1994 – Senna killed at San Marino GP

“This is the blackest day for Grand Prix racing that I can remember.”

Murray Walker’s ability to capture the mood of an entire audience is unrivalled. Sadly his news report of Ayrton Senna’s death on Sunday May 1st 1994 was an immaculate reflection of the day’s events.

Senna – world champion of 1988, 1990 and 1991 – was one of the best drivers that ever graced the sport.

Albeit a controversial figure following his numerous battles with Alain Prost during the 1980s and 1990s, nobody could deny his phenomenal speed.

At the start of the 1994 season, Senna joined Damon Hill at Williams-Renault after a couple of season’s with an increasingly uncompetitive McLaren-Honda. Williams had won the two previous championships – through Nigel Mansell and Prost – with consummate ease. Senna was expected to do the same. Best driver on the grid in the best car. Simple.

As the F1 circus rolled into Imola though, Senna found himself somewhat on the back-foot. He had failed to finish in the season-opener at Brazil after spinning out of second place and in Aida he was taken out by Nicola Larini’s Ferrari on the first lap.

But the pressure did not seem to show as he took his third pole position of the season, albeit in tragic circumstances after Roland Ratzenberger was killed after hitting a concrete wall at 190mph.

The Austrian’s accident also came just 24 hours after Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello – Senna’s Brazilian compatriot and close friend – had to be taken to hospital after a shunt at the Variante Bassa

Remarkably the events of Friday and Saturday are largely forgotten because of the nightmare F1 endured on Sunday.

At the start JJ Lehto stalled from 5th on the grid. The rest of the field swerved to avoid him but an unsighted Pedro Lamy slammed his Lotus right into the back of Lehto’s Benetton. The huge smash sent debris flying across the track – some of which hit spectators in the nearby grandstand.

For reasons that still to this day defy logic, the race was not immediately stopped and the safety car sent out instead. After several laps behind it the race resumed with Senna pursued by Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger.

The rest is history as they say. On lap 7  Senna, on cold tyres following the safety car period, lost control and struck the concrete wall at Tamburello – the quickest point on the track. The race was immediately red flagged.

His car was stationary for over two minutes before marshals went to help the stricken Brazilian. Early footage showed Senna’s head twitch but it was clear he was in a very bad way.

Medics – led by Professor Sid Watkins – treated him at the scene before he was flown to hospital in Bologna where he was later declared brain dead. Italian law prevents life-machines being switched off and he died later that day.

The surreal nature of the San Marion Grand Prix weekend was epitomised by Larousse’s Erik Comas who ridiculously was released from his pit ten minutes after the race was stopped and came charging out of the pits at full speed towards Tamburello where Senna was being treated.

Fortunately he slowed in time and avoided all the ambulances on the track. Comas did not feel able to take the restart after having seen the devastation first hand.

The fact that the race was restart is possibly the most baffling affair of the whole weekend. When it did Schumacher won ahead of Larini and McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen. The result is logged by statisticians and that is all. It merits no more.

During the re-started race one more tragic twist occurred. Minardi’s Pierluigi Martini’s right-rear tyre fell off as he exited the pit-lane and mowed down several Ferrari mechanics. One suffered a broken leg.

Had the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix been a movie it would have been slated for its unrealistic nature. For all that to happen in the space of 48 hours is nothing short of astounding.

The deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna inevitably shaped the rest of the F1 season. Then-FIA president Max Mosley announced a series of regulation changes at the Monaco Grand Prix designed to increase safety – such as raising cockpit protection. Karl Wendlinger’s accident during practice there left him in a coma. F1 had not seen events this bad since the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Williams were found not guilty of manslaughter charges and were also acquitted following an appeal in 1999.

In a rare moment of F1 comradeship, the rest of the paddock supported Williams throughout the legal process. Then-Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore said his team would boycott races in Italy if Williams were found guilty because it was not worth the risk.

Senna’s body was flown back to Brazil and a state of mourning was declared.

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