Following the UK general release of film bearing his name, the legend of Ayrton Senna continues to be as strong as ever within the hearts and minds of those who follow Formula One. However, even now his legacy still has a profound effect on inside and outside the world of Formula One.
With this it is important to build a narrative of some of the key events and developments which have taken place since the Brazilian’s death on 1 May 1994.
Safety takes centre stage
Immediately after that dark weekend in Imola the FIA ordered a full inquiry into improving safety in Formula One and the wider motor sport world. This included making modifications to the cars as well as the circuits themselves.
Initially Max Mosley faced opposition from the teams, who believed that the then- FIA president was over-reacting to the accident; this even led to talk of the teams boycotting the Spanish Grand Prix, after the installation of a chicane at the Nissan Corner as well as orders by the governing body for teams to make significant changes to slow down their cars from the mid-season point.
However the Englishman’s introductory measures were helped someway by the driver’s own reaction to the death of Senna and Simtek driver Roland Ratzenberger (as well Ruben Barrichello’s shocking accident during Practice at Imola). Subsequently, with huge input from Niki Lauda and Gerhard Berger, this led to the reformation of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix, with Michael Schumacher and Christian Fittipaldi appointed as directors.
Thereafter the GPDA began to send delegates to circuits in advance of each Grand Prix – to assess each circuit and request changes to unsafe sections.
With the driver’s support, Mosley was able to force through changes as fast as possible, despite the fact that the sport was locked in the midst of the Concorde Agreement which usually prevented such stark changes being made without unanimous support.
These alterations, most of which became visible from the Canadian Grand Prix onwards, included the introduction of a limited pit lane speed and various aerodynamic modifications – the most striking of these being the debut of the underside wooden planks, designed for cars to maintain a minimum ride height at all times.
But Mosley did not stop there, establishing the FIA Advisory Expert Group under the F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins which was charged with investigating the use of advances in technology to improve the likes of the structural design and crash resistance of cars, crash helmets and head and lateral impact protection for the drivers as well as re-profiling corners and developing modern run off and barriers at circuits
By working closely with the AEG and its partners the FIA scaled up its safety drive and continues to do so today. From the implementation of rear impact crash tests in 1997, to the introduction of narrower cars and grooved tyres in 1998 or the introduction of the HANS (Hand and Neck System), the FIA continues to push for ways to continuously advance the safety of the sport – a lasting legacy not only of the presidency of Max Mosley, but also the harrowing events of the Imola weekend.
Williams in the dock
Throughout its continued success with Renault and well into the turn of the century, the investigation into the death of Senna continued to hang over the Williams team.
As his death had taken place on Italian soil, it was mandatory that a full inquest was launched to try and uncover the reasons behind the incident and those behind it. Under the chief prosecutor Maurizio Passarini it would be around three years before the official inquiry would take place, in a make-shift courtroom in Imola.
From February 1997 until late in summer, examining Judge Diego Di Marco pored over Passarini’s 600-page report into the crash as well as listened to testimonies from a number of witnesses. Consequently this led to the charges of manslaughter brought against team boss Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey, who were brainpower behind the team’s FW16B; Federico Bendinelli, the managing director of the Imola circuit owners; Giorgio Poggi, the circuit manager and Roland Bruynseraede the FIA’s race director.
Throughout the proceedings Passarini stuck to his conclusion that the team had been responsible for the poor design and manufacture of the car’s steering column which, it was said, had been modified in an unexceptional manner and had fatigued and broken, causing Senna to lose control. Therefore the Italian believed that Williams had breached a duty of care assumed by any racing manufacturer to those who drive its cars. Nevertheless Williams always maintained that the accident had been down to a number of factors and that the data it provided had shown that the steering column remained intact in the seconds leading to the accident.
As Richard Williams points out in The Death of Ayrton Senna, Passarini could never be able to provide substantial evidence to prove that this had been the case nor was it within the boundaries of the legal system to make a ruling on any obligation which a team has to its driver. As a result, in December of that year local judge Antonio Costanzo ruled that no action would be taken against any of the defendants.
However the case would not end there with Passarini launching an appeal in October 1998 against Head and Newey which was heard in Bologna in November of the following year. Once again the prosecutor’s appeal was rejected, but this did not stop the case stretching into the millennium as the decision was overturned in 2003, after prosecutor Rinaldo Rosini was granted the right to re-investigate the crash.
Finally on 27 May 2005 the two men were finally acquitted of the charges at the court of last resort in Rome with Newey being declared innocent and the case against Patrick Head having “timed out” under a statute of limitations.
After thirteen arduous years, those associated with the Williams team during the time of Senna’s death were finally exonerated. To this day the Grove-based outfit still displays a Senna logo on all of its cars – a lasting memory of what might have been achieved had it not been for that fateful day.
The legend lives on
Nowhere more does the Senna name continue to shine so brightly as in his home country in Brazil. Following the emotional scenes of his funeral, which saw millions pour on to the streets of Sao Paulo, the Brazilian National team would dedicate their 1994 World Cup Victory to his memory.
But it was his contribution to help root out child poverty in his native land which continues to stand out. Prior to his death it was revealed that he had donated around $400 million of his own personal fortune to children’s charities – a fact which he had kept secret throughout his life.
Inspired by this and discussions she had two months before her brother’s death, Viviane Senna established the Instituto Ayrton Senna – a non-profit organisation offering children and teenagers from low-income backgrounds a chance to be given opportunities and gain skills to escape the clutches of poverty. So far this has been achieved by working with the likes of schools, government, NGOs, and the private sector to run and social and educational projects in a whole host of diverse areas, from the Amazon rain forest to inner city areas.
It has been reported in its first ten years alone the foundation raised more than £20 million, through donations from the private sector as well as the sale of a vast and varied range of Senna merchandise which is endorsed by the family.
Key to this has been the recognisable “Senninha” cartoon character; the idea for which was initially devised by Senna himself as a way of extending his status as a role model to children.
Outside of Brazil and, as well as the sale of the merchandise bearing his name, Senna’s memory also continues to be visible throughout the world.
From the production of special motorcycles, to his name being lent to corners and memorials, the memory of Senna continues to shine brightly and is a constant subject discussed on message boards and publications.
Whether it’s his battles with Prost, his impassioned views or his drives around Monaco Senna will always be remembered throughout the motorsport. While his exuberant style behind the wheel continues to influence the stars of tomorrow, the advances he made to the professionalism behind dealing with the demands of being a modern driver must also not be forgotten.