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The story and conspiracy surrounding the death of Ayrton Senna: 27 years on

As F1 returns to Imola, I take a look at the tragic crash of Ayrton Senna, and the mystery that surrounds the crash to this day

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Ayrton Senna is widely regarded as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time. Senna has three world titles and 41 race wins to his name, but it is the events at the San Marino Grand Prix that the younger generation best know him for. This tragic weekend saw Senna suffer a fatal accident, and questions from that crash still remain today. Below I take a look at what exactly happened on that fateful day, and the mystery of the events on 1 May 1994. 

Before we get to the Sunday race, let’s take a moment to remember Roland Ratzenberger. The Austrian was also tragically killed on this weekend, during qualifying on Saturday, as his car hit a wall he suffered a number of injuries including a ruptured aorta, and passed away upon arrival at the hospital. The official cause of death being stated as a basilar skull fracture.

Despite this tragic event, it was confirmed the race on Sunday would go ahead, with Ratzenberger’s grid spot being left empty as a mark of respect.

Ratzenberger during the San Marino Grand Prix weekend. (Image Credit: Sgozzi.)

A large crash at the start of the race saw the safety car come out. Senna led the way when the safety car pulled in at the end of lap 5, quickly setting the pace for the rest of the field to follow.

During lap 7, at the Tamburello corner, Senna’s Williams left the racing line and ran off the track, colliding with an unprotected concrete barrier. Telemetry data shows Senna braking hard, but impacting the wall at 131 mph. The front right wheel and nose cone were torn off, before the car came to a halt.

Following the impact, Senna lay motionless in the cockpit. 10 seconds later onboard footage shows a slight head raise to the left before his head returned to its original resting position.

Senna suffered three major injuries as a result of this collision; the first being a rebounding wheel hitting his helmet, shoving his head back against the headrest. A loose piece of suspension had also penetrated his helmet. On top of both of these, some upright assembly pierced his helmet visor. Any one of these three injuries would have likely been fatal.

The severity of the crash was realised when Senna lay motionless. Hope appeared when his head appeared to raise to the left, but this quickly vanished when it returned to its resting position.

Seconds after the accident, fire marshals arrived at Senna’s car, but were forbidden to touch him until medical personnel arrived. Within minutes Senna was extracted from the car, and medical attention was being provided. Visible head injuries made it clear he had suffered massive trauma, but no one knew the extent of the damage at this stage.

Professor Sid Watkins, chief medical officer at the time, quickly arrived on scene and performed many actions to attempt to save Senna, including clearing the respiratory passages, stemming the blood flow, replacing lost blood and immobilising the cervical area.

Watkins gave this powerful quote following the incident: “He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am not religious, I felt his spirit depart at that moment”

Following the accident, Senna’s car was returned to the pit lane, where an unknown individual requested the black box to be removed from the car.

Upon arrival at the hospital Senna received emergency treatment and his heart stopped and was restarted. Following extensive medical work, Senna’s heart once again stopped beating at 6:37 pm, and with his family’s permission, it was decided that it would not be restarted.

Ayrton Senna was pronounced dead at 6:40 pm local time.

It was later revealed that Senna had been racing with an Austrian flag in his car, as he planned to pay homage to Ratzenberger following the conclusion of the race.

The master at work in Monaco. (Image Credit: Photographic/REX_Shutterstock)

Following his death, Brazil declared three days of national mourning, as Senna’s body was flown back home. Over three million people lined the streets, and many more watched on TV as Senna’s funeral was carried out. At the next race in Monaco, the FIA decided to leave the first two grid slots empty, and paint them with the Austrian and Brazilian flags in the drivers’ honour.

Following Senna’s autopsy, his official time of death was given as 2:17 pm on 1 May 1994 (shortly after the accident itself took place.)

The Williams F1 team were caught up in court cases, largely under the charge of manslaughter, for many years following the crash. Failure of the steering column was the eventual declared cause for the crash, leaving Patrick Head responsible, but due to this being declared 13 years after the event, Head was not liable to face any charges.

Adrian Newey, the man who designed the car Senna was driving, gave this quote: ” The honest truth is that no one will ever know exactly what happened. There’s no doubt the steering column failed and the big question was whether it failed in the accident or did it cause the accident? It had fatigue cracks and would have failed at some point. There is no question that its design was very poor. However, all the evidence suggests the car did not go off the track as a result of steering column failure… If you look at the camera shots, especially from Michael Schumacher’s following car, the car didn’t understeer off the track. It oversteered which is not consistent with a steering column failure.

The rear of the car stepped out and all the data suggests that happened. Ayrton then corrected that by going to 50% throttle which would be consistent with trying to reduce the rear stepping out and then, half a second later, he went hard on the brakes. The question then is why did the rear step out? The car bottomed much harder on that second lap which again appears to be unusual because the tyre pressure should have come up by then – which leaves you expecting that the right rear tyre probably picked up a puncture from debris on the track. If I was pushed into picking out a single most likely cause that would be it.”

The FW16, driven by Senna. (Image Credit: Icon Sport.)

Following the blame falling at his door, Head blamed driver error for the cause of the crash, a theory also believed by Damon Hill. Meanwhile, Newey says a tyre failure could have caused the crash, caused by debris on the circuit.

Whatever the cause of the crash, the missing black box raises many eyebrows across the F1 world. The big question of course is: ‘Why would anyone insist on removing and destroying it if they had nothing to hide?’.

I’ll leave the above thought for you to draw your own conclusions from.

Whatever the cause, the weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix will go down as one of the darkest in motor racing history. In the words of the late, great, Murray Walker – it was “The blackest day for Grand Prix Racing”.

Article written in memory of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. Both taken too soon. RIP. 


Feature Image: Getty Images 

  1. Terribly sad – but note after the backend span out (just like Le-Clerc and Verstappen in the last couple of 2022 F1 ground effect season) the plank was added as a regulation for safety, to stop ‘ground effect’ cars losing all downforce if they bottom out. And Newey is once again designing a car breaking this safety plank rule…

  2. never understood why members of the williams team were accused of manslaughter….it should never have gone to court…………senna lost control of his car through”driver error”how are they criminally responsible for this for the crash or the debris going through senna’s visor and a wheel striking him on the head????
    it never occured to those planning to prosecute the williams personnel that the steering column had only snapped upon impact with a wall at 135mph and not beforehand if they had done there homework they’d have known and also known that there was no case to answer…………..

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