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The day Senna died

3 weeks ago

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Andrew Frankel | Ti co-founder


30 April 2024

Where were you 30 years ago tomorrow? If you were A) alive, B) old enough and of a mind to be an Ayrton Senna fan, I have no doubt you’ll be able to recall in an instant the moment you heard the greatest driver of his era had died doing what he did best. It was just one of those moments.

I don’t tend to regard racing drivers as heroes. A hero is someone who puts their life on the line in the interests of others; if you’re doing it for yourself, it doesn’t really count. But if I did, there’d have been just three in my lifetime: Gilles Villeneuve and Stirling Moss because they were not just absurdly brave and preposterously talented, but also because there was an old fashioned chivalry to the way they plied their dangerous trade. And Senna because he was, well, Senna.

Here was a man with a will to succeed like no other I’d seen, and the talent to see him through. Sometimes he went too far – far too far – but so too was there a humanity there that’s rare to see in any era. It was exactly that which Erik Comas credits with saving his life after his enormous accident at Spa in 1992. While others drove through the wreckage, Senna stopped his McLaren, got out, sprinted across the track and switched off the Ligier’s engine, still screaming with the unconscious Comas’s foot hard down on the pedal, all before the first marshal arrived.


I spent 1 May 1994 messing about with some old cars in the Elan Valley and watched the race in the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel. My mind wasn’t really on it because the following day was due to be the biggest of my working life: the day we road tested the McLaren F1.

Then came Tamburello. Of course everyone knew the situation was desperate though it was hard to understand why. We had seen other drivers survive apparently far worse accidents at the same corner, not least Senna’s former teammate Gerhard Berger, five years earlier.

I left the hotel still not knowing the true consequences and set off in my Autocar long termer – a white, base spec Mercedes-Benz C180 sans air conditioning – to meet up with my then girlfriend (now wife) at her parents’ house in rural Herefordshire. And I was driving over a small brow on a narrow lane south of Hay-on-Wye when the news finally came.

Even after the awful death of Roland Ratzenberger the previous day – the first fatality at an F1 race weekend for a dozen years – and though I knew in my heart there was never going to be a miracle escape, the information simply did not compute. I remembered being at school when Villeneuve had died and being mocked for getting so upset about the passing of a man I’d never met. This time I was more stunned. When I reached the house I had to get Louise to tell me all over again, as if I’d only believe it were true if I heard it from her.


The following day the Autocar road test team duly presented itself to the Bruntingthorpe aerodrome to start testing the F1. We didn’t even know if, under the circumstances, McLaren would turn up. But there they all were, including Gordon Murray and Jonathan Palmer, professional to the last, and over the next three days we conducted a full road test on the F1, the most bittersweet experience of my working life.

So how best to remember this man on the 30th anniversary of his passing tomorrow? We thought we’d go for a drive in a Honda NSX, the car Senna is credited with helping to develop. But this isn’t just any NSX, but Senna’s own car, entrusted to Ben Oliver for the day. It’s a predictably fabulous read, and a fitting tribute to the man who, despite overwhelming statistical evidence to the contrary, I still regard as the greatest racing driver of the remotely modern era.

Ben’s story will be live on the Ti website and app from 5am tomorrow. In the meantime, and if you have a minute, please let us know where you were on 1 May 1994 and how that terrible weekend affected you.

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