It was May 1, 1994: The world stood still. People were in a state of shock. It was the day the sun fell from the sky, as Gerhard Berger put it. His friend and racing colleague Ayrton Senna, the role model of a generation of racing drivers, had died in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola.
At 14:17, Senna approached the infamous Tamburello corner, for the seventh time in that race. Just past the apex of the corner, Senna went off the track and slammed sideways into the concrete wall. The race was stopped. It was less than a minute before the medical car reached the scene of the accident. Sid Watkins, the FIA’s chief medical officer for Formula One racing, immediately recognized that it was a fatal head injury.
Ayrton Senna’s idol
Senna was born in São Paulo on March 21, 1960, as the second child of a wealthy family. According to biographer Tom Rubython, Senna had a coordination problem in his early years: His mother always had to buy him two ice cream cones because he would inevitably drop a single one.
Television made motor racing in Brazil more popular than ever in the sixties: this certainly did not pass the young Ayrton Senna by. His idol was Jim Clark: When Senna, then aged eight, learned of Clark’s death at Hockenheim, a world collapsed for the boy.
For his tenth birthday, his father bought him his first real go-kart: Ten-year-old Ayrton discovered his passion, and his coordination weaknesses were water under the bridge.
In an interview in June 1991, Senna put it this way:
“There are many qualities that a driver should possess. (…) One of them is the ability to start at a young age. It starts as a hobby, as something you enjoy. If you have that opportunity, then you develop that in your character, in your personality, as you grow up.”
When Senna competed in junior races with his kart, he was always the youngest and often the fastest: being younger, he was smaller and lighter than the older competitors. This gave him an enormous speed advantage, especially on the straights.
When Senna was twelve years old, Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi became world champion: Brazil appeared on the world map of international motorsport for the first time.
Brazil subsequently applied to host a Grand Prix at the 1973 World Championship, and the bid was successful: the 1973 Brazilian Grand Prix was hosted by Senna’s hometown of São Paulo.
Fittipaldi won the Grand Prix and made the 120,000 spectators cheer. Among those spectators was a twelve-year-old Formula One enthusiast named Ayrton Senna….
Fittipaldi had just reached the peak of his career, Senna was just starting out: shortly after the 1973 Brazilian Grand Prix, Senna was old enough to take part in professional kart racing. Several times a week, he drove tests and picked up everything there was to learn about engines: Knowledge that later made him popular with his teams in Formula One. Senna knew not only how to drive, but also how to realize his ambitions technically.
In 1974, Senna won the national junior championship in kart racing, and in 1976, the São Paulo senior championship.
At school, he is said to have spent his time drawing race cars – early on, his heart beat for racing, with everything else taking a back seat.
World Karting Championships
In 1978, at the age of eighteen, Ayrton Senna made his first trip to Europe: The World Karting Championship was held in Le Mans in northern France. In advance, Senna traveled to Italy to take part in tests and perfect his skills.
At the World Championship in Le Mans, the competition was greater than in Brazil – it was new territory for Senna. He finished sixth in the World Championship ranking – a performance that was exceptional for such a young driver, but not enough for him.
When Senna entered international terrain and competed in world karting championships, his winning streak waned: Although he was always in the top ten, he never finished first.
The mechanic named Tché
It was at this time that Senna met Spanish kart mechanic Lucio Pascual Gascon (known as Tché), who had already been Emerson Fittipaldi’s mentor: he set up Senna’s racing engines during his karting career. When Senna wasn’t at school, he spent his time in Tché’s workshop looking over the mechanic’s shoulder.
Between 1977 and 1981, Ayrton Senna won several South American championship titles: In South America, he had become a karting motorsport celebrity.
It was always Senna’s ambition to win: The fact that he didn’t win the karting world championships nagged at his determination to one day make it as a Formula One driver.
His father noticed this – and suggested that he study and build a life away from professional motorsport…
Main sources: Rubython, Tom: “The Life of Senna”, 2004 Myrtle Press & Jones, Bruce: “Ayrton Senna – Portrait of a racing legend”, 2019 Carlton Books. The quote from June 1991 comes from this interview. It was edited for length and clarity.