Born in 1960 and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, Ayrton began his racing career in karting. He made his Formula One debut in 1984, racing for Toleman-Hart, but it wouldn’t be for another four years when he joined McLaren-Honda that his career took off. On the McLaren-Honda team, Ayrton joined an already legendary racer, Alain Prost.
In 1988 Prost and Senna combined to win 15 of the 16 Grand Prix that year and Senna took home his first World Championship. Prost won the championship in 1989 and Senna claimed the crown the following two years. 1989 and 1990 were controversial years for the rivals. Both years ended with Senna-Prost collisions and either Senna or Prost winning in the World Championship title. The two men might have raced for the same team and been bitter rivals on the track but they had great respect for one another.
Ayrton’s racing career came to an abrupt and tragic end during the third race, the San Marion Grand Prix, of the 1994 season in Imola, Italy. It had been 12 years since the last fatality in Formula One. A rookie driver; Ronald Ratzenberger crashed into a wall during qualifying and later died. Ayrton had just met Ronald the day before but was visibly shaken by the incident.
That day there was a small outcry to suspend the San Marino Grand Prix and to improve safety standards, but to no avail. Ayrton spent the next morning meeting with other drivers to discuss the re-establishment of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (an organization that acted in many ways like a union) in hopes of improving safety regulations.
Sunday morning, the day of the San Marino Grand Prix, the race began with an accident caused by a racecar stalling at the starting line. For the next few laps a pace car was deployed for safety reasons. In video shot that day, Senna is seen pulling up alongside the pace car, which was an Opel Vectra, and gesturing for the driver to pick up the pace.
Due to commercialization of Formula One, the pace car was significantly slower than it should have been. The tires of Formula One racecars need to be run at high speed to stay warm and fully inflated. At the slower speed of the pace car, the tires on the racecars would have cooled and subsequently lost pressure.
The race resumed on lap 6 and one lap later Ayrton lost control and hit a concrete barrier at well over 100 miles per hour. He was pronounced dead at a hospital two hours later. After an investigation, it was theorized that the car had bottomed out on the corner due to lower tire pressure, causing Ayrton to momentarily lose control. At speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, a momentary loss of control can cause a wreck.
At the time of his death, Ayrton was a Brazilian hero and an estimated three million people flocked to the streets of Senna's hometown of São Paulo to offer him their salute when his casket arrive home. This is widely accepted as the largest recorded gathering of mourners in modern times.
Even in the racing world he was loved by all, especially by his toughest rival, Alain Prost. Alain had retired in 1993, the year before Senna’s accident and the two had reconciled their on-track differences and become friends. Alain was in São Paulo at Senna’s funeral, right next to his casket, honoring his friend.
Senna was a competitor and he died doing what he loved above all else, racing in Formula One. Senna is forever remembered saying, “Being second is to be the first of the ones to lose.”