Editorial

The silence at Imola was heard from here
By Cássio Côrtes
January 29, 2003

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"The Silence at Imola was heard from here" Nelson Piquet, May 1, 1994 at his home in Brasília


Ayrton Senna
Photo courtesy Getty Images

As one may imagine, every Brazilian holds its own theory on national hero Ayrton Senna's death. Most people still stick to the steering wheel column breakdown scenario, but among those who have a deeper knowledge of motor racing, this theory proves to be weak.

Blaming the accident on the car's ride height or even on Senna's blackout is a lot more plausible considering the TOTAL lack of reaction demonstrated by Ayrton during the accident - this from a driver widely known and praised for his almost super-human reflexes. There's no apparent deceleration at all between the car's first display of losing control and the hit itself.

Senna went head-on into the concrete wall, as if not trying to brake. He also seems not to try to protect himself like drivers normally do before a hard impact (and in the low cockpits of F1 cars up to 1994, these movements were often noticeable).

Either he didn't brake at all - due to a blackout - or, if he did, it was completely useless, as the car's tires held practically zero grip, since it was the bottom of the car the responsible for most of the traction between car and track - transforming the Brazilian in a mere passenger. It is important to say that Imola was, at the time, one of F1's worst circuits, with a rather bumpy track that made low ride heights a no-no.

But Senna had to gamble at this high speed track, since he'd scored zero championship points after two races - both won by Michael Schumacher - in a season everybody expected him to "Sunday drive" to the crown. Truth is, the '94 Williams was a very unstable car, having lost its active suspension and all other electronic gizmos the season before. The Renault V10 provided more power that any of the other engines that year, but the chassis was practically a carry-over from the previous years' car, a design made with the active suspension in mind. Benetton's born bread-and-butter, Ford V8-powered lighter car was visibly more competitive - putting all the pressure on Senna. Proof to that is Schumacher's winning the title over Damon Hill, in spite of actually racing only 12 times during the 16-race season (the German was punished during a race twice and got suspended for two races).

Senna's character was one of never admitting defeat. Who's the greatest, Senna or Schumacher, is definitely arguable. But who was the greatest in the year of 1994 is not. To beat newcomer Schumacher, Senna was visibly having to overdrive the FW16, but the results were somewhat coming - he took all of the season's three poles coming into Imola's race day; he was closing the gap to Schumacher in Brazil an unbelievable two seconds per lap before committing one of his career's rare mistakes; he was taken out at the very first turn in the Pacific GP at Aida, Japan, and couldn't even post a challenge.

Apparently, no reason to despair. But that only applied if you weren't named Ayrton Senna da Silva. Senna wouldn't come out of San Marino with anything but the victory.

To add up to the immense pressure Ayrton was under, Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed Saturday in the cockpit of a Simtek, and fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello suffered the most horrible accident of his career Friday, nearly being killed. Everybody who knew Senna says until today that the Ayrton present at Imola that late-April, early-May wasn't the one they'd lived with. It was a rather somber one.

Nelson Piquet ('87) and Gerhard Berger ('89) suffered similarly hard hits at Tamburello, but both driver's reactions allowed them to hit the wall in a less acute angle - a move they probably own their lives to, even though Piquet admits that after this accident (happened during practice for the 1987 San Marino GP) he never completely recovered his sight, especially when it came to his sense of distance, and Berger walked off suffering somewhat serious burns after his hideous incident during the 1989 race. Ironically, 1987 was the year of Piquet's last title, as he claims he was never the same driver after that hit.


Senna in the Williams FW16 - Note the lack of protection around Senna's head compared to today's cars
Photo courtesy Getty Images

As much as the world and Brazil in particular misses Ayrton, re-opening the suit against Patrick Head and Sir Frank Williams is nothing short of a complete waste of time. At the end of the day, Senna died from an unbelievable lack of luck - a suspension bar that broke away from the car during the hit and punctured his helmet like an arrow in its weakest point, the junction between the helmet itself and its visor. It was almost mystical, one of those incidents in which the "Racing Gods" seem present; to the less rational mind, it's as if "his time had come" and there was nothing that could be done about it.

Viviane Senna, Ayrton's older sister and nowadays head of the Ayrton Senna Institute, one of Brazil's largest charity institutions, repeatedly stated the family's desire to drop the charges against Head and Williams during the first trial. Re-opening this process will only be of use to tarnish the image of two of motorsport's most credible figures, and that of designer Adrian Newey who was also indicted in the process.

Worse, it won't bring back the fallen hero, serving only to revive the sorrow the racing world still feels for the loss of one of its history's greatest.

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