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Imola – 25 years on

May 1, 2019

There can be few Formula 1 fans who witnessed the devastating events of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix who could quite have imagined the effect that it would have on the sport.

We’d been living in a bit of a bubble. Twelve years had passed since Riccardo Paletti crashed his Osella into the back of Ferrari’s Didier Pironi at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix becoming the (at the time) last driver to be killed during a Formula 1 weekend.

In the twelve years since, we’d seen spectacularly violent crashes but thankfully none had led to a fatality or even life threatening injury.

In the wake of the 1970s and early 1980 that proved to be so deadly, we were beginning to think that death in Formula 1 was a thing of the past. That our heroes were invincible. That it happened in other forms of racing, but not here.

How wrong we were.

On Friday the 29th April came a warning. In first qualifying Rubens’ Barrichello ran his Jordan-Ford wide on the exit of the Variate Bassa chicane, and his car, still travelling at just shy of 150mph leapt from the kerb, clipping the very top of the tyre barriers designed to cushion any impact with the armco and into the catch fencing, before tumbling  to a rest on its side by the track with it driver motionless inside the cockpit.

The session was immediately stopped as Sid Watkins, F1’s doctor tended to the clearly injured Brazilian at the scene. Thankfully, Barrichello escaped with no more than a broken nose and was back at the circuit a day later, although concussion and minor injuries prevented him from competing.

Formula 1 breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that the safety of the cars and tracks had once again prevented one of its number being seriously injured, and the event continued.

Little did we now that worse was to come. In Saturday qualifying, Simtek’s Roland Ratzenberger in his and his team’s first season in F1, unaware his car was damaged from an earlier off, lost control at the Villeneuve curve, striking the retaining wall at around 190mph.

Tragically, the outcome would be very different to that of Barrichello’s accident and Ratzenberger was airlifted to the nearby Maggiore hospital, where he was soon pronounced dead.

It is rumoured that Ayrton Senna, when told of the news, broke down in tears and was consoled Prof. Sid Watkins who, seeing the effect the death of his colleague had on Senna, would attempt to convince him not to race.

But race he would, and having set the quickest time in first qualifying on Friday, despite opting not to set another time in the remaining 40 minutes of Saturday’s qualifying (at the time the grid would be formed based on times set in either Friday or Saturday qualifying), he would start from pole position for the 65th and last time.

Seven laps were on the board when Senna’s Williams FW16 left the track at Tamburello and Formula 1 lost its messiah.

It was a watershed moment for the sport. Cars changed. Tracks changed. Rules changed. Fans changed. From that moment on F1 was never the same again.

Twenty five years have passed since that truly devastating weekend at Imola in 1994, but has Ayrton Senna’s light dimmed any? Not one bit.

He’s almost as integral a part of Formula 1 in 2019 as he was in 1994. He might not be with us physically, but there’s not a day goes by without his name being mentioned, often as a metaphor for everything that was and is good about Formula 1.

The Senna name has become synonymous with the purest form of racing. Politics free, money free, strategy free. Balls out racing, for the love of it and nothing else.

Now, if you’re an F1 fan of a certain age and you were around at the time you’ll be aware that those who have bestowed on him a deification have done so by ignoring many of his less admirable traits and transgressions, of which there were many.

But none of that matters now.

He will never grow old. He’ll never lose his speed or have to retire. He’ll always be Ayrton Senna, the fastest racing driver in the world.


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