STORIES Unsung Heroes : Ayrton Senna
One of the all-time brightest stars of motorsport, Ayrton Senna blazed through life with the passion and speed of a true racing genius. Born into a Brazilian family of means, Senna got his first go-kart at age 4 — an early start by any standards — and at age 13, he won the first kart race he ever entered. Fast-forward just under a decade, and Senna secures victory at 5 British championships. From then on, the young driver floored it straight to the top of his game… until an infamous, fatal crash at Imola in 1994.
Senna, a cherished TAG Heuer ambassador from 1988 onward, is considered one of the greatest Brazilian heroes. Senna’s stellar stats are widely repeated, and have become mantra-like to any driver shooting for the top: 65 Grand Prix pole positions, 41 Grand Prix wins and 3 World Championships.
Some say he drove like a man possessed, some say he was always on the edge. All agree that he was simply dazzling. A quarter century after his passing, we’re looking back at some of the most memorable moments from his career.
Rain king (Monaco, 1984)
One of the things that has always set Senna apart was his uncanny mastery of piloting a wet racetrack. Notably, in the 1984 Formula 1 race in Monaco, Senna, then driving as a rookie for Toleman, started out in 13th place. He managed to finish second, gaining time with each lap, despite the slick conditions. And many fans contest that if the race hadn’t been stopped (controversially) at the lap 32, he’d likely have won.
Best in Show (Estoril, 1985)
Driving for Lotus (a team which hadn’t seen victory in three years) at the 1985 Formula 1 race in Estoril, Portugal, Senna started in pole position thanks to his breakneck qualifying times. Conditions were practically monsoon-level, with dark clouds and heavy rain, but Senna pushed his vehicle to the limit, navigating with instinctual ease, driving for two hours, nonstop. Leading the race from start to finish, Senna celebrated the first of what would become 41 Grand Prix victories and showed off a certain mastery of difficult conditions. Some fans contest that this F1 victory, his first, was also his best.
From Zero to Hero (Japan, 1988)
In October 1988, at the Suzuka Circuit of the Japanese Grand Prix, Senna, then driving for McLaren, got off to a disastrous start, stalling on the grid. By what seemed to be his own will, Senna was able to bump start his vehicle and go on one of the greatest charges of F1 history, passing six vehicles in one lap alone. Rain started by lap 14 and Senna was again able to flex his wet asphalt mastery, finishing 13 seconds ahead of McLaren teammate Alain Prost. It was a truly remarkable performance, and just like that, Senna clinched the World Championship.
Basic Instinct (Monaco, 1988)
Driving an MP4-4 at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna experienced a moment he would later describe as “transcendent” during a qualifying lap. It was a lap he claims he drove by pure instinct, completing it a full second quicker than his teammate Alain Prost. Crowds were absolutely stunned by that performance, and Ayrton later said that experience was the most intense of his entire life: “Monaco ‘88. On that day, I said to myself: ‘That was the maximum for me; no room for anything more,’ I never really reached that feeling again.”
Senna e basta! (Sao Paulo, 1991)
At the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991, Senna found himself racing in his cherished hometown of Sao Paulo. He had not previously won the Brazil Grand Prix and he truly wished to gift such a victory to his Brazilian fans. He started off confidently that Sunday, but suddenly this third gear disengaged, and then so did his fourth. With only 6 laps to go, the gear box was broken. Two more laps and his fifth gear stopped working; his gap to second place was shrinking. He later said, “I only returned to reality when I saw the finish line. Then I felt happy to be alive, to be in Interlagos, in my home land and with my happy compatriots. It wasn’t the greatest victory of my life, but one where I gave everything I had.” Senna put forth such an effort that, exhausted, he couldn’t get out of the car. With some help, he stepped up to the highest spot on the podium and faced the crowd. It took everything he had to be able to lift up the trophy for the first time in Brazil. Senna remarked: “If this is the price I had to pay to win in Brazil, it was cheap. Thank you!”
Ayrton Senna at the 1992 Monaco Grand Prix
All-Weather Champion (UK, 1993)
Few imagined that the track, located in the small town of Castle Donington, England, would provide sports fans with an unforgettable Easter Sunday on April 11th, 1993. Rain started falling on Sunday morning, accompanied by fog and mild temperatures — typical British weather. It’s not unusual for the first lap to be the highpoint of an F1 race, but what was about to happen at Donington Park went way beyond expectations.
The stage was set for what would be considered a driver’s best lap in F1 history. Senna in 5th place, took a chance following a different path on the wet track (one without many opportunities for overtaking), and managed to pass Schumacher, reclaiming fourth place. He overtook Wendinger right after that, just one corner later. The Brazilian went wide, leaving his opponent unable to defend his position. Senna exited the corner ahead of Hill, and this time took the inside lane. Prost seemed too far ahead, but Senna boldly went after the Frenchman and, at the circuit’s fastest hairpin corner, he risked braking late to surprise his rival. Senna navigated the wet-dry conditions of the race like a true legend, taking the podium and fastest lap of the race.
The Crash Heard ‘Round the World (Imola, 1994)
The qualifying races at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix were intense: Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger died in a crash and Senna’s protégé Rubens Barrichello experienced a serious collision as well. During the race, Ayrton Senna himself ran off the track, colliding with a concrete barrier at speeds data would later show to be 192mph. Having sustained traumatic injuries and blood loss, Senna was declared dead that evening. Thus, May 1st, 1994, became one of the darkest days of motorsport history.
Senna’s powerful legacy lives on
Senna’s tragic death, at age 34 and at the peak of an incredible career, was a blow to his fans and the international motorsport community. It became a turning point for Formula One, prompting new safety measures to be enacted. Despite the abrupt end to his otherworldly trajectory, Senna is remembered as a hero of the sport, a luminous star of the racetrack that was extinguished far too soon.
His legacy is one that lives on in many ways, notably through the Ayrton Senna Institute which promotes education for children and young people in Brazil. The Institute works with a network of education professionals, researchers, and third-party organisations to improve public education policies.
Through a special edition TAG Heuer Formula 1 SENNA Quartz Chronograph, TAG Heuer celebrates the legend that was and is Ayrton Senna. This stunning 43mm timepiece echoes Senna’s power and prestige with a sunray-brushed anthracite dial, luminous black counters and accents in the pilot’s signature yellow. It’s an emblem of resilience and calm, even at the highest speeds.
For the details about this new special edition timepiece, visit tagheuer.com.
The SENNA brand was created by Ayrton Senna himself in 1992. It arose from the F1 driver’s desire to connect with people who share his values and way of living, through quality and innovative products. It is currently a global brand that inspires people to find their purpose and be their best, just as Ayrton Senna did in his life. Part of the proceeds generated by the Senna brand is destined to the Ayrton Senna Institute, which promotes the improvement of public education policies aimed at children and young people in Brazil. Throughout the past 26 years, the Institute reached over 25 million children in Brazil.