Only Alain Prost, who became Senna's archrival when the two were teammates for McLaren, won more Grand Prix races (51) than Senna. When Senna joined McLaren in 1988, he and Prost agreed to avoid racing each other into the chaotic first corners at the start of races, but at San Marino that year Senna jumped Prost at the first turn. Prost refused to speak to Senna for a long time afterward. "I appreciate honesty, and he is not honest," said Prost of his teammate.
Senna's magisterial ego and his brilliance in a race car created a management nightmare for McLaren boss Ron Dennis, who constantly bail to reassure both drivers that they were getting equal equipment. "One of the fundamental requirements of being the best in the world is that you believe yourself to be," Dennis said last year. "When you have two people who believe they're the best, you have a time bomb ticking. When one is beaten by the other but retains the notion that he is the better driver, he starts to believe that he has been given inferior equipment."
In 1990 Senna won the world title in the second-to-last race, in Japan, where he purposely drove into the back of Prost's car and pushed it off the track. "What he did was more than unsporting," said Prost, who retired after last season. "It was disgusting.... With him, racing isn't a sport; it's war." The crash took Senna's car out, too, but he had his championship. A year later Senna admitted having used his car as a weapon against Prost.
Senna's temper and ego were leavened not in the slightest by his loudly self-professed devotion to God and a life of prayer and reading the Bible. "When God wants something to happen, nothing can change it," said Senna after winning in Brazil last year in terrible weather. In clear conditions at San Marino last week, Senna seemed to have a premonition that something was about to happen that he could not change. In a column written on Saturday for the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Senna remarked that his car reacted "a bit nervously on this kind of surface," and he mentioned a "difficulty in the suspension."
New F/1 rules mandate the removal from cars of traction-control systems and active suspensions, leaving the task of controlling the cars more to the drivers than to computers. Senna had told a Brazilian newspaper earlier in the season that the changes had made the cars more difficult to drive. "It's going to be a season with lots of accidents," he said, "and I'll risk saying we'll be lucky if something really serious doesn't happen."
After Ratzenberger's death on Saturday, Senna wrote in his column for Welt am Sonntag that his worst fears had been "borne out in tragic fashion." But his worst fears lay deeper still, and of those he spoke to no one, except perhaps Galisteu.
As Sunday's race began, a crash involving the cars of Pedro Lamy and J.J. Lehto forced the first six laps to be run under caution. However, when the cars came around at speed to start the seventh lap, Senna was leading as he approached Tamburello. "He looked nervous from the very first lap," said Schumacher, who followed Senna into the turn. "I can't say what happened exactly. I saw that his car was already touching [the track] quite a lot at the back on the lap before. The car was very nervous in this corner, and he nearly lost it. On the next lap he did lose it. The car touched with the rear skids, went a bit sideways, and he just lost it."
Senna's limp body was removed from the shattered car and taken by helicopter to Maggiore hospital in Bologna. Almost five hours after the accident, Alvaro Andreoli, a neurosurgeon, emerged from the hospital's emergency unit to explain why an operation would be futile. "Unfortunately we're faced by a global suffering of all the brain," he said. And so it was. Senna was dead, and millions were faced by a global suffering of the heart.
As the news of his death began to spread, people gathered outside Senna's apartment building in São Paulo and wept. Brazil's president, Itamar Franco, declared three days of mourning and offered the family the use of the presidential plane to bring the body home. In Rio's Maracana Stadium nearly 100,000 fans who had been watching a soccer match between Flamengo and Vasco stood and clapped their hands in unison, chanting, "Ole-oleleo la, Sen-na, Sen-na." The scene was repeated in every stadium in which a game was played in Brazil that afternoon.
Imperious, arrogant, supremely confident, Senna expected—demanded—that his inferiors move aside as he swept into their mirrors. In Imola last year he had summoned Damon Hill, who would soon become his teammate, to the McLaren motor coach. There Senna haughtily dressed down the younger driver for having weaved in front of him, trying to hold him up. That, of course, had been one of Senna's favorite tricks when he was younger.