25 YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH SENNA IS, AND WILL ALWAYS BE, FORMULA 1

by Ilaria Salerno

MONACO. In the occasion of the Monaco Grand Prix  on May 23-26 we recall the 25th anniversary death of the six times former Monaco Grand Prix winner Ayrton Senna. His name is, and will always be, Formula 1.

31 May 1987-The Royal family of Monaco applauding the 45th Grand Prix Montecarlo winner Ayrton Senna

Twenty-five ears after his death, former Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna‘s name is almost as valuable as when he was alive – and it is making a difference in his home country of Brazil. Because the adoration of the Brazilians (but not only), for Ayrton Senna goes beyond the sport and is comparable only to that towards the mythical Pelè for football. When in Sao Paulo hundreds of thousands of people lined up for hours to be able to see Senna’s body for the last time and say goodbye before his funeral, it was a tribute not addressed to an idol on the slopes (world titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991 with McLaren) but to those who personified the pride and patriotism of an entire people. Novels, poems and songs have been written about him, exhibitions continue to be talked about ‘last curve’ and ‘soul beyond the limits’. His spirit survives in all the racing drivers, starting with a champion like Hamilton who was moved receiving his idol’s helmet for having equaled the pole position number. “Life is too short to have enemies”, Senna has always told his sister Viviane, who founded with their mother Bianca the Ayrton Senna Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) a few months after his death. Most of the money for the Foundation comes from managing Senna’s brand and legacy. Ayrton Senna is still one of the most valuable sporting brands in the world. See here the official source for Ayrton Senna merchandise offering high quality Ayrton Senna inspired T-Shirts, Posters, Mugs and more by independent artists and designers from around the world. Fans can also buy Movies of Ayrton Senna. SENNA is the story of the monumental life and tragic death of legendary Brazilian motor-racing Champion. Spanning the decade from his arrival in Formula One in the mid 80’s, the film follows Senna’s struggles both on track against his nemesis, French World Champion Alain Prost, and off it, against the politics which infest the sport.

The 2010 British documentary film that depicts the life and death of Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna was directed by Asif Kapadia. The film was produced by StudioCanal, Working Title Films, and Midfield Films, and was distributed by the parent company of the latter two production companies, Universal Pictures. The film’s narrative focuses on Senna’s racing career in Formula One, from his debut in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix to his death in an accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand prix. This film is probably one of the best put together and archived documentary films ever.

May 1, 1994, is a day in motorsports history that will never be forgotten. In the previous two days, Rubens Barrichello had crashed heavily in his Jordan, and Roland Ratzenberger had become the first driver in 12 years to be fatally injured during an official  Formula 1 session. The deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 were the last driver fatalities in Formula One, due largely to the safety review prompted by their deaths and ongoing measures to reduce the almost annual incidence of such tragedies in the series.

Here are the main F1 safety measures enacted since that time:

HEAD AND NECK SUPPORT

Senna died due to head injuries, and protection of the head and neck is the principal safety priority, as it is those traumas which are the most likely to cause death in the short time before on-track medical personnel can attend. Helmets are subject to testing to ensure they can withstand heavy impacts. The modern helmets are made of carbon fiber, Kevlar and polyethylene, and are fire resistant. The visor has removable strips which can be torn off if debris or liquid gets onto it, so the driver can retain a clear view. In 2003, F1 made compulsory the Head and Neck Support (HANS). The device, attached to the rear of the helmet and resting on the driver’s shoulders, is connected to the interior of the cockpit adjacent to the safety-belt mounting. It prevents rapid and excessive head movement during accidents.

 

Lewis Hamilton sports a state-of-the-art head and neck restraint system. PHOTO BY LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC

MAKING THE CARS SAFER

F1 cars are safer now than they have ever been, able to withstand extremely powerful impacts. Robert Kubica’s terrifying crash at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2007 was evidence of just how much the cars can withstand. The Pole sustained only minor injuries from a collision with a trackside wall that was heavier in impact than Senna’s at Imola. Most focus has been on the literally named “survival cell,” which is the area in front of the engine and surrounding the driver. Made of light but very strong carbon fiber, they are designed to resist both impacts and penetration by the sharp debris created in accidents. The opening of the cockpit has also been forcibly increased in recent years, to prevent drivers being trapped inside during fires, and enable safer and easier removal of injured drivers. Crash tests have been made more rigorous, showing cars can withstand impacts from all directions. Tethers prevent wheels detaching during accidents to protect other cars, trackside marshalls and spectators. Another key change has been the switch away from the old metal fuel tanks to hi-tech rubber-coated, fiber tanks which are much less likely to rupture in a crash, and therefore prevent fires.

Larger cockpits in Formula One cars today make it easier to get a driver out in an emergency.PHOTO BY LAT PHOTOGRAPHICEMERGENCY MEDICINE

Prof. Sid Watkins was the on-course doctor at the San Marino GP in 1994, and performed an emergency tracheotomy on Senna at trackside. It was a particularly tragic moment for Watkins, as he was a close friend of Senna, and he had done more to improve the series’ safety than any person since entering F1 in the 1970s.

Senna holds a discussion with Prof Sid Watkins, the FISA doctor at Imola Grand Prix

It was at his insistence that many of the post-Senna medical improvements were made. The medical cars, with paramedics on board, are stationed around the circuits and can reach the site of any crash within 30 seconds. The state-of-the-art trackside medical center has a surgeon and other staff on site, and there are helicopters at every race to transport seriously injured drivers and personnel to nearby hospitals. F1 says there are an average of 130 medical staff at each race.

TRACK DESIGN

Gone are the days of straw bales and, for the most part, concrete walls on the edge of tracks. Modern circuit design puts a premium on safety. With the exception of Singapore’s Marina Bay, which has the inherent restrictions of all street circuits, the new tracks designed since the 1990s have generous run-off areas at high-speed corners, unlike the Tamburello bend at Imola where Senna lost his life. The efficacy of trackside barriers has been greatly increased, and they are able to absorb most of the energy of a car crashing at high speed. Among the other trackside measures is the introduction of the safety car to slow the field while the scene of an accident is cleared or a stricken car removed. Pit lane speed limits have also been introduced and progressively lowered to prevent racing in an area full of team crews and trackside personnel.

It was not unusual to see tire barriers and even hay bales functioning as key safety equipment on Formula One tracks two decades ago.PHOTO BY LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC

SLOW PROGRESS

The relative safety of F1 compared to the past has evolved only slowly. It is staggering to the modern fan to realize how lax safety standards were in past eras. Helmets became compulsory only in 1953, fireproof overalls were first introduced in 1963, and seat belts in 1972. Crash tests to show the cars can withstand impacts were introduced only in 1985. Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart was a strong advocate in the 1970s for improving safety standards, and his work, along with that of Sid Watkins, and the tragedies of Imola 1994 have vastly improved the series.

This picture shows Senna on April 30 1994 in the Williams garage as he prepares to take his car out on the track

That May 1, 1994 in Imola, San Marino’s GP, the whole sport, not only the whole rumble and speed, gathered around a mournful image that marked an era by turning the destiny of a man and the dreams of his fans: During the seventh lap, at 2.17pm, the Brazilian champion’s Williams, three world titles and 41 victories, normally faced the Tamburello curve at a speed of 310 km / h but at that moment the steering column, which had been hastily modified by the mechanics on the instructions of the same Senna before the start of the race, yielded to the solicitations and the car became ungovernable. Senna, realizing that he could not turn and go straight ahead, braked sharply to reduce his speed to 211 km / h, but the escape route was hopelessly too narrow.Just two seconds and the Williams crashed almost frontally against the wall. The car bounced back toward the track and then stopped 50 meters ahead. The chill reached viewers from every corner of the world. In the carom a car suspension broke with the rubber still attached and hit Senna in the head, breaking his skull while the splintered arm of the suspension penetrated the helmet through the visor, severely injuring the pilot above the eye, in the right frontal lobe. The immobility of Senna immediately revealed the tragic outcome of that incident.

The horrendous moment of impact at Imola after Senna’s Williams-Renault car flew through the air at 145mph

Those moments remain the image of the helicopter that rises in flight towards the Maggiore hospital in Bologna and the tears started to flow on the faces of the enthusiasts in the stands. It wasn’t social time yet, but everyone had a thought for that genius with a melancholy smile who took a handful of debut races in 1984 and who built in ten unforgettable years his legendary role.

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