Today is the 17th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna, after an accident during the early laps of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. I remember watching the race that evening on Channel 9, and upon seeing the crash hoping that everything would be fine. I remember Murray Walker trying to reassure us that Senna would be OK, but he has admitted since that he knew that Senna was dead. It must have been difficult for Murray to continue with his broadcasting that day, knowing that one of the greatest ever drivers had died.
Senna was not my favourite F1 driver when I was young. I was unashamedly a Prost fan and to me Senna was the enemy. Of course I admired his speed and skill, especially in qualifying or when the weather was wet, but I did not appreciate his ruthlessness which overstepped the line of fair play. However looking back I would say that Senna was undoubtedly the best driver of his era and perhaps of all time. He drove in an era of great drivers such as Prost, Piquet and Mansell and some very good drivers such as Berger, Alboreto and Alesi. If you compare Senna to Michael Schumacher, the man who statistically is seen as the greatest F1 driver by virtue of having the most wins, to me there is no comparison. Schumacher only had one rival who would qualify as a great in , but one wonders whether Ayrton would ruin his reputation by making an ill-founded comeback the way Michael has. Senna also was not scared of having the best drivers as team mates as Michael has been. Senna wanted the challenge of taking on Prost in Prost’s team (McLaren), whilst Schumacher has always been able to choose team mates whom he knows would not be able to challenge his dominance within the team.
When I think of Schumacher there are perhaps three memories that come to mind. The first is the incredible pole-position lap from Monaco in 1988, when he was 1.5 seconds in front of second placed Prost. Senna was always stunning in qualifying but on this day he was on another planet. Unfortunately during the race he pushed himself much too hard and put the car into the armco barrier.
The second memory is of the incredible first lap of the wet European Grand Prix in 1993 at Donington Park. Ayrton started fifth and briefly dropped to seventh at the first corner, but by the end of lap one he was first. He was again untouchable as he often was in the wet.
My final memory is of the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix where in wet conditions Senna finished 2nd in the underpowered Toleman Hart. The race, which Prost won, was stopped at the half way point due to the wet conditions which had already sent Mansell and others into the barriers. Many people believe that if the race was allowed to go the full distance that Senna would have won.
I never saw drivers like Fangio, Moss, Clark or Stewart and I only saw highlights of Gilles Villeneuve and the final couple of seasons of Lauda’s career, so I can’t judge them. Senna is the most talented driver that I have seen.