Past and present F1 drivers lead tributes to Ayrton Senna

Large crowd at Imola to hear Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen lead the tributes to the three-time world champion who died 20 years ago on May 1, 1994.

Kimi Raikkonen, left, and Fernando Alonso, right, the present Ferrari drivers, lead the tributes to Ayrton Senna at Imola, 20 years after the Brazilian's death. Mauro Monti / AFP
Kimi Raikkonen, left, and Fernando Alonso, right, the present Ferrari drivers, lead the tributes to Ayrton Senna at Imola, 20 years after the Brazilian's death. Mauro Monti / AFP

The crowd resembled the kind of gathering normally reserved for a Formula One podium celebration.

Only this time, the thousands in attendance fell silent at exactly 2.17pm.

Fans, family members plus fellow and current F1 drivers attended a solemn but also festive memorial yesterday to mark the exact 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

The ceremony was held on the Imola circuit’s Tamburello curve where the three-time world champion crashed into a concrete wall at about 300 kph (185 mph) on Lap 7 of the race in his Williams car, while leading.

Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger, who died in qualifying a day before, was also remembered during the event.

Among those in attendance were Gerhard Berger, Senna’s teammate with McLaren between 1990-1992, and current Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.

“I think we all agree that he was the best driver of all time,” Berger said, drawing a loud round of applause from the crowd.

“Even if it’s a sad moment we’re all very happy to be here and remember Ayrton.”

Alonso, who has won two F1 titles in his career, was 12 when Senna was killed.

“For a lot of us he was our idol,” the Spaniard said. “I used to watch his races on the news and when you saw that yellow helmet and the No. 1 on his car, that really hit you as a kid.

“I didn’t have a chance to know him or race with him and there are a lot of people here who really knew him but I also see a lot of kids, so he continues to influence a lot of people.”

Senna’s niece Paula was among those representing the driver’s family.

She was impressed with the big turnout.

“It means that somehow he reached people’s hearts, with his career and also with the way he was as a person,” she said.

“I feel like he’s alive in people’s hearts, even after all this time ... It’s beautiful.”

Organiser Ezio Zermiani was beaming with delight at the event’s success.

“We thought it may be something that was forgotten. But then this morning when I exited my hotel, I saw the traffic lining up longer than when there was the race here – even though there are no cars racing. So it has become a grand prix of remembrance.”

Zermiani pointed out how the safety improvements introduced to F1 in the wake of Senna’s and Ratzenberger’s deaths have helped prevent any more fatal accidents in the sport in the last 20 years.

“So Ayrton didn’t die for nothing,” he said.

The event gave fans of Senna across the world to remember the Brazilian and their own memories of the events of May 1, 1994.

“Our hearts sank when they told us the news,” said Marco, a 31-year-old Italian fan who was at Imola as a young boy on the day of the crash.

Marco wore the same type of helmet that Senna had on that day and was taking his car around the circuit.

Daniela, 39, from Belo Horizonte in Brazil said: “What moves me about Senna was his humility, his enormous charisma. He is in our hearts like family.”

Another Brazilian fan, 57-year-old Renato, said: “His will to win was what I liked about Ayrton.

“He proved that a Brazilian could be internationally known and that was a great encouragement for us.”

Marco, 34, who wore a chequered flag around his shoulders, said simply: “He was the best driver ever.”

Yesterday’s ceremony comes after a week of commemorative events held to mark the tragic accident, which ushered in a raft of changes to improve F1 safety.

Football club Corinthians from Sao Paulo, the city where three million people turned out for Senna’s funeral, paid tribute to their local hero by wearing crash helmets with the Brazilian flag colours before kick-off in a match against Nacional-AM on Wednesday.

Senna’s sister Viviane said this week that her brother’s legacy is alive and well through the Ayrton Senna Institute, which she chairs.

She recalled a conversation she had with him weeks before his death, when he told her how he wanted to contribute to a better future for Brazil by helping to open up opportunities for children.

“Ayrton really wanted Brazil to work, for everyone to have a chance and from this dream the institute was born,” she said.

She said the organization has worked with two million children and trained 75,000 teachers per year in around 1,000 cities around the country.

Senna’s death prompted extensive changes, including the reform of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. Engine capacities were reduced and tethers to help prevent wheels flying off following accidents were introduced.

The HANS device to protect drivers’ heads and necks was made compulsory, and run-offs were extended and improved.

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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