The suave, debonair Brazilian combined once in a generation ability with the looks, charm and charisma to celebrate his many victories in style and attract ever more fans to the sport he dominated.
The speed of Senna
Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Tim Brooks looks at Formula One's Ayrton Senna.
Formula One has always been the most glamorous and sophisticated horse in the motor racing paddock. And throughout its illustrious history no man has won as much admiration and embodied a thoroughbred more than Ayrton Senna. The suave, debonair Brazilian combined once in a generation ability with the looks, charm and charisma to celebrate his many victories in style and attract ever more fans to the sport he dominated.
His tragic death in an horrific accident during the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1 1994 left the sporting world in dumbfounded silence. In the passing of a legend he had become an immortal. As with any star cut short in their prime questions abound about what he may have gone on to achieve. Fate has denied us those answers but we are left with memories of one the most successful, exciting and engaging drivers of any era.
After cutting his teeth in karting Senna began his Formula One career in 1984 with the relatively unknown Toleman team. The next decade saw him start 161 races - half of which he would claim a podium finish in. With 65 pole positions and 41 wins statistics certainly bear witness to his talent. However, statistics can only demonstrate so much and there are drivers, such as Michael Schumacher for example, who can boast a higher win ratio, but arguably raced in an era that did not have such a strong competition. Certainly in Schumacher's era only Mika Hakkinen and Fernando Alonso could be considered as truly great opponents.
Sport is nothing without drama and Senna's decade in the limelight was never short on that. Racing in some of the most competitive fields ever to grace a racetrack Senna faced stiff competition. The seasons that followed are fondly remembered as the most hard fought in recent memory as Senna fought tooth and nail with Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet for supremacy and a place in the motorsport pantheon.
After a spell with Lotus where he showed a knack for winning races in inferior machinery to his rivals, he joined Prost at McLaren in 1988. It was a dream team assembled to mount a challenge to all conquering Williams. It also set the scene for the most compelling duel in the sports long history. The two men were so driven by victory, so focused on becoming number one a fierce battle for supremacy ensued between them.
Their rivalry became the stuff of sporting folklore as they repeatedly clashed both on and off the track. After a fairly calm first year in which Senna won the title, the duo clashed badly in 1989 after the Brazilian reneged on an agreement at the San Marino Grand Prix and overtook Prost at the first corner. A frosty atmosphere exploded in Japan when the pair collided contesting the lead, with the incident ultimately handling Prost the title.
Though Prost left McLaren and moved to Ferrari the bad feeling remained strong between the two. There was another collision in Japan in 1990, this time Senna crashing into the side of Prost at the first corner to eliminate them both from the race in Suzuka, winning his second world title in the process. It would be 12 months later, after he had clinched his third and final world title, before Senna would admit that he had deliberately driven into his rival, demonstrating his ruthless attitude to racing and the competition.
Such was the animosity between the men that when Prost signed for Williams for the 1993 season he insisted on a clause in his contract stating that Senna could never become his teammate. But Senna, so desperate to win, wanted the most competitive car, even offering to drive for Williams for free. Such was his desire in fact that even when forced to drive a technically inferior McLaren he pushed Prost hard in 1993, winning five races in a car that had no right to be anywhere near the front.
Arguably that season had his greatest performance as he won the European Grand Prix at Donington Park. He made up five places on the opening lap to lead, and then nearly lapped the entire field as he demonstrated what a class act in the wet he was. In 1994, Prost retired rather than be forced to accept Senna as a teammate once more. The best driver was finally sitting in the best car. But then fate intervened and Senna only completed two races that year. Fittingly in San Marino, in his last race, he started on pole position; where for many he will always remain. Senna had all the hallmarks of a champion.
His characteristics would form the template for the perfect sportsmen. The burning desire that marks a true champion was evident in the fierce determination in his eyes, his unquenchable thirst for victory and a relentless pursuit of perfection. Unlike many sportsmen, Senna does not have the opportunity to look back and judge his career. But greatness isn't found in reflection, it is imprinted on the memory of everyone who witnessed it.
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