Ayrton Senna

Ayrton Senna
Birth Date: 
21 March, 1960
Birth Place: 
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Death Date: 
30 April, 1994
Death Place: 
Bologna, Italy

Ayrton Senna Biography

Ayrton Senna F1 Career Overview

Ayrton Senna will forever remain at the precipice of sporting folklore in a career that transcended mere motorsport and made him one of sport’s best-loved heroes.

Renowned for his pin-point accuracy and fearsome - albeit aggressive - conduct on track, Senna was a flamboyant racer whose innate car control combined with his, at times, blind determination to win brought F1 some of its most iconic moments.

F1 World Champion in 1988, 1990 and 1991, while Senna’s legacy will perhaps be best remembered for his bitter feud with Alain Prost, the Brazilian took no prisoners throughout his career whether they were on-track or - as the FIA found - off-track, winning him a huge global fan base despite involving himself in multiple controversial incidents.

Senna died on 1 May 1994 following an accident during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola caused by a mechanical failure on his Williams at the high-speed Tamburello left-hander.

His shock death in an event that had already witnessed Roland Ratzenberger become the first driver in 12 years to die on an F1 race weekend shook the sporting world and prompted an immense outpouring of grief with his funeral procession bringing three million people onto the streets of Sao Paulo.

During his time in F1 Senna clinched 41 victories, 80 podiums and 65 pole positions.

Ayrton Senna F1 Career - Team-by-Team

Toleman: 1984

Senna’s progress through the junior ranks had been rapid and immensely successful. Setting himself up in the United Kingdom, Senna made his most notable debut in the Formula Ford 1600 series in 1981, which he won, before clinching the Formula Ford 2000 and British F3 titles, plus the Macau Grand Prix in the following years.

His dominance in F3 (12 wins in 20 races) earned him his F1 break with the British-based Toleman team and Senna set about demonstrating his potential in what was an underpowered mid-field machine at best.

In only its fourth season of F1 competition, though Toleman initially struggled to qualify for races in 1981 and 1982, a purple patch in the hands of Derek Warwick in 1983 led to confidence it could acquit itself more competitively in 1984.

Combined with Senna’s exceptional feel of a car’s handling, he quickly repaid Toleman’s faith in promoting him with a top six finish in Rounds 2 and 3. Driving an updated Hart-engined version of the 1983 machine, Senna bounced back from failing to qualify for the San Marino Grand Prix to make his indelible mark at the wheel of the new TG184 during Round 6 at Monaco.

An event he’d go on to win a record six times, the low speeds and tricky wet weather conditions both negated the Toleman’s lack of performance (and normally less competitive Pirelli tyres) and elevated Senna’s talents as he worked his way up the order to second position by lap 26 when the race was halted due to rain and the result called.

More success followed with podiums at the British Grand Prix and the season-ending Portuguese Grand Prix lifting him to ninth overall, despite being suspended for one event by his own team, which was angered on learning he had signed a contract with Lotus the following year without its knowledge.

He also made a name for himself by winning the invitation Nurburgring Race of Champions event held to inaugurate the re-designed German venue. In a field containing numerous world champion, including Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, at the wheel of modified Mercedes 190E saloons, Senna - who was a late addition after countryman Emerson Fittipaldi had withdrawn - led from the first corner and stormed on to victory

Lotus: 1985-1987

For 1985, Senna began what became a happy three-season tenure at Lotus. The team had been eager to sign Senna for his 1984 debut but sponsorship pressures led it to choose Nigel Mansell instead.

When the stars aligned, the Renault-powered Lotus was a revelation in Senna’s hands and he was regularly difficult to beat over a single lap, scoring pole position in four of the opening six rounds. The determination drew controversy though when Senna was accused of baulking rivals in qualifying while attempting to better his time.

However, the car lacked reliability and Senna was still prone to making errors in what was still only his second season in the top flight.

Nonetheless, Senna once again displayed his prowess in wet weather conditions and after starting Round 2 in Estoril from pole position was untouchable in the race as he powered to his first win by more than a minute, lapping all but Ferrari’s Michele Alboreto. He would regard it as the greatest win of his career.

Results were harder to come by thereafter and it wasn’t until Round 10 in Austria that Senna scored again with a run to second in the Austrian Grand Prix. A strong end to the year yielded four more podiums, including a second victory in the Belgian Grand Prix to ensure him fourth in the overall standings. 

In 1986 Senna found more of the same traits that defined his first season with Lotus; a light, nimble car that shone on bumpy circuits but lacked the outright performance and reliability of Williams and McLaren.

In qualifying he remained superior, claiming eight pole positions over the year but only able to convert two of them, at the twisty Jerez and the tricky Detroit street circuit. He finished fourth overall again, albeit a distance from title rivals Nelson Piquet Jr, Nigel Mansell and eventual champion Alain Prost.

Feeling the Renault V6 was slipping behind in the development race with Honda - which was powering Williams - Senna sparked up a relationship with the Japanese firm that would go on to bring him his greatest results, enticing it to supply engines to Lotus for the 1987 F1 season. 

It was a shrewd agreement and the Lotus indeed proved competitive but Williams once again had the edge over the competition. Senna reeled off the first of his six Monaco wins, followed by another in Detroit, and while they proved to be his only two victories of the year, eight total podiums elevated him to third in the standings.

McLaren: 1988-1993


Though his relationship with Lotus was good, Senna sensed it was not the team with which to achieve his dream of winning the World Championship and subsequently penned a deal with McLaren for the 1988 F1 season, crucially taking the Honda engine deal with him. 

Interestingly, Senna’s appointment was only made possible by lead driver Alain Prost not exercising his veto - partly because he would also make use of the top Honda equipment - but the season would mark the turning point in an inter-team rivalry for the ages as they emerged as the drivers to beat in a season that saw McLaren win all but one race.

Senna spent much of his season playing catch up to Prost, not least when he made an uncharacteristic error while leading in Monaco, which led him to exit the circuit immediately and head home distraught without first returning to the garage. 

With McLaren exercising a huge advantage over its rivals, the pendulum of momentum swung solely between the pair with Senna regaining the initiative with a rout of six wins in seven races. Senna might have won the title more easily had he not been accidentally taken out by Jean-Louis Schlesser In Monza when the Williams driver was spooked into a spin as he was being overtaken. 

A burst of form from Prost late on actually saw the Frenchman end the year with more points (105 compared with Senna’s 90( but he paid for being more consistent with the final classification only allowing the best 11 scores from 16 races. With Senna able to drop more low scores and Prost forced to cede three second place results from his impressive tally, the Brazilian jumped back ahead to win by three points.

That mathematical quirk aside, Prost and Senna endured their first significant run-in at the Portuguese Grand Prix when Prost slipstreamed alongside on the Estoril home straight, prompting the Brazilian to put the squeeze on him that forced his rival close to the pit wall. Prost kept his foot in to complete the pass but made his anger clear post-race.


The rivalry intensified further in 1989 in a year that saw Ferrari and Williams pose a more formidable threat, even if McLaren retained its overall advantage. Mistrust and mind games in a war of words often played out in the media made engaging television, but didn’t foster a healthy team environment. Then again, McLaren boss Ron Dennis didn’t help matters but admitting he was suspicious Honda were giving preferential treatment to Senna in the development of its engine. 

When Senna ignored an alleged pre-race agreement not to overtake Prost during a restart at Imola, the pair were not on speaking terms come mid-season. By then the pair held three wins apiece but a quartet of non-scores for the Brazilian due to poor reliability gave Prost a healthy advantage at the top of the standings. 

It was a margin Senna couldn’t quite hunt down leading to the first of the pair’s infamous collisions at Suzuka, the penultimate round of the year. With Senna rapid over a single lap and generally a better starter than Prost, the Frenchman caught his team-mate by surprise by leading into the first corner, the legacy of removing a gurney flap, unknown to Senna.

It meant Prost was quicker in a straight line but it made the McLaren more of a handful in the corners so while Senna would close up to the back of the sister car mid-bend, he couldn’t get close enough to line up a pass under braking. Knowing he needed to win to keep the title fight alive, on lap 46 Senna launched his car up the inside of Prost’s at the final corner chicane but the McLarens locked wheels and skidded into the gravel trap.

Prost abandoned his car but Senna - with the help of marshals giving him a push-start - returned to circuit and, despite pitting for a new nose, was able to catch and overtake Alessandro Nannini for the win. However, officials disqualified him for the push-start, cutting the chicane en route back to the circuit and for crossing the pit lane entry in trying to overtake. Handing Prost the title, Senna railed at the decision, which he felt was influenced by FIA President Jean-Merie Balestrte in an attempt to get his fellow Frenchman to win.


With Prost crying enough and subsequently leaving McLaren for Ferrari at the end of the season, Senna assumed number one status in the team and duly made the most of his undisputed status by stealing an early march on proceedings against a rival getting to grips with his new machine.

A trio of wins on the bounce allowed Prost to close up mid-season but in the superior McLaren, Senna received his first ‘match point’, once again at the penultimate Japanese Grand Prix round. Starting alongside one another, Senna - angered at what he felt was another partisan move by the FIA to swap his pole position grid slot from the racing line to the dirtier right-hand side - vowed he wouldn’t allow Prost to take the lead at the first corner at all costs.

He came good on his threat when Prost got the edge off the line, only for Senna to dive up the inside and take them both off at Turn 1. Telemetry later showed Senna did not lift into what wasn’t a flat corner and Senna would go on to admit it was indeed deliberate since a double DNF assured him of the title. Prost said he was ‘disgusted’ at the revelation and considered quitting F1 as a result.


With Prost’s form dwindling with what would be a prolonged Ferrari slump, Senna was largely unrivalled in 1991 despite the looming threat of Williams which by the end of the season arguably had the faster car. However, four wins from the opening four races - aided by poor Williams reliability - put Senna well on course for his third title with three more wins assuring himself of his most comprehensive success.

Sensing Williams were beginning to have the edge on Williams with its increasingly quick Renault engines, Senna sought a deal to join the outfit for 1992 but a personal plea by Honda CEO Nobuhiuko Kawamoto prompted the Brazilian to re-sign with McLaren out of loyalty.


However, Senna’s fears were realised when Williams’ tech-laden FW14B proved vastly superior, going on to dominate with Mansell at the wheel. Senna battled on in an increasingly unreliable machine and though he won again at Monaco, the Hungaroring and Monza, a catalogue of DNFs consigned him to fourth overall.

Though often regarded as an out-and-out racer - which some would describe as selfish at worst - Senna did on occasion demonstrate striking sportsmanship, first in 1991 when he gave up victory in the final round to Gerhard Berger as a thank you for his support during the year, and again in more extraordinary circumstances during the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix. 

Coming across the wreckage of Erik Comas’ Ligier, who had crashed ahead of him, Senna - spotting the car was still screaming at maximum RPM after the throttle became lodged open - stopped, ran over to the stricken car and shut it off, preventing what would have been a likely engine blow out and probable fire. Two years later Comas would withdraw himself from the restarted 1994 San Marino Grand Prix due to the distress of seeing the aftermath of the crash which claimed Senna’s life.


In the wake of Williams’ domination, Senna ramped up his efforts to defect to the British team for 1993 but any potential deal was blocked by the incoming Prost, who again had a say in who partnered him and subsequently vetoed his bitter rival’s appointment.

Honda’s exit from F1 at the end of the 1992 season left McLaren with a quandary for 1993, both how to entice Senna to stay and which engines to use. After an attempt to secure the same Renault V10 engines as Williams fell through, McLaren signed a deal with newcomers Peugeot but its unit would only be ready for 1994. As such, McLaren reached a deal with Ford but couldn’t secure the same specification as the V8s being used by the company’s then factory-supported partners Benetton. 

Underpowered and hampered by an active suspension system that while full of potential was a year behind Williams’ version and thus comparatively unpredictable, Senna - on a race-by-race contract - nonetheless took the fight to hot favourites Prost and Williams, winning three of the opening six races. This included his sixth and final win at Monaco, plus an iconic dominant drive in the only F1 race to be held at a rainy Donington Park when Senna picked his way to the front on the opening lap and almost lapped the entire field.

By mid-season Prost and Williams pulled the pin, leaving Senna to play catch up and though he rounded off his time at McLaren with two end-of-season wins, the Frenchman was the comfortable title winner.

Williams: 1994

With Prost promptly retiring from the sport, Senna finally got his wish of competing with Williams but by this stage the team’s erstwhile advantage had been eroded by rivals, namely Benetton and Michael Schumacher. 

With the German predicted to prove Senna’s next big foe, tensions were ramped up when he failed to finish the opening two races, leading to a crucial - but fateful - San Marino Grand Prix.

Ayrton Senna’s Death - 1994 San Marino Grand Prix

A circuit that will live in infamy over the events that occurred on the weekend of April 29-30/May 1 1994, the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix marked a sea change in philosophy with regards to car and circuit safety in F1 as a result of Ratzenberger and Senna’s death.

Already marred by a huge 95g crash involving Rubens Barrichello - in which he was knocked unconscious but escaped serious injury - the black weekend took on new emphasis when Ratzenberger in only his and new team Simtek’s third F1 race crashed heavily at Villeneuve during qualifying. The Austrian had damaged the front-wing on his car the previous lap, which then failed at the flat right-hand kink, sending him spearing into the barriers and killing him instantly. 

The first death to occur on an F1 race weekend since 1982, the incident shook up the paddock, not least Senna, who reportedly cried on learning of Ratzenberger’s death. Having qualified on pole position, Senna was given a say on whether the race should be cancelled altogether but said it should continue and had planned to take an Austrian flag onto the podium should he reach it as a mark of tribute to his fallen compatriot. The furled flag was found among the wreckage, Senna having taken it with him into the cockpit before the race.

Driving in only his third event for Williams, Senna came into the race under pressure to win after a difficult start to the year, leading to an aggressive set-up that prioritised top speed that was reported to cause the car to bottom out on the circuit’s bumps. 

At the start of the race a large startline accident involving JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy - prompted by the latter slamming into the back of the stalled Benetton ahead of him - led to the deployment of the safety car to clear debris.

A relatively new feature in F1 first introduced a year earlier, concerns had previously been raised about the safety car’s failure to go quick enough for the following F1 cars to keep necessary heat into the tyres. The car chosen for this event was a relatively low powered Opel Vectra, which it was later revealed was struggling to set an acceptable pace because its brakes were overheating. Senna - having retained the lead from pole position - repeatedly pulled alongside the safety car urging the driver to speed up.

The race restarted on Lap 5 with Senna taking off, fearing the following Michael Schumacher was likely to undercut him with an alternative one-stop strategy. However, the Brazilian would complete just one more tour before his Williams suddenly speared right at the Tamburello left-hander and struck the barrier head-on at high-speed.

With the race red flagged instantly, Senna was extricated from the wreckage and airlifted to hospital. The race restarted 37mins later, with Schumacher going on to win having no knowledge of Senna’s condition. 

At 6.40pm local time, it was announced Senna had died from his injuries. The announcement was delayed until after the race despite the fact the Brazilian had died instantly in the impact, with the time of death given at 2.17pm, the moment of the crash. This particularly shook the paddock, who were led to believe Senna was OK when they restarted and were unaware he had already passed away.

The cause of death was a serious head injury, understood to have been caused by the damaged wheel and suspension clipping him on impact with the barriers. 

The reasons for the accident proved a point of contention for several years after the accident with manslaughter charges brought against six members of the Williams team, including owner Frank Williams and technical heads Patrick Head and Adrian Newey. All six were cleared in a verdict given on December 16 1997, with the cause of the accident ruled to have been the failure of the steering column - which had been cut and welded back together at the request of Senna himself in order to make him more comfortable in the car.

Ayrton Senna’s Legacy

The death of both Senna and Ratzenberger on the same weekend left an indelible mark on a sport that believed it had put the dangers of racing firmly in its past.

The FIA mandated a series of changes to the cars in an effort to improve cockpit safety and limit the prospect of drivers being hurt by broken debris, while it introduced modesty curtains to block crash scenes from TV cameras, the result of lingering images played on Italian television showing Senna’s body slumped in the cockpit, which due widespread condemnation.

The Imola Circuit itself was heavily revised following the weekend with the almost flat-out first sector punctuated by chicane complexes even if the actual bend where Senna died - Tamburello - remained largely unchanged as it was a relatively easy corner to take without lifting off and the crash was down to the car’s malfunction than corner safety specifically. However, the run-off and barrier were altered. 

Chicanes were also added to a number of other circuits to soften the high-speed points, which had become increasingly treacherous as car speeds increased. Installed esses at circuits like Spa and Montreal were only temporary though.

Such was the devotion towards Senna, he was given the unprecedented honour of a state funeral in Brazil with his body lying in state and his funeral broadcast on television. The estimated 3m people that flooded the streets of Sao Paulo during the procession was at the time considered the biggest public gathering ever recorded.

In the years after his passing, Senna’s legacy lives on through a modern generation of drivers who regularly cite him as an inspiration, including Lewis Hamilton, now statistically the most successful F1 driver of all-time.

Hailing from Sao Paulo, known for its rolling favelas and poverty in places, Senna’s sister Viviane founded the Instituto Ayrton Senna, a social program aimed at offering funding to children and teenagers from poor families to receive education and training. It has since gone on to invest hundreds of millions into worthy causes.

In 2010, a film depicting Senna’s career using previously unseen footage from his personal life and behind-the-scenes in F1, told through rivals, commentators, family and friends was released to huge critical acclaim and, unusually for a documentary, proved a surprise box office success.

However, Prost criticised his depiction in the film as a disrupter compared with Senna’s portrayal as a renegade hero, saying it failed to point out the two had reconciled in the final months of the Brazilian’s life and counted one another as friends at the time of his death

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