By Andrew Benson
Michael Schumacher may statistically be the greatest Grand Prix
driver who ever lived, but to many who watched Ayrton Senna's career
no-one can equal the brilliant Brazilian.
Senna's greatness does not lie in statistics, impressive though his
career record is. It is embodied in the irresistible force with which he
dominated an era of Formula One.
Senna's death changed F1 forever, but his life also had an indelible
In many ways, it was a negative one.
Senna's single-minded pursuit of success led to an uncompromising
driving style that verged on dangerous, an approach since followed with
conspicuous success by Schumacher.
But Senna also redefined what was possible in an F1 car.
He had a rage to win married to an ability that some would argue has
never been equalled.
Senna dominated his cars every bit as forcefully as he did his rivals,
employing a unique driving style to drag them to levels of performance
their designers scarcely believed possible.
The ultimate example of this was perhaps in qualifying for the Monaco
Grand Prix in 1988, when Senna was in his first year at McLaren-Honda as
team-mate to Alain Prost.
Then it was Prost who the other drivers measured themselves against,
and establishing primacy over the Frenchman was initially Senna's number
Monaco, where Senna went on to win a record six times, gave him a
chance to demonstrate his superiority.
Drivers' titles: 1988, '90, '91
Teams: Toleman, Lotus, McLaren, Williams
Born: 21/3/60 (Sao Paulo, Brazil)
Died: 1/5/94 (Imola, Italy)
In qualifying, he set pole position with a lap 1.4 seconds faster
than Prost managed in an equal car, and afterwards spoke in ethereal
terms of an almost supernatural experience in reaching beyond his
conscious self while driving.
The rivalry between Senna and Prost grew into the bitterest the sport
has ever seen, and each man to a degree became defined by it.
But Senna had marked himself out as something special long before he
went head-to-head with his greatest rival. His potential was obvious
even before he reached F1.
In 1983, the Williams team gave the then up-and-coming Formula Three
driver a test in their Grand Prix car, and within 40 laps he had taken
it around Donington Park faster than its regular drivers, including
reigning world champion Keke Rosberg.
Unfathomably, team owner Frank Williams did not offer Senna a
contract, and it was to take him another decade before he had the chance
to sign him again.
Instead, Senna moved to the midfield Toleman team and immediately
made waves, being denied victory in torrential rain at Monaco, his sixth
Grand Prix, only when the race was stopped before half distance because
of the poor conditions.
His ability was already frightening his rivals, to the point that one
said it was appropriate Senna's name had laxative connotations because
that was the effect he had on him.
At the end of the year, showing the single-mindedness which was to
become familiar, Senna walked out on a three-year contract with Toleman
and joined Lotus, then one of the top teams.
Senna and Prost fought out a battle of such intensity that
onlookers feared for their lives
His first win came in only his second race with them, Senna using all
his peerless ability in the rain to make his rivals look flat-footed at
the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix.
Five more wins followed in three years at Lotus, but Senna saw the
team's decline coming before most, and moved in 1988 to form a
super-team with Prost at McLaren.
For three years - two as team-mates and one after Prost left to join
Ferrari - the two fought out a battle of such intensity that onlookers
feared for their lives.
It certainly drove Senna to new extremes. After one particularly
frightening incident, Prost told Senna that if he wanted the title badly
enough to die for it, he could have it.
Senna did sometimes appear to be putting his ambition ahead of his
instinct for survival, most notably at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990,
when Senna secured the second of his three titles by driving into the
back of Prost's Ferrari at 160mph, taking them both out of the race.
Throughout all this, Senna's breathtaking talent was in vivid relief.
But if his driving was captivating enough, he was equally remarkable out
of the car.
Senna was blessed with the good looks of a romantic hero, and his
dark eyes were mirrors to a soul of complexity and surprising
This combination was made all the more powerful by his willingness to
discuss the risks inherent in his job.
Deeply religious, Senna seemed sometimes to be overwhelmed by
fatalism about the danger of his chosen profession.
Senna's determination to win took him to new extremes
His charisma was magnetic - he could hold in spellbound silence a
room of hundreds of hard-bitten journalists - and his intellect,
expressed with poetic eloquence in several languages, was formidable.
"You are doing something that nobody else is able to do," he said. "(But)
the same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody
that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile. Because in a split
second, it's gone.
"These two extremes are feelings that you don't get every day. These
are all things which contribute to - how can I say? - knowing yourself
deeper and deeper. These are the things that keep me going."
When Senna joined Williams for the 1994 season, his position as the
king of F1 was unquestioned. The team had dominated F1 in 1992 and '93,
and Senna was expected to canter to the title.
But Williams' car initially had a serious design flaw, and only
Senna's super-human ability put it on pole for the first race in Brazil.
In the race, though, he was flat beaten by Schumacher's superior
Benetton, and Senna suffered the ignominy of spinning in his chase of
Senna was killed in an accident that will never be fully explained
Anyone wondering how much of that performance Senna dragged from
within only had to look at his team-mate Damon Hill, whom Senna had
lapped by half distance.
Senna went to Imola trailing Schumacher in the championship and
desperately needing to win.
Already it was clear that one of F1's great rivalries was in the
offing, the young pretender challenging the supremacy of the veteran
master, who was determined to hang on to his position.
But as Senna headed into the Tamburello corner at 190mph, with
Schumacher just over a second behind, something went wrong.
The Williams speared off the road and hit a concrete wall, still
travelling at 137mph.
As fate would have it, a front wheel was knocked back towards the
cockpit and Senna's helmet visor was pierced by a suspension arm. If it
had missed him, he would have stepped from the wreck unhurt.