Jerry Unser Jr
Wolfgang von Trips
Carel Godin de Beaufort
Elio de Angelis
Sunday 1 May 1994
I was eight years old. I did not follow Formula 1 at the time of Ayrton Senna’s death; my interest in the sport only truly kicked in during 1996. But my brother did follow F1 in 1994. So I was aware of Senna’s death, and I do have memories of the day.
We tuned in to the BBC’s Grand Prix highlights programme. A solemn Murray Walker informed the viewers that they were hoping to provide highlights of an exciting San Marino Grand Prix, but sadly that wasn’t the sort of programme they would be able to bring.
Thirty-eight drivers have died during a Formula 1 World Championship event or test. Many others have died while driving F1 cars in non-championship events.
The name at the end of the list, Ayrton Senna, continues to cast the longest shadow. That is understandable on many fronts.
Senna’s was the most recent death in F1. As such, it serves as our greatest reminder of the dangers of the sport.
He also happened to be the sport’s biggest star. On track, it was his hair-raising driving style. Off track, it was his entrancing charisma. Senna was someone you just had to notice.
The stories he played a part in continue to grip people. Clips of him in action are among the most familiar F1 footage; we have all seen them so often.
The massive success of the recent documentary about Senna demonstrates his appeal. You didn’t have to be an F1 fan to appreciate the film, and therefore the man.
Why we remember
Senna’s death has left a massive legacy. A raft of safety improvements was brought in almost immediately following his death. There is now a constant desire to improve safety in motorsport. The subtext to this pursuit of safety is that the sport must never find itself going through a weekend like that again.
Before that Imola weekend, in which Roland Ratzenberger also died, it had been 12 years since there had been a fatal accident during an F1 race weekend. The sport had grown a lot in those eight years. The deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were broadcast live to the globe, in front of countless millions.
Times had changed as well. In the 1960s and 1970s, death was of course not welcomed. But danger was accepted by many as being intrinsically part of motorsport. By 1994, nobody held that view.
But motorsport is dangerous. A lot of hard work has gone into ensuring that another driver has not died in the past 20 years. But luck is also required for that.
Others have not been so lucky. Three marshals have died since Senna did, the most recent being Mark Robinson at last year’s Canadian Grand Prix. María de Villota also died last year as the ultimate result of injuries she had sustained during an accident at a test in 2012.
As a fan of motorsport, I must struggle with the fact that its participants – on and off the track – put their lives at risk for the benefit of my entertainment. I want to enjoy my Sunday afternoons. I don’t want to fear for the life of my idols.
Over the years, F1 has frightened me a few times. Other categories of motorsport that I follow have seen fatalities more recently.
That is why it is important to remember everyone that has died at a motorsport event. Because it serves as a constant reminder that safety always needs to be improved, and that the sport cannot become complacent.
The 20th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna is an occasion to remember him. Many others are remembering Roland Ratzenberger as well, and rightly so.
But 36 others have died while competing in the Formula 1 World Championship, and few will ever have so many column inches dedicated to them as either Senna or Ratzenberger. But we should remember them all. Because we need to avoid there being a 39th.