He may not be a household name in the U.S., but Brazilian racer Ayrton Senna was one of the greatest drivers in the history of Formula One racing. Senna was a colorful, often arrogant driver who became a national hero in his native country and an international force in race car driving in the '90s. However, it was Senna's tragic death, at only 34, for which he is most remembered—and revered—within the industry. The car crash that killed Senna during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix race was the catalyst for ambitious, much-needed safety measures that have since helped save the lives of countless other professionals. In fact, the improvements and innovations drawn from studying what went wrong with Senna's vehicle (and that of another driver, Roland Ratzenberger, who was killed in qualifiers for the very same race) would change the sport forever.
Since that tragic 1994 race, no Formula One racers have died on the track. It was a dramatic difference—so dramatic, in fact, that the BBC has called the 1980s and 1990s "the killer years" of Grand Prix racing.
Ayrton's life and the impact of his death are at the center of a compelling sports documentary (which opens nationally August 19) titled Senna by award winning director Asif Kapadia and screenwriter Manish Pandey. The film is crafted using rare archival material, including copious amounts of heart-pumping racing footage from the driver's point-of-view, much of which was obtained through Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Management archive in Britain. The massive cache of over 25 years of Grand Prix footage was, as Pandey puts it, "a real Aladdin's cave" of onscreen treasures.
Kapadia and Pandey also had the cooperation of Senna's family and legendary racing neurosurgeon Sid Watkins, a longtime friend of Senna and a towering figure in the sport whose influence exceeds that of nearly any other sports doctor. Pandey thinks their deep access is what makes the film so special: "I think our forensic knowledge of the subject, along with our absolute integrity that we were not making a film about who or what killed Senna. Rather, we wanted to create a record about the life and death of the greatest F1 driver in the modern era."
The doc does examine the mechanical and design flaws, however, that led to the Grand Prix disaster. The early 1990s were filled with changes to the small, extremely compact cars used in the sport. Rear tires were narrowed on F1 cars in 1993 and the computerized systems drivers used were removed in 1993. "I think that the cars were suffering from a combination of rule changes that go back that time," says Pandey, who became the resident authority on Senna during the film. "The combination of reduced grip and sudden loss of systems designed to keep the cars on the road, coupled with no reduction in engine performance, made the cars very difficult to drive."
Ultimately, a decade-long Italian court case about the accident determined the design of the steering column in Senna's car was likely the cause of the accident. According to a formal inquiry, fatigue cracks developed in Senna's steering column while driving that caused the column to have almost collapsed. As a result, Patrick Head, the Engineering Director of Senna's racing team, was found guilty of manslaughter. (Head did not serve prison time because of the expired statute of limitations under Italian law.)
Senna's crash may have be the most infamous incident at San Marino, but unfortunately, it was not entirely unique. According to Pandey, Formula One drivers JJ Lehto and Jean Alesi also suffered serious accidents while testing cars prior to the race.
In the years following Senna's death, supervisory body FIA installed black box-style accident data recorders inside cars and significantly increased the scrutiny of pre-race crash tests. These changes were accompanied by a host of small changes to car design and to track layout. The dozens of changes FIA implemented both prevented potential accidents and, much more importantly for the sport, tried to guarantee drivers can recover from high-speed crashes with nothing worse than broken bones or relatively mild internal injuries.
Many of these changes were the brainchild of Watkins, who served as Formula One's chief doctor from 1978 until 2005. Watkins, a trained neurosurgeon who performed countless delicate operations on the track—everything from tracheostomies to inducing comas for crash victims—maintained close friendships with many drivers. Watkins chaired a safety committee instituted after the annus horriblis of 1994 that overcame significant internal pressure within FIA to force the safety innovations through.
A set of innovations in the early 2000s significantly redesigned both steering wheels and cockpits to increase driver safety in case of a crash. The cockpits of Formula One cars are extremely small and, in terms of layout, are closer to a cramped space capsule than a conventional automobile. Many of Formula One's casualties in the past were due to internal injuries caused more by the design of the cars and drivers being impaled or mangled by items within the cockpit than by the speed they were driving at.
In the past decade, Formula One has become one of the world's most popular sports. The 2010 FIA Formula One Championship had a global viewership of 527 million people. A large part of this has been due to F1's changing public image; bloody auto crashes might be endlessly viewed on YouTube, but they are a poor way to attract children and families to the sport and the all-important purchase of merchandise. Pandey told Fast Company that "fortunately no one has been killed. Indeed, most times, drivers just walk away. I was at Abu Dhabi last year when Michael Schumacher spun and Vitantonio Luizzi flew over his car. Luizzi's wheel missed Schumacher's head by 8 inches. F1 can never be 100% safe but we have been going for 17 years without a fatality—and that is a huge tribute to the FIA and the safety work headed by Professor Sid Watkins."
[Images courtesy Producers Distribution Agency]
Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously implied there was a fire in the crash that killed Ayrton Senna.