Imola 20: Black Sunday

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Motorsport.com's editorial team delivers a three part tribute to the two men lost on this weekend, 20 years ago. Rubens Barrichello suffered a scary crash, while Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna would perish in on track accidents. Here is the...

Part III - Sunday

It was a beautiful morning in Imola, Italy on the first of May, 1994. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and it seemed like an impeccable day for racing. But something was not right. The fans were uneasy, the drivers distressed, the officials restless, the commentators subdued; and they had every right to be.

They were less than 24 hours removed from the qualifying accident that killed 33 year-old Austrian racer Roland Ratzenberger. The first fatal crash in Formula One in nearly eight years. Ayrton Senna was not his usual self either. It was nothing peculiar to see him focused, a bit intense, and even a little distant on race day. However, you could tell that Roland's death had taken its toll on him as well.

Ayrton deeply cared about his fellow competitors; probably more than most. He was the first driver to see Rubens Barrichello after his terrifying airborne accident on Friday and, as recalled by Professor Sid Watkins, "cried on my (Watkins') shoulder," following the crash that claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger.

Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna

Photo by: XPB Images

"On that morning (Sunday) when he woke up, he asked God to talk to him. He opened The Bible and read a passage which said, God would give him the greatest of all gifts - which was God himself." - Viviane Senna (Ayrton's sister)

Senna's Williams was out of control, yet he still managed to grab pole position and post the fastest lap in the morning warm-up. After two races, he had zero points to his credit due to issues with the car and Schumacher was slipping out of his grasp. Despite the pressure of the championship, it was safety that weighed heavy on the Brazilian's mind that day.

The morning of the race, he had inquired to his old rival Alain Prost about helping him in his mission to improve safety in the sport. Alain did not hesitate to agree and they planned to meet before the Monaco Grand Prix. Senna also talked with other drivers about re-establishing the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers' Association). In the pre-race drivers briefing, Senna and others expressed concern with the pace car's speed. They were worried that it went too slow and did not allow the tires to reach an optimal temperature.

As the race prepared to go green with 25 cars on the grid, it was hard to ignore the 26th position, which was empty. It should have belonged to the now late Roland Ratzenberger and the sight of the vacant spot surely sent a chill down pit lane. Drivers were strapped in, ready to go, and forced themselves to put the ever-present threat of death to the back of their minds and focus on the job at hand once more.

An English commentator exclaimed as the engines started screaming; "prepare for 61 laps of action from Imola!" Instead, they got a 58 lap nightmare; the kind that you don't wake up from. The real kind. The lights turned green, the field of 25 roared to life, scattering in every direction, and before we could even take a breath, disaster struck once again.

With JJ Lehto's car stranded in position on the grid, unable to move, cars swerved in a desperate attempt to evade him. Most succeeded, but Pedro Lamy did not. He rammed into the back of the Benetton in a high speed collision that instantaneously sheered both right side wheels from the suspension of his Lotus. The accident sent debris spraying everyone and caused minor injuries to a handful of spectators.

Restart: Ayrton Senna leads Michael Schumacher
Restart: Ayrton Senna leads Michael Schumacher

Photo by: XPB Images

The race resumed on the sixth lap with Ayrton Senna leading the way once again. Ayrton and his Williams FW16 sped into Tamburello Corner on lap seven at speeds upwards of 190mph (305km/h). Suddenly, his car jerked violently to the right. He hit the wall, throwing bodywork over 20 feet into the air, and that was it. There was no goodbye. There was no warning. He had no chance to fight it. It was fate.

It was stated earlier that there wasn't a single cloud in the sky that day, yet it instantly became the darkest day in Formula One history.

Professor Sid Watkins hastily arrived to the site of the crash and after studying his neurological signs, there was unequivocal evidence that the injuries sustained were fatal. He performed an emergency Tracheotomy on the side of the track to no avail.

"He sighed for a moment and his body relaxed. That was the moment, and I'm not religious, that I thought his spirit had departed," said Professor Sid Watkins

The race was consequently red flagged.

Senna's teammate Damon Hill described the scene on the grid following the infamous crash.

"There was people walking around looking a bit glum and concerned. I was told by our Williams PR girl that his injuries were serious. I took that to mean that this is life-threatening. At that time, the team didn't know what happened (to the car) and were a bit concerned."

"They (the team) did some checks and I don't think they found anything that indicated there was something wrong with the car."

"Part of me is thinking, I've agreed to race. That's what I'm being paid to do. I want to race. I always knew as a driver that there were risks. I knew those risks. Ayrton knew those risks. Roland knew those risks. We had one fatality the day before. Now I'm being told that something serious has happened again. "

"Why don't you just get out of the car and walk away? You know? For some reason, that thought does not lodge in your head."

During the wait, an odd incident occurred when Érik Comas, who credits Ayrton with saving his life at Spa in 1992, was mistakenly instructed to leave the pit lane. Track marshals waved at him frantically as he approached the crash scene with a helicopter sitting in the middle of the track. He stopped in time to avoid another catastrophe, but not soon enough to save himself the memory of witnessing what had occurred. He retired from the race immediately afterwards.

The GP eventually resumed with most of the drivers still, reluctantly I should add, willing to compete. Michael Schumacher would earn the San Marino Grand Prix victory when it was all said and done, but no one really won that day. We sure did lose a lot though.

The fatal crash of Ayrton Senna at Tamburello: safety team members at work
The fatal crash of Ayrton Senna at Tamburello: safety team members at work

Photo by: XPB Images

During the post-race press conference, race winner Michael Schumacher was obviously despondent and very upset, saying "certainly no good feelings. We just won the race but I can't feel satisfied; can't feel happy. I've never seen something like this, and not just one thing, so many things. The only thing I can say about it is I hope we learn from this. I think there is a lot to learn from, and we have to use this.

"Things like this, they shouldn't happen."

It suddenly became the incumbent of the FIA and all of its drivers and teams to come up with a solution. It became their duty to carry on Senna's mission to make Formula One a safer place to compete. 20 years after Schumi's statement there, he now fights for his own life after a skiing accident last December.

On the other side of the world, the man many acclaim "The Ayrton Senna of NASCAR" (Dale Earnhardt), pulled into victory lane after emerging victorious in the NASCAR race at Talladega. Before saying anything else, he made sure to mention Ayrton.

"I want to send our thoughts and prayers to the family of Ayrton Senna and all his fans. He was a great racer and it was a shame to see him go like he did. It's tough."

He would meet a similar fate seven years later on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, causing a safety revolution in NASCAR as well. Apparently, we aren't able to learn a lesson when there are plenty of warnings. A titan must fall before anything is actually done.

Damon Hill echoed the sentiments of all drivers after the checkered flag flew that dark day.

"We just wanted to, at the time get the show done and go home. Everyone was devastated. Everyone was in total shock; horrified. It's very clear that it was a shock-horror weekend from .... from hell."

People began to speculate as to what caused the crash. We know it wasn't driver error; that's fairly conspicuous. The widely accepted claim is that the steering column failed. Adrian Newey designed the Williams FW16 that Senna was driving and currently serves as Red Bull's Chief Technical Director. He doesn't buy that theory though.

"If you look at the camera shots, especially from Michael Schumacher's following car, the car didn't understeer off the track. It oversteered which is not consistent with a steering column failure.

Ayrton was a strong believer in the Catholic faith and in The Bible, it states that the number seven symbolizes completion. And on the seventh lap of that race, Ayrton Senna's journey was complete.

After they extracted him from the car, they found a flag. An Austrian flag. One that Senna had planned to raise, presumably on the podium after the race, in honor of Roland Ratzenberger. Today, it is a Brazilian flag that flies in that corner at Imola, attached to the fence in Tamburello Corner.

Senna could take a car beyond its own limits and somehow, make it work with the finesse of Jimmy Clarke, the precision of Niki Lauda, and the ferocity of Michael Schumacher. He had an innate, unteachable aptitude for driving a race car. His remarkable determination and dedication only helped further rocket him to levels beyond his already superior ability.

No matter how fast he was though, not even the great Senna Da Silva could beat death.

He was a man who became a legend. A legend who ultimately died doing what he loved, and then, only in death, became immortal.

“If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.” - Ayrton Senna

On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit. And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, 'Okay, this is the limit.' As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high. - Ayrton Senna

"If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs me my life, I hope it is in one go. I would not like to be in a wheelchair. I would not like to be in a hospital suffering from whatever injury it was. If I’m going to live, I want to live fully, very intensely, because I am an intense person. It would ruin my life if I had to live partially." - Ayrton Senna

"I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence." - Ayrton Senna

"I believe in the ability of focusing strongly in something, then you are able to extract even more out of it. It's been like this all my life, and it's been only a question of improving it, and learning more and more and there is almost no end. As you go through, you just keep finding more and more. It's very interesting, it's fascinating." - Ayrton Senna

"God gives me strength. Life is a present from God and we should take great care of it." - Ayrton Senna

The same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile." - Ayrton Senna

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About this article
Series F1
Article type Special feature
Tags 1994, ayrton senna, crash, death, imola 20, san marino grabd prix, williams

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