Ayrton Senna’s Final Race

Remembering the good times. Watch from 3:00 for the start of one of Senna’s greatest laps ever.

Twenty years ago today was a Sunday. I awoke earlier than usual and went to check that the VCR (yes, it was that long ago) was recording the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. Formula One coverage in the U.S. was sparse then, only available on ESPN and often with a strange start time like 7:50 a.m. Since I was already up, I decided to watch the race. It was to be one of the sport’s most tragic weekends and, unexpectedly, three-time F1 champion Ayrton Senna‘s final race.

During Friday practice, Rubens Barrichello had a massive crash with his car landing upside down. He was hospitalized and did not race. Then on Saturday, rookie Roland Ratzenberger fatally crashed his Simtek during qualifying when the front wing failed sending him nearly head on into a concrete barrier at high speed, killing him instantly. It was the first driver fatality at an F1 race weekend in 12 years.

At the start of the race Pedro Lamy ran into the back of J.J. Lehto‘s stalled car, launching an errant wheel into the stands and injuring a number of spectators. This triggered a safety car period while crews cleaned up the debris.

Senna, who had led from the start, was ahead of a young Michael Schumacher as the race resumed. With the on-board camera from Schumacher’s car trained on Senna’s Williams-Renault, the audience saw it leave the track at the high speed Tamburello corner and slam into the wall.

The crash didn’t look especially bad, but it most certainly was. Senna was fatally injured, and the race was red flagged (stopped). It was a surreal image, the yellow helmet not moving in the car. Between the red straps of his safety harness, it appeared from the helicopter view, that the area in between which was normally blue and white was covered in red. I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Later, when the race was restarted, it was Schumacher who claimed victory, understandably without a celebration on the podium. Later that evening Senna was pronounced dead, and the sport lost one of its greats – and its only active world champion.

The next day I told a friend of mine at school what happened. His name was Ronald, a German exchange student who had taken to watching F1 after the arrival of Schumacher. He couldn’t believe it. Then the news came on, and there it was. Motorsport here was so provincial then. You knew it was a big deal when an American news channel reported on it. Even if newscasters pronounced Jean Alesi‘s name “Gene A-lee-see”.

The FIA, the sport’s governing body, hurriedly instituted a raft of safety regulations to better protect drivers, specifically head and neck protection. In the two decades since safety has continued to improve, and thankfully there hasn’t been another driver fatality in F1 (though two track marshals were killed in separate racing accidents).

The following race at Monaco saw a tribute to Senna at the end of the ESPN broadcast with Bob Varsha commentating. It closed with a montage of Senna’s career accompanied by a fitting instrumental piano piece, a song whose title and composer remain a mystery to me.

Adding to the tragedy are the fates that later befell several of the drivers who were on the grid that weekend. During practice for the next race at Monaco, Karl Wendlinger crashed heavily and was in a coma for several weeks. The injuries sustained effectively ended his F1 career.

Weeks later Pedro Lamy suffered a testing crash at Silverstone which launched his Lotus over perimeter fencing and broke both his legs and wrists.

Mika Hakkinen, who later went on to claim two world titles, nearly lost his life due to tire failure during qualifying for the season finale the following year in Adelaide, Australia.

In 2010 J.J. Lehto was injured and a friend killed when their boat hit a bridge in Finland. He was arrested on charges of negligent homicide, reckless driving, and driving under the influence. However, he was eventually cleared of all charges after appeal.

And what of the winner of that race, Schumacher?  Having gone on to become the statistically best driver of all time with seven world championships, he retired for good from F1 at the end of 2012. Sadly, since December 2013 he’s been in a coma due to a skiing accident.

Motorsport will never be completely safe. Imola 1994 marked the darkest weekend in a tumultuous period for F1. Thankfully safety has greatly improved since that tragic weekend while preserving the essence of competition.

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