Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion | Pirelli

Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion

Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion 01
Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion 01

Of Ayrton Senna, what remains etched in the memory is that almost beatific smile. A faraway look as if he were in direct intercession with something or someone beyond us and unreachable. But behind those serene eyes there was also that unquenchable fire: the flames that took hold whenever the man became the driver, slipped into the cockpit, took hold of the wheel and ventured out onto the track.

These were powerful emotions, able to capture to hearts even of people who weren't motorsport fans. And it's all the more incredible to think that on March 21, 2020, Ayrton would have been 60 years old. That's somehow irreconcilable with his image of eternal youth that endures, 26 years after the accident on May 1, 1994, which took him from us.

Ayrton's life was a destiny foretold. Born in Brazil to a good – almost noble – family, with a classical education and religious upbringing, this was to shape his outlook throughout the rest of his days. He only had one real outside interest, which was racing. Or rather, speed. He started off in karting, where he soon found success. Then he went to England: the epicentre of motorsport for up-and-coming drivers. His rise through the ranks was inexorable: Formula Ford, then British Formula 3 – which at the time was a crucible of champions.

Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion 02
Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion 02

He was not even 24 years old when the most prominent Formula 1 teams first began to take an interest in him, inviting him to test. But when it came to it, at the beginning of the 1984 season, McLaren and Williams were fully booked, so the only option for Senna was Toleman. This was hardly a top team, but perfect for Senna's purposes at the time, as he wanted to make progress step by step.

When he first showed up in the paddock, he looked even younger than the age stated on his passport. The photos of Ayrton at his very first grands prix – innocent in plain white overalls, with a Pirelli logo prominent on his chest –  are in stark contrast to the monster who revealed himself at the Monaco Grand Prix a few months later, powering through a wall of water, in an emphatic demonstration of who he was and what he was set to become.

His Toleman, unquestionably a backmarker, suddenly became a missile: zeroing in on the McLaren of Alain Prost, which was the car to beat that year. The race finished with an early chequered flag, luckily for Prost, which allowed the McLaren to cling onto victory – just. But it was a foretaste of those epic duels with Senna that would go on to write some of the most unforgettable chapters in Formula 1 history only a few years later.

The rest is all in the record books. Senna became a reference point when it came to pure speed: particularly in qualifying, where he was unbeatable. He began to win in 1985 with Lotus, before continuing the story with McLaren-Honda. There he had Prost (already a two-time champion) as his team mate, and the Brazilian served notice of his intentions by winning his first title straight away.

Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion 03
Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion 03

From that point on, it was open war. Prost claimed the title in 1989 after their controversial collision in Japan (although it was Senna who left the scene of the accident, storming to the chequered flag as if driven by demons). Following Japan, their battle went from sporting to something  even more personal. 

By the end of 1990 Prost had moved to Ferrari while Senna stayed at McLaren, but Japan would decide the title once more. The Ferrari made a better start but there was contact with Senna at the first corner. With both drivers scoring no points, Senna was champion. At the end of 1991, having won the title again (for the third and final time) the Brazilian made a remarkable confession. “A year ago, I did it on purpose. I decided that if he got away first, I would take him out. I had God's permission to do it.”

You can't talk about Senna without remembering his mysticism: still part of his legend today. The competitive advantage eventually shifted from McLaren to Williams, which Senna had targeted as his next drive. But Prost beat him to it, with the Frenchman winning his fourth career title with Williams in 1993. When it was Senna's turn to get in a Williams, the outcome seemed inevitable. But there were two unexpected twists.

Firstly, the meteoric rise of Michael Schumacher, billed for some time as the next Senna. Secondly (and definitively) that seemingly banal accident after the re-start of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994. The Williams slammed sideways into the outside wall at Tamburello, but the crash didn't initially look too bad.

Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion 04
Ayrton Senna: the springtime champion 04

Yet there was more to it. A metal tube, which made up the steering arm, sheared and contributed to the accident. Another tube, which was part of the front-right suspension of the Williams, flew off in the impact and pierced Senna's helmet visor, ultimately ending his life.

So ended Ayrton Senna's time on earth, 34 years after he was born on the first day of spring in 1960. And his legend has only grown greater over time: right up to our current, more troubled, springtime of 2020.

AYRTON SENNA: born March 21, 1960 – died May 1, 1994

Races: 161

Pole positions: 65

Wins: 41

Titles: 3 (1988, 1990, 1991)