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Formula One: 20 years after his fatal accident, Senna’s legacy lives on

Visitors look at the Ayrton Senna John Player Special F1 car during an exhibition to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Brazilian triple Formula One champion Ayrton Senna in Sao Paulo April 10, 2014.


On tap this week:

  • Senna's death saved many more
  • Pole prowess proved Senna's speed
  • Quote of the Week: Mika Häkkinen's most vivid Senna memory
  • Derek Daly recalls going cold
  • F1 hasn't lost much speed
  • DTM finally gets going

Ayrton Senna, three-time Formula One world champion, would never live to see his biggest contribution to racing.

His fatal accident 20 years ago this week robbed F1 racing of one of its greatest talents and launched a wave of reforms that made his death the last in a grand prix, and also saved many lives outside F1 race tracks too.

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Sadly, says racing legend Mario Andretti, the history of major change in motorsport is due to deaths of stars like Senna that force sanctioning bodies to act.

"Icons of this stature are not supposed to die – they are supposed to live forever," said 1978 F1 world champion Andretti.

He contributed tremendously to a reassessment of the safety features of a racing car and that was a huge step forward. If you look up to that point, the driver was very naked in the cockpit — everything totally exposed — and no head protection except for the headrest behind. As much as it was a freak accident, it prompted a big wake up call."

Senna died on May 1, 1994, when his car went off in the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, slamming into a retaining wall. The fatal blow came from a suspension part that broke upon impact and struck his helmet. The accident ended a grim weekend for F1, after rookie Roland Ratzenberger died in a qualifying accident a day earlier while Rubens Barrichello miraculously escaped serious injury in a violent practice crash.

The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) Expert Advisory Safety Committee created in the wake of Senna's death brought a long list of changes , including improved protection in the cockpit, collapsible steering columns, and comprehensive crash testing. It also made the live-saving Head and Neck Support device, known as HANS, mandatory for drivers.

While these innovations spread out across racing series, many were also introduced to road car production.

Although Canadian racer Robert Wickens was only four years old when Senna died, he more than understands the debt he owes the late Brazilian star.

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" He made the sport safer and his loss was every young driver's gain," said Wickens, who races a Mercedes AMG C-Coupé in the highly competitive Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series.

"My jaw drops when I watch any old [F1] video. Every lap they did they were putting their lives on the line and that's something that is not part of motorsports now."

By the Numbers: Anyone who doubts Senna's uncanny ability to find speed on a racetrack only needs to look at his qualifying performances .

The Brazilian sat at the front of the grid 65 times in the 161 grands prix he started, giving him an incredible 40.37 per cent pole position rate. As a comparison, seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher needed 233 F1 races to surpass Senna's pole total. Schumacher's record breaking pole came at the 2006 San Marino Grand Prix, just more than a week before the 12th anniversary of Senna's fatal accident.

Senna's skill over a single lap was never more evident than on the tight and unforgiving Monaco street circuit, where he put his car on pole a record five times. His amazing car control is highlighted in the documentary Senna, which shows in-car camera footage of his 1988 Monaco pole lap where he was 1.4 seconds faster than his teammate, four-times world champion Alain Prost. It is not for the faint of heart.

His final pole — Senna was three-for-three at the start of the 1994 season — came the day before he died. At the time, Senna's final qualifying performance in Imola set the record for the most poles in the same race at eight.

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Quote of the Week: "My most memorable moment was flying in same flight back from Japan to London after the Pacific Grand Prix in 1994. That year, I had a crash with him — I pushed him off after losing downforce and probably due to lack of experience still in F1.

"After the grand prix, I went to speak to him to explain what had happened and he was absolutely furious, banging his wrists on table and shouting to me on how silly I was. But then, during the flight, he came to see me and apologized for overreacting. I guess Ayrton realized that I had guts to apologize to him in front of the whole team. We had a good talk."

— Mika Häkkinen, who went on to win two F1 world championships (1998 and 1999), recalls his most vivid memory of Ayrton Senna. The 1994 Pacific Grand Prix preceded the race in Imola where Senna lost his life.

In the Booth: Derek Daly started 118 races in F1 and the old CART Series in the U.S. between 1978 and 1987 before covering the sport for U.S. networks. When TV commentator Daly walked into the McLaren garage at the 1993 season opener in South Africa, Ayrton Senna made his way over and introduced himself. At first, Daly thought Senna had mistaken him for someone else, but as it turned out he was a student of the sport and knew all about the former racer's career.

Daly recalls struggling for words in the broadcast booth about a year later after Senna's car went off in Imola and the gravity of the accident became clear.

"It just looked bad and we feared the worst," Daly said.

"Just before [FIA medical delegate] Professor [Sid] Watkins got to him there was a head roll from him and we gulped with hope. As the rescue went on, I got chilled and had to put a jacket on. Although my mind would not confirm his death, my body already knew and went cold."

Technically Speaking: Although there has been much criticism about Formula One's new 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engines stunting on-track performance in 2014, it's not the disaster many think.

With no safety car periods, the Chinese Grand Prix allows a good comparison of the race performance between 2014 and last year when the cars were powered by 2.4-litre, normally aspirated V8s.

Keeping in mind that while tire supplier Pirelli brought more consistent compounds to the table this year, the overall performance of F1 cars in 2014 compares well to last year.

Although a chequered flag was displayed early in China and two laps were lost in the shuffle, winner Lewis Hamilton's original time over the 56-lap race would have been 25.865 seconds slower than the time Fernando Alonso took to drive to victory over the same distance last year.

Considering that the cars now start the race with one-third less fuel and revised minimum weight requirements have them at least 48 kilograms heavier than 2013, losing less than half a minute over a full race distance isn't bad.

Where things really differ is flat out speed over one lap. During the 2013 Chinese Grand Prix, Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel put up the race's best time of one minute 36.808 seconds over the 5.451 km lap. The best effort in 2014 was Nico Rosberg's one minute 40.402 seconds, which was 3.594 seconds slower than last year.

The Last Word: Two Canadians return to action this weekend as the 2014 DTM 10-race season gets underway at the Hockenheim Circuit.

Winning won't get any easier this year with seven former DTM champions in the field, including 2012 title winner Canadian Bruno Spengler. The St-Hippolyte, Que., native finished third overall last year, scoring one win.

Early indications point to Spengler as a favourite to win title No. 2 after his M4 DTM looked strong in pre-season testing.

The other Canadian is Wickens who goes into the 2014 season confident that he can improve on last year when he finished fifth overall with one win.

Being the top Mercedes driver definitely won't be a walk in the park with former F1 drivers Paul di Resta, who was 2010 DTM champion, and Vitaly Petrov joining the squad, which also features another former DTM title winner, Gary Paffett.

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About the Author
Motorsports columnist

There's an old saying about timing being everything in racing and Jeff Pappone's career as a motorsport correspondent shows that it also applies to journalists covering the sport too. More


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