It is a testament to Aryton Senna’s lasting impact on Formula One that the 20th anniversary of his death will be observed this week with five days of commemorations at the Imola track where he had his fatal accident.
Current and past F1 drivers, mechanics, racing officials and fans will pay their respects to Senna and Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger, who also died at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
“When I was a kid I had all the books, all the videos, (Senna) was the driver I looked up to, way before I even started racing,” Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton said shortly before winning the Chinese Grand Prix recently.
Senna was a hero to many and is often voted as the greatest F1 driver in history. Beyond the numbers, Senna attracted legions of followers for his humbleness and strong Catholic faith.
“He was loved to an unbelievable degree,” said Mauro Forghieri, a former car designer for Ferrari and other F1 teams, who was called on as an expert witness in the court trial following Senna’s death.
Forghieri recounted that when Senna’s coffin was transported back to Brazil it wasn’t put in the airplane’s luggage hold but rather placed over three rows of the first-class cabin. “Of course, the airline and the pilot were Brazilian,” Forghieri said in an interview. “He was considered much more important than a president.”
The Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning for Senna and an estimated three million people lined the streets as his coffin was driven into his hometown of Sao Paulo.
“It’s one of those things, couple of events in your life that happen where you exactly remember where you’ve been, what you’ve done,” said four-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel, who was six when Senna died. “I remember that I was watching television with my father and obviously as a child you don’t really understand what’s going on, but just by the reaction of my father, I obviously got to understand that it was very serious and a big loss for Formula One.
“He was the reason why my father decided to follow Formula One.”
The Italian judicial system debated the cause of Senna’s death for more than 10 years, with a probe that led to manslaughter charges against the Williams team’s technical director, Patrick Head, and former designer Adrian Newey, for a faulty steering column. They were eventually cleared when the statute of limitations had run out.
The attention around Senna’s death brought about safety improvements at the Imola track and throughout F1, resulting in shorter straights, more room around dangerous turns and less powerful engines.
After a memorial mass on pit lane at the Imola track on Wednesday, Forghieri and others will discuss the evolution of safety in F1 at a symposium on Thursday, the exact anniversary of Senna’s death on May 1, 1994.
There will also be a memorial football match at Imola, a charity dinner, kart races and other activities.
The San Marino GP was last run in 2006 before F1 expanded into new markets, but memories of Senna live on.