Sunday, October 20, 2013

Why did Ayrton Senna die?

Ayrton Senna was not only a great driver, perhaps the greatest: he was a living myth. This was a man who fascinated millions of people of all ages and backgrounds, even those far from the world of racing.

Ayrton Senna - South Africa 1993 - Grand Prix
He was an ideal, a flagbearer for a poor country, who was able to show his great talent and to gratify his obsession with success in a rough and unforgiving world, one that was light years from every day reality.

Serious, well mannered, down to earth and so seemingly normal, Senna had a facility with words and such a positive presence, that he was immediately liked. Once in his car, he would transform into a phenomena: one that enchanted everyone for his easy control and the timing he achieved without ever appearing to strain himself.

Ayrton Senna saluting people in his home town Sao Paulo after winning his third Championship in 1991
He had an elegant way of driving: aggressive, but with incredible precision. With his 65 pole positions, it seemed that nothing could stop him. For those who love the Grand Prix, his victories in the early 90’s seemed mortgaged from a youth committed to show that he was the best: to his opponents, the world and most of all, to himself.

Ayrton Senna celebrating his win at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1993, behind him is Fangio

In the business of the sport, he was a professional light years beyond the others. He presented his image brilliantly, gained profit from his ventures and was able to break through the barrier that normally separated race car enthusiasts from the rest of the world. He was famous everywhere. According to professional surveys, he was as popular as the Beatles, Clinton and Pele. His name was synonomous with race car driving.

Ayrton Senna in Japan, 1992. Suzuka circuit

Senna's unexpected and inexplicable death came as he drove the finest car towards victory in yet another Grand Prix. It came at a time when he was close to being crowned prince of racing, and made a myth of the only driver capable of living his own legend.

Years have passed and the myth is untouched. Neither the passage of time nor the arrival of new figures imposed by mass media can alter his fame.

Ayrton Senna's thombstone at the Morumbi cemetery in Sao Paulo, his home town

Senna continues to create a stir: merchandise bearing his name makes millions; the numerous publications about him continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, the charities carrying his name are flourishing. These latter continue to help poor children and to transmit the champion's positive message.

Ayrton Senna prsenting the charity project, the magazine for children "Senninha", in Febraury 1994, Sao Paulo
But today, instead of victories, it is Senna's trial and the unsolved mysteries surrounding his death that draw the attention of the media, fans and the common reader. It was a long, complicated and difficult trial that could place in jeopardy a dangerous sport. The Formula One has sixteen dangerous appointments in eleven countries each year. The tracks differ not only geographically but also, and more importantly, juridically. Faced wih a tragedy like that at Imola in May 1994 - two men dead and a string of serious accidents - the very sport is questioned. Everything from the danger to the utility of improved techniques and the intangible legalities must be examined.

Senna's trial provoked great controversy. The International Automobile Federation threatened to withdraw from races in Italy. The teams were opposed to a homicide trial, maintaining that the risks of the race are well known and accepted by its protagonists. What could have been a simple search for facts and the truth of what happened that May afternoon at Imola, became an international case. The case was made even more interesting by the doubts and questions that emerged in hearings where great figures like Damon Hill and Frank Williams testified; details about a world so ascetic and distant as to seem incomprehensible.

Ayrton Senna on the starting grid at the Imola San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, where he would die in an accident few minutes later, at the Tamburello corner
Why did Ayrton Senna go off the fastest place in the track at Imola when he was leading in his 160th Grand Prix? Why did he die? What happened to his car? Did the steering column give way? What are the reasons for his death? 

A technical-juridical fact that might have been reported at the bottom of a page of a sport's magazine has become a regular news event that has been researched, fathomed and analysed from every possible viewpoint. 

The Williams team was entangled for many years in a court case with Italian prosecutors over manslaughter charges, ending in a guilty verdict for Patrick Head

The Italian Court of Appeal, on 13 April 2007, stated the following in the verdict numbered 15050: "It has been determined that the accident was caused by a steering column failure. This failure was caused by badly designed and badly executed modifications. The responsibility of this falls on Patrick Head, culpable of omitted control". 

The initial trial in 1997 resulted in acquittals after the judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove its case, but a retrial was ordered by Italy's highest court. Patrick Head was not arrested as the sentence was backdated to the time of the crash, 1 May 1994. The statute of limitations under Italian law for culpable homicide was 7 years and 6 months, and the verdict was pronounced 13 years after the accident.

The charges focused on the car's steering column, which was found to have sheared off at a point where a modification had been made. The prosecution charged that the column had failed causing the accident, and Williams contended that it had failed on impact. Senna did not like the position of the steering wheel relative to his seating position and had asked for it to be changed. Patrick Head and Adrian Newey agreed to Senna's request to lengthen the FW16's steering column, but there was no time to manufacture a longer steering shaft. The existing shaft was instead cut, extended with a smaller-diameter piece of tubing and welded together with reinforcing plates.

Ayrton Senna with Chief Engineer Patrick Head, who was found guilty for Senna's death in the reopeoned trial in 2007
A 600-page technical report was submitted by Bologna University under Professor of Engineering Enrico Lorenzini and his team of specialists. The report concluded that fatigue cracks had developed through most of the steering column at the point where it had broken. Lorenzini stated: "It had been badly welded together about a third of the way down and couldn't stand the strain of the race. We discovered scratches on the crack in the steering rod. It seemed like the job had been done in a hurry but I can't say how long before the race. Someone had tried to smooth over the join following the welding. I have never seen anything like it. I believe the rod was faulty and probably cracked even during the warm-up. Moments before the crash only a tiny piece was left connected and therefore the car didn't respond in the bend."

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Blog in English about Ayrton Senna da Silva's history, biography, facts, pictures, videos, Formula 1, McLaren, Williams, Lotus, Toleman, Renault, Honda, Japan, Suzuka, Imola, San Marino, Xuxa, Adriane Galisteu, Carol Alt, Viviane Senna, Cristine Ferraciu, Liliane de Vasconcellos, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Gerhard Berger, Bernie Ecclestone, F1, race, circuit, pole position, fastest lap, Michael Schumacher, Benetton, Ferrari, Mika Hakkinen, pilot, Brazil, Sao Paulo, death, accident, funeral, Morumbi, Italy, Adrian Newey, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Alfredo Popescu, Bruno Senna, Bianca Senna, Angra dos Reis, Quinta do Lago, Portugal, Senna Vive, Senna Lives On, Forever Ayrton, Damon Hill

1 comment:

  1. That makes me so mad! It's really so sad he died unhappy too :-(


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