In the end, in the sudden, final instant of his life, Ayrton Senna could not have known what hit him. He could not have seen what, in the next moment, would kill him. This was not possible, not even for Senna. When his Williams-Renault FW16 failed to negotiate the sweeping left turn called Tamburello at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, on Sunday, Senna's car rocketed off the circuit and into a concrete retaining wall, an impact so instantaneous at 186 mph that he could not have shifted his eyes from the open track ahead in time to see it.
The penetrating brown eyes of Ayrton Senna da Silva were always fixed firmly upon the prize, and last weekend they had brought him to the pole position for the 65th time in his Formula One career, more than twice as many times as any other driver in the history of the sport. In a little more than 10 years of Grand Prix racing, Senna had won 41 races and three world championships. He never succumbed to the paralyzing astigmatism peculiar to race drivers known as close eyes, whose symptoms are sweaty palms and an inability to see past the car in front of you. In his mind's eye, Senna saw beyond the next turn—often beyond the next lap—with an almost frightening omniscience.
Last week in Imola, Senna had plainly seen something—or felt something—on the track that was beyond his ability to comprehend, and it frightened him. But what was it? During Friday's time trials, a fellow Brazilian, Rubens Barrichello, had suffered a slight concussion and facial bruises when his Jordan-Hart became airborne and crashed hard. On Saturday, after Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger, driving for the Simtek team, had lost control of his car and flown off the track to his death at nearly 200 mph during qualifying, Senna refused to take his car out of the garage for more laps. Ratzenberger's was the first death in Formula One racing in 12 years, and when word reached the paddock, Senna was said to have had the unmistakable look of someone who had just seen his own shadow.
When Saturday's qualifying session was done and Senna had retained the pole by nearly half a second over Germany's Michael Schumacher without turning a lap, he had gone out to the Villeneuve curve, to the precise spot on the circuit where Ratzenberger had crashed. There he stood alone, choking back tears. Later that night he called his girlfriend, 21-year-old model Adriane Galisteu, in Lisbon and told her that he did not want to race on Sunday.
Senna had spun his car near Tamburello on Friday morning, and he was still so shaken on Sunday morning that he refused to speak to reporters after the warmup session, except to tersely say, "Today was not typical. My car is very difficult to drive."
This was the car in which Senna was expected to be so dominant that there was speculation before the season that he might become the first driver in Formula One history to win every race. To obtain the ride in the Williams-Renault, he had left Team McLaren after six successful seasons, telling the British journal Auto-sport over the winter, "I have been waiting for so long...to start this new life."
Senna was being paid more than $1 million a race by owner Frank Williams for his new life—a reported $20 million for the season—but he had spun out in Brazil, the first race of the F/1 campaign, and in the next race three weeks later in Japan, he had been pushed off the course on the first turn. So he arrived in Imola with no points in the hunt for the world championship that had once been practically conceded to him. Another loss to Schumacher, who had easily won those first two races in his Benetton-Ford, might even have begun to tarnish Senna's reputation in Brazil, where he presided over a business empire so vast that his employees filled seven floors of a skyscraper in São Paulo.
In Brazil, Senna was seen as an almost godlike figure, commuting to races from his ranch in a private jet. TV Globo, the nation's largest network, assigned a crew just to follow Senna from race to race. On Sunday, as they sat before their TV sets and watched Senna's car slam into the Tamburello wall, most Brazilians surely presumed that their hero had only been stunned by the accident, that soon he would climb out and walk away. However, when the cameras showed a bloodied Senna receiving feverish emergency treatment on the track, the seriousness of what had happened began to sink in. Mothers and wives were called from other rooms to the TV, shoppers rushed home, and the streets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo grew eerily deserted. Senna's parents, watching the race at their resort home in the São Paulo foothills, were given tranquilizers. Lying beside the wreckage of his car, Senna was given a tracheotomy, and as he struggled for breath, millions of Brazilians silently held theirs.
Senna was 34, which means that, by racing standards, he did not die young, only hard, and a very long way from home. Senna transcended the tiresome debate about whether race drivers are really athletes, because he was something far rarer in this world than an athlete—he was a genius. Senna could take an 1,100-pound racing car and transform it into a living, breathing thing, a throbbing dance partner in his dangerous pas de deux. Michael Andretti, the American who was Senna's teammate with McLaren last year, once tried to explain what separated Senna from other Formula One drivers. "It's confidence," Andretti said. "When he goes into the corner, he knows the car's going to stick for him. He just drives through [mechanical] problems. I need the car to be working for me to have a chance. He doesn't."
Former world champion Niki Lauda, who was almost killed in a fiery accident in 1976, said simply, "He was the best driver who ever lived."