...and the world stops turning
Where were you when…
It’s a question that always proceeds recollection of momentous events. In sport and in motorsport particularly it is often associated with the loss of a racer, a hero, with each loss having its own level of magnitude based on a personal richter scale. And sadnesses there have been many, though thankfully in decreasing numbers over recent years as technology has sought to foil the outstretched hand of the grim reaper.
However, almost without exception one such event stands out above all others, an event whose anniversary falls in a few days time. The death of Ayrton Senna. Why his passing was so shocking is in part difficult to understand. After all motorsport has claimed so many names over the years.
Was it that a driver with such sublime talent surely could not perish in the cockpit of a race car which he had proved capable of controlling beyond the understanding of most around him? But then again the same could have been said of Jimmy Clark whose accident bore some remarkable similarities to that of the Brazilian. His car spearing off so unexpectedly at high speed that even the brilliant Scot could not control it.
Or was it simply that death had taken a 12 year holiday from Formula One after the bloody decades that preceded the nineties and claimed so many lives? It was no longer an ever present spectre haunting the paddock every time the Formula circus gathered to compete a grand prix.
Yet that gathering in Imola was to deliver a brutal reminder that ‘Motor racing can be dangerous’.
On the Friday Rubens Barrichello survived a massive impact after his car was launched upwards into a tyre barrier at the Variante Bassa. It was an accident that would normally have registered big time on the collective memory due to its severity. Yet put in the context of what was to come, it has become known as the ‘forgotten’ accident of a fateful weekend where things went from bad to worse. The following day everyone was reminded brutally that drivers were not immortal. Austrian Roland Ratzenberger dying as the result of another high speed impact with the wall in qualifying. Surely that was enough ‘bad luck’ for one Grand Prix? It seemed not.
At the start of the Grand Prix, a coming together between Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto bought the safety car out while marshals cleared the debris. When the race restarted on lap six Senna was in the lead followed by Schumacher and his Williams team mate Damon Hill. As Senna’s Williams took the high speed left hander at Tamburello, the car suddenly speared right off the track into the wall at 135mph. The resultant injuries caused by various traumas to the head left the driver mortally injured.
Few who were watching the Grand Prix coverage will forget the pictures of the stricken driver from a helicopter hovering above the crash site. But whilst the accident was obviously serious, many had surely seen drivers walk away from seemingly far worse accidents? Eventually came the dawning realisation that this was as bad as it gets. We were watching a hero die before our very eyes. Time stopped.
One weekend. Two deaths. Another seriously injured. Could Formula One recover from such a tragedy? Was the risk worth it?
There are many criticisms that could be levelled at the sport, but seldom is inertia one of them. The tragic events of that weekend led to many major changes in driver protection. The development of the Hans device for helmets, now mandatory in most forms of motorsport. Another was the introduction of wheel tethers to prevent them detaching in the course of an impact. The third was the raising of cockpit sides giving drivers’ heads greater protection.
All too late to save Senna and perhaps none capable of preventing the death of Roland Ratzenberger. But without doubt they have all contributed to saving racers’ lives ever since. Indeed until the death of Jules Bianchi in a freak accident in 2014, twenty years had elapsed since the death of a driver in Formula One. Ayrton Senna de Silva was that fatality and for many time stopped that day in Imola and will always remain so.