the greatest driver ever (records) as have most of us on here – love him or hate him Scumacer is the greatest (and Im a Team Willy fan not a specific driver fan).


Here here, I hope that the race weekend in Melbourne doesn’t pass by without some sort of tribute to Senna. Mind you the fact that within a week of what would have been his 50th birthday, Ayrton’s nephew Bruno made his Grand Prix debut is very appropriate.

James, something I’ve always tried to find out is – how long was Senna’s Williams contract for when he joined them in 1994? It may seem like a pointless question but it’s something I’ve always been curious to know and no one seems to have the answer. Many Thanks.


Good question – don’t remember but will find out


Thank you would be much appreciated!


From my memory it was 2 years with an option for a third


It’s kindof a pointless excercise, but I think it’s interesting to consider what might have been, and when you think Schumacher only beat Hill by 1 point in ’94 it’s highly likely Senna could have won a 4th World Title in ’94 and the ’95 Williams in Senna’s hands would have been more than a match for Schumacher in the Benetton. And surely when Ferrari started to get itchy feet about the long wait since ’79 for their next World Champion they would have turned to Senna rather than the man that in reality they did turn to. So they may have managed to lure Senna into a Ferrari for ’96. I expect at this point Senna in his late 30’s would be looking to end his career by finally bringing the World Title back to Maranello, a last hurrah in his career, the last big challenge with the sport’s most famous team. I doubt he could have won the ’96 World Title against the all conquering Williams’, but maybe ’97 or ’98 would have been the year(s) he could have won it with Ferrari. And then retired, what a shame that the world was robbed of those final glorious years of Senna’s career. Maybe Senna should have been the man to go down in history as Formula 1’s first 7 times World Champion?


I am sure you are correct. I just finished reading “The Life of Ayrton Senna” and it was argued that if he survived, he could have won the 1994, 1995 and possibly championships with the types of cars Williams produced. It is also believed that the Ferrari contract offered to Schumacher in 1996 was previously on the table for Senna. Seems far fetched to me but believe what you will.


James, I think it was for 1 year only, but with an option to extend. He made no secret of the fact that he would take advantage of Williams winning form, but wanted to move to Ferrari for a career end. I’m pretty sure!?



Happy Birthday Ayrton.

Touching tribute article James.

Such a shame we lost Senna in 94. Simply the best.

I dont want to lose focus on Ayrton, but the difference between Senna driving Prost off and Schumacher, is that Senna admitted to it, where as Schumacher parked his car in Monaco and pretended he couldnt get out. Form is temporary, class is permanent…

RIP Senna


I am totally with you, Malcolm. The press conferences of 1991 (especially the one for journalists) where he openly said what he did was wrong but it was his responses to the intense and sometimes unfair situations over the two previous years. People still say that he and Schumacher are the same and that is the biggest insult and misunderstanding.

Senna never resorted to cheating cars, contractually bounded teammates (saying no tho having Warwick was because of the team’s resources. If it were MS, he would let Warwick or anyone else joined as long as they let him win), or dirty tactics.

For many of us, his qualifying records is still unbroken as he did not got them from yielding teammates or having a lighter car.


Oh dear, another desperate attempt from Senna fanboy.

Do you think he would say “Oh Warwick can’t join because he was better.” ??

Of course not. “Team resources” was just a lame excuse really.

In fact, Senna was massively favored by Honda, it was well document. These kind of drivers want to win more than they want to live. And that’s mean they would take any unfair advantage get they can.

We had Mikka and Alonso had their teammates that let them pass. MS was NO different. A lot of what you stated were not facts. Only biased Senna fanboys would think MS was favoured unlike others Mikka or Alonso.

Oh yeah and don’t forget that Senna was largely responsible for introducing the dirty driving. And MS followed the foot steps of his idol.


It looks like Sennas car was as usual running very low and was tossed off course by grounding before the corner. The plank under the car was brought in to discourage this practice.
Seeing sparks at the last GP was a reminder of those days. It used to be every car every lap.


There’s a theory that Williams radical anhedral rear wing is what made the FW16 so twitchy and unpredictable.

It seems that no one can confirm whether the steering column broke through fatigue or accident damage, which I must admit I find amazing – it should be obvious to any engineer.

Mike from Medellin, Colombia

Have a look at this. If it was the car bottoming because of low tyre pressures then why did Senna not crash on lap 6.

It seems very likely that the steering column broke off in Senna’s hands before he hit the wall. Listen to what the legendary Mauro Forghieri says:



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