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The name Ayrton Senna is one of the most instantly recognisable in Grand Prix racing history. Considered by many to be the greatest racing driver ever, the three-time world driver's champion's life was tragically cut short while leading a race close to three decades ago. But what do we know about this famously private and single mindedly focused individual?
He was born on March 21, 1960 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
He was killed when he crashed out of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola circuit in Italy. He left the circuit at the high-speed Tamburello corner at approximately 300km/h, hitting the concrete barrier at more than 200km/h. On impact a piece of the suspension on his Williams-Renault flew up and impacted his helmet.
A sharp piece of the suspension arm pierced the helmet and caused the fatal head injuries that killed him, despite attempts by track medical staff to save him at the scene.
Italian authorities prosecuted members of the Williams team for manslaughter, for their role in Senna’s accident, citing a broken steering column as the cause of the crash. However, this decision was not reached until 2007, after the statute of limitations for manslaughter had expired.
He was 34 years of age when he suffered his fatal accident.
Yes, he was a devout Catholic having grown up in a religious family in Brazil. He was often uncomfortable talking about his faith, believing he could be misquoted, but occasionally spoke about the impact he believed God played in his racing career.
He once said: “When you talk about religion, it's a touching point, very easy to be misunderstood... But I try hard, as hard as I can to understand life through God. And that means everyday of my life, not only when I'm home but when I'm doing my work, too.”
He was believed to have amassed a $400 million fortune at the time of his death.
He was actively involved in several charities in his native Brazil and tried to be a role model for kids by starting the ‘Senninha’ cartoon series shortly before his death.
His father was Milton da Silva, a factory owner in Sao Paulo, and his mother’s name was Neide Senna da Silva.
Yes, he had an older sister, Viviane, and a younger brother, Leonardo.
Senna was briefly married to Lillian de Vasconcellos Sousa in 1981, when he moved from Brazil to compete in the British junior formula on his rise to F1. His focus on racing meant they filed for divorce only a year after marrying.
He had a string of girlfriends throughout the rest of his life and was linked with several famous models including Elle Macpherson. His last girlfriend was Brazilian model and TV presenter, Adriana Galisteu.
No, he did not have a son or daughter. However, he was close with his nephew, Bruno; Viviane’s son. Bruno was briefly banned from karting after Ayrton’s death but returned to racing and eventually made it to F1, where he drove for three seasons.
Bruno is now a test driver for McLaren Automotive and helped work on the company’s Senna model, named in honour of his uncle.
Naturally, given his fame and popularity, there are dozens of books dedicated to his life and death. One of the most comprehensive is ‘The Life of Senna’ by Tom Rubython. It covers everything from his earliest days in Brazil to his F1 success to his fatal accident and the aftermath it caused in the sport.
The stand-out is Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary, simply titled ‘Senna’. With access to hundreds of hours of footage this film paints the portrait of both his F1 career and the tumultuous nature of Ayrton’s final days at Imola.
Senna was famously well-spoken and produced many thoughtful quotes during his career, but the one he is best remembered for sums him up best: “Racing, competing, it’s in my blood. It’s part of me, it’s part of my life. I have been doing it all my life and it stands out above everything else.”
No, despite spending most of his career driving for teams sponsored by cigarette companies Senna didn’t smoke. He was one of the first drivers to really prioritize physical fitness because he believed it would give him an edge in the race.
No, he did not wear glasses.
The Brazilian was synonymous with his long-term personal sponsor, Banco Nacional. The bank’s logo not only appeared on his driving suit but his blue hat with ‘Nacional’ on it became his signature look.
He also had personal sponsorships with brands such as Tag Heuer and fronted advertising campaigns for Honda during his time at McLaren; when the Japanese brand built engines for the British team.
There are a variety of opinions on why Senna was so quick. For some it was simply his attitude, his determination to win-at-all costs.
After he out-qualified his talented teammate, Alain Prost, by over one second at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna claimed he was driving outside of himself, saying: “And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.”
But more technically there is an opinion that he developed an aggressive and unique style of applying the throttle that allowed him to accelerate harder and faster out of corners - almost like a human traction control system. This technique, combined with his determination made him the driver-to-beat for much of his career.
He only drove for four teams across his 11 seasons in F1. He drove for the Toleman team in his rookie year in 1984, before switching to Lotus for the ‘85, ‘86 and ‘87 seasons. In 1988 he joined McLaren and stayed there until 1993. For 1994 he moved to Williams, but only drove three races before his death.
He won three F1 world titles - 1988, ‘90 and ‘91. All of these were driving for McLaren-Honda.
He won 41 grands prix, which was second all-time at the time of his death. He also held the record for the most pole positions in the sport (65) between 1989 and 2006.
His complete family name was Ayrton Senna da Silva, but he chose to go by simply ‘Ayrton Senna’ because da Silva is a very popular name in Brazil.