Everyone here remembers where they were. Twenty years on, some even remember the words as the familiar voice of Globo’s Galvao Bueno startled a nation that sat staring at their televisions, scared to look but too terrified to move even their eyes away.
“Senna bateu forte... A batido muito forte,” he observed, meaning Senna has hit hard, he’s hit very hard.
Shortly after, Brazil wept.
On Thursday’s 20th anniversary, Ayrton Senna was brought to the fore of a national consciousness he’s never left as people realised, when it comes to a select few, time and healing just don’t go together. And here there’s none more select than Senna.
For all the footballers that have walked the world like giants, from Garrincha to Romario, from Pele to Zico, none compares to him. He’s not just the most beloved sportsman to ever come out of this country, he’s the most beloved person. Indeed his favourite club, Corinthians, lined up before a cup match midweek wearing his iconic helmet. But even such symbolic acts of adoration can’t get across the invisible love for the son, brother and father of a nation all rolled into one. For millions, he’ll forever be the embodiment of all that’s good about Brazil.
Yet all these years on, even for cynics about destiny, there seems an eerie fate about his passing. Towards the end of his time, Senna developed an interest and concern about the dangerous side of Formula One to the point where he was championing safety and was pushing to set up a Grand Prix drivers’ association to force improvements in that area. With rule changes brought in to make the 1994 season more exciting, Senna strongly criticised the risk being taken. Before his last seven laps he even raised worries about the Imola track in a chat with Gerhard Berger and Michael Schumacher. And it was little wonder after the carnage of the previous two days at the circuit.
During practice on the Friday, Rubens Barrichello in a Jordan hit a kerb and landed upside down while being knocked unconscious, swallowing his tongue and breaking his nose. Somehow still alive, Senna showed up shortly after at the medical centre to offer support and to thank God that he’d been spared.
In Saturday qualifying Roland Ratzenberger wasn’t so lucky as in the Williams garage Senna muttered, “320 [kph]?” knowing at that speed this wouldn’t end well, before breaking down as he watched on the monitors. He wanted to go to the scene of that accident and in the crumbled shell of his car after his own fatal crash, an Austrian flag was found that Senna planned to unfurl at the finish in the deceased’s memory. Meanwhile, it was after that first death of the weekend that Sid Watkins, Formula One’s chief doctor and a close friend of Senna, had advice as the driver cried on his shoulder. “You like fishing so why don’t you quit and I’ll quit and we’ll both go fishing.”
But Senna couldn’t quit what was both his strength and weakness in life. He chose to race and the next afternoon as he sped by on the straight, Watkins turned to his medical car driver Mario Casoni and proclaimed with all his knowledge and experience: “There’s going to be a bastard awful accident any minute.”
He was right, but even he can’t have imagined what was coming as Senna’s steering column broke and his right front tyre and suspension drove towards his body as he hit the concrete wall while sharp and stabbing pieces of wheel assembly pierced his helmet and the base of his skull. Shockingly, after he was airlifted away, the race went on with the only stipulation being no champagne on the podium as one of its greats lay in a vegetative state close by in hospital.
Early in 1994, Senna spoke about his future, his words in hindsight sounding more like a terrifying premonition. “I want to live fully, very intensely. I would never want to live partially, suffering from illness or injury. If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs my life, I hope it happens in one instant.”
He did die in that instant as he was brain dead from the point of impact. And as he sat in his car, head slumped forward, Watkins recalled examining the lifeless remains of his great friend. “He sighed, then his body relaxed. That was the moment I thought his spirit departed.”
They were spiritual words from a man of science as he looked for some comfort he couldn’t find.
With a pool of blood nearby, the BBC turned its cameras away from the footage. In Italy, RAI kept peering on. Belfast-born John Watson was co-commentator on Eurosport and described a twitch of his head as a “very positive indication”. But in Argentina, the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio “turned off my television as I knew he was dead”.
Some in Brazil deep down knew it too but refused to believe as Bueno continued his commentary on Globo. “It’s taking too long for the ambulance. Brazil had a horrible time with Barrichello’s accident and now we’ve the same with Senna. Difficult moments… Now we have to pray, Brazil has to pray for him.”
Such is genius, it can seem paradoxical and Senna certainly was. A devout Catholic who read the Bible on flights between races, he may have feared mortality and worried for the safety of his compatriots but he was also the most likely man to cause an accident because his ruthless and, some say, careless heart-over-head driving style. And while he was a fortunate son, born with silver spoon in hand and anything but a working-class hero, he became a hero of the working class because of how he cared for his people.
Before his death, he had put together the framework for a charity to help impoverished children and today the hugely influential Senna Foundation, run by his sister, is his legacy.
Meanwhile, after his death the extent of his caring truly emerged as it turned out he had quietly donated around €290m to help those children that never had his chances.
Back in Bologna in that twisted time of May 1, 1994, the parents of Ratzenberger went to the mortuary to identify their son’s corpse while beside it lay their son’s idol. Rudolf Ratzenberger asked was it a stupid dream and Brazil still asks the same question.
Senna was flown back against normal aviation regulations in the cabin rather than the hold of an airliner and when he got home three million were waiting for him, while thousands of Sao Paulo police tried to somehow keep order amidst the barbed pain and three days of intense mourning. And it’s in city’s Morumbi Cemetery where he now lays, his grave marked with a simple plaque in the grass that reads: “Nothing can separate me from the love of God.”
It’s a resting place that attracts more people than those of Elvis Presley, John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe combined and every so often the floral tributes build up to the point they are lorried away and given to his family, before the process starts all over again. That’s been going on 20 years now and it’ll go 20 more.
But to remember only the good is to do someone a disservice. Obituaries should never lie and for every win in the rain, every flying lap, every remarkable triumph at Monaco and one glorious day in 1991 when he finally took his home grand prix without fourth gear before passing out from emotion and exhaustion as he tried to get out of his car, there was controversy.
There was the crash with Alain Prost in 1989, his disqualification and row with FIA head Jean-Marie Balestre and a year later his revenge as he purposely took out his title rival in Japan and secured the championship with cheating as much as his remarkable driving instincts and talent. But a flawed genius is a genius nonetheless.
Writing earlier in the week, Jackie Stewart who had his own run-in and year of being ignored by the Brazilian, noted: “I was always critical of Senna because, as he said in that interview, if there is a gap you have to go for it, and if you don’t then you are not a great driver. That was wrong. He forced that issue too many times, so I am sorry, I cannot say that he was the greatest Formula One driver.”
But he was the most talented. And here he’ll always be the most loved.