Saturday 23 May 2015


In memory of Ayrton Senna at the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix 

1988 Monaco GP, the McLaren team and their turbo engines in peak form; Senna drove around the narrowed streets of Monte-Carlo as if it were a series of qualifying laps. Ayrton Senna in his legendary MP4/4 dominated the Monaco GP weekend right from the time he stepped on to the track. At one point in the race, he had a lead in excess of fifty seconds. That's right, he had lead close to a minute over his teammate Alain Prost. There was no stopping him, until the time, owing to a lapse in concentration, Senna spun off the track, hit the barrier and his race was over with just over twelve laps remaining.

As Ron Dennis (team principal of McLaren-Honda at that time put it - "We were trying to slow him down, but when you back off in a racing car, you lose concentration; so there was just a lapse, nothing else. He was so angry – he didn’t come back to the pits, he walked away from the circuit and sat in his flat. He didn’t reappear until later that evening, and was massively angry with himself…"

After that incident, the next five races at Monaco saw all of it won by the legendary Brazilian.


If not for his 'fault' at the 1988 Monaco GP, he would have had seven wins in a row at the Principality, having won his first in 1987 while driving for Lotus-Honda. Two weeks before the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna as we all know died from a race casualty at the San Marino GP. This news came as a shock and many questions regarding the safety of the sport were raised. Life had to move on and to those involved with F1, each day stretched and was painful to see a star driver become a victim of the sport.

The very next race at Monaco, the post-Senna era had begun, whether people wanted to believe it or not. And the racing weekend, at Thursday's free-practice, ill-fate struck again. Karl Wendlinger, driving for Sauber crashed at the harbour after exiting the tunnel. The Sauber hit the barrier sideways with a lot of force and Wendlinger's head struck the barriers. It was a violent incident, he was taken to a hospital and was in a coma. His condition didn't improve for several weeks, and he didn't race for the rest of the year. Next year, Wendlinger was unable to regain his pre-accident form and never raced again in Formula One after the 1995 season.


One of Senna's six victories at the Monaco Grand Prix
The Formula One found itself in a strange, unparalleled situation. Since the 1982 San Marino GP, there was no World Champion present. The sport needed a new face to move on. FIA announced sweeping changes with regards to safety, which included the reduction of pit lane speed. It happened in 1960's when Jim Clark became one of the victims and many thought sport would cease to exist. There was an air of déjà-vu, the feelings were of the same when Senna became the Formula One's latest casualty. One person who had seen it all and was calling shots at that time and he still does - Bernie Ecclestone. "No one is bigger than the sport. We've all got to pick ourselves up and go on. The sport moves on and it must do so now." It all seemed logical, those words from Bernie - but if only humans were alienated from what we call 'emotions'. In spite of knowing what needs to be done, there are moments in life, unexpectedly things come to a standstill, where thoughts get blurred, life seems pointless and it makes us understand about existence and how it is not permanent.

At the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix, all knew life had to move on, but at what pace? and how?


No driver other than Prost or Senna had won this prestigious GP from 1983. Now, it was time for a change. Michael Schumacher, in his third full season took the first pole position of his career. Williams and Simtek, both teams started the race with just one driver. And Sauber, after Wendlinger's crash decided to withdraw from the race.

Overnight, Damon Hill was given the huge task of filling in Senna's boots for Williams-Renault. Not just Williams-Renault, the entire decision-makers in F1 had a huge task. The season, so far was dominated by Michael Schumacher and naturally, he was seen as the 'next' poster boy of Formula One.

But, was that tag, justified? At the start of the Monaco Grand Prix, he had raced only in 41 races, same number as Senna's wins in Formula One. Would he be able to make an impact, the way Senna did? There were more questions that were asked, though no one could give any satisfying answers.. However, for all these questions, one answer seemed logical... time! Like the age-old adage goes, 'Time heals everything'. With three wins from three races, Michael Schumacher was the clear favourite to start a new chapter at Monaco.


First row empty start - 1994 Monaco Grand Prix
Michael Schumacher alongside Mika Hakkinen started from row two. The first row was left empty as a mark of respect for the departed drivers - Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.

How do you remember 1994 Monaco GP? Will that be remembered as a race where Michael Schumacher secured his first pole position? Will that be recalled by many as first of five wins at Monaco for Schumacher? Will people remember this race where Schumacher achieved his first Grand Slam (pole position, fastest lap and leading every lap from start to finish)?

Though, I am a huge Schumacher fan, I would remember the 1994 Monaco GP as the first race after Senna. I have walked on the very streets where Senna went about his business at Monaco. I have stood for minutes starring at the first row - a place which Senna made his own. And it was a magnanimous gesture to leave that front row vacant, reminding the fans on track and to millions of viewers, what a void he had left!

The race in itself was a recovery from that huge hangover and whatever Schumacher and rest of the drivers did on track, didn't matter. Martin Brundle, the British racing driver and now a commentator never won a race. He was a teammate of Senna's while at McLaren. He finished second behind Schumacher in the race  - "This is a great day for me and I am so glad to achieve this for my loyal and patient fans. Today was one of the best days in my racing career. I made a perfect start and had a faultless race. It has been a very difficult time. When your five-year-old daughter asks you if it's true [Ayrton] Senna is dead it is difficult to reconcile things."


The business of Formula One is such, there is no room for emotional decisions. The best way to recover from a sporting incident is to continue racing, ensuring one never repeats the same mistakes. The sport has become a lot safer and since Senna's demise, there has been no such casualties during the race. There have been accidents - but none claimed any lives. As Ecclestone pointed out, the sport has moved on, people have moved on and memories have faded. But when you are in Monaco and discuss Formula One, people who have been in the sport for a long time will always have a story or two about Senna and his heroics on those narrow streets.

Since that victory on May 15, 1994, Michael Schumacher went from strength to strength and stands tall at the top of Formula One with his achievements. However, he now finds himself in a state of transition, where each day, one cannot say what is going to happen. His family, his fans and a lot more people will move on..... but again at what pace? 

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