A quarter of a century after Ayrton Senna’s death at Imola in the San Marino Grand Prix, May 1, 1994 remains a day when he is revered the world over.
You can only imagine what social media would have been like back in 1994, but scroll through your feed today and you’re bound to find multiple images and tributes to one of the greatest ever.
I’ll admit, I always find it difficult to write about Senna, because I was never truly aware of him during his lifetime. I was just five when he died, and was kept away from the television the day it happened because my parents thought I was too young to see what was going on.
But the man is inescapable. In 2014 I attended a special memorial event held at Imola to mark 20 years since his passing along with that of Roland Ratzenberger, who lost his life on the same weekend. There wasn’t really any more I could learn from a distance about what had happened or the men that either of them were, but the sheer number of people turning out showed just how brightly memories of both still shone.
Their legacy is not only a much safer sport – one in which Formula 1 drivers regularly walk away from accidents that in the past would have proven fatal – but Senna still provides the inspiration to so many drivers, including one the Brazilian’s former teammate Gerhard Berger now ranks on the same level as the three-time world champion.
“Wow … Gerhard got to race alongside him and was a really good friend of his,” Lewis Hamilton said upon being told of Berger’s recent comments. “So that said means a lot coming from him, someone who knew him so well, and it’s quite humbling to be put even in the same sentence as someone like him.
“For me, Ayrton is always in his own light, and he’s always on his own unique level that as a driver you just aspire to emulate or be like. He was the driver that inspired me as a kid. Still, a hero today, and will always be.
“I didn’t really know his personality so much, so it’s more what he stood for and what he stood up against and what he was able to do in a car that I loved to see.”
It’s not just Hamilton who lists Senna as an inspiration: younger drivers often reference the Brazilian when asked about their heroes in the sport.
“I’m sure they watched some of his races online or on videos or whatever,” Hamilton says. “I grew up watching videos. He’s the most iconic driver. He was an iconic individual, a real leader and a master of his craft.”
But Hamilton does himself a disservice, because his own idolization of Senna also enhances his legacy. At 34, Hamilton is now the same age that Senna was when he lost his life, and has passed him in terms of championships, race wins and pole positions. But Hamilton has 71 more entries to his name, and – as the Briton is now – Senna was still in his prime at that age.
For young drivers coming through the ranks, aspiring to be Formula 1 World Champion one day, Hamilton is currently the benchmark. And if that benchmark references Ayrton Senna as his inspiration, those drivers are going to look at what Senna was all about.
Thanks to the aforementioned social media, that is so much easier to do today. Google ‘Ayrton Senna’ and you’ll find so many articles today (including this one, somewhere) on a variety of aspects of his life and death.
It’s almost easier to get to know Senna now than it was when he was racing. We might no longer have the privilege of watching him do special things with a car in real time, but we are able to understand just how he had an impact on so many people, in so many ways. And from that, his legacy will always remain intact.
If he continues to inspire current and future heroes for fans, then Senna will remain a hero to future generations too. To still be one long after he’s gone is perhaps the greatest testament to exactly who Ayrton Senna da Silva was, whether you ever saw him race or not.