È morto, è morto
“È morto, è morto.” A wave of emotion swept quickly and audibly throughout the thousands of people gathered on the steep spectator banks high above Imola’s Tosa corner.
Reacting to the sound I turned around and looked at the faces of the visibly distressed fans. Some appeared to be weeping, some disbelieving. All around questions were being asked: Can it be true? It can’t be…
But it was. Ayrton Senna was dead.
May 1, 1994, is a day that will live in infamy for all who experienced that terrible afternoon. Whether sat on the Tosa hill – a stone’s throw from the crash site – or watching on a television set thousands of miles from the Imola circuit, no matter. You’d just witnessed one of the greatest – and surely the most charismatic – racing drivers ever, losing his life in a violent shunt.
That day, that weekend, so many events of that terrible San Marino Grand Prix are etched on my mind.
Saturday evening and a warm spring sun was bathing the pit lane in gorgeous orangey-yellow light. Fans gathered in front of the Williams garage: “Ayrton, Ayrton.” “Senna, Senna.” The three-times world champion was talking to his engineers. Politely declining the fans’ requests for an audience and autographs, the Brazilian looked troubled, preoccupied, and of course we all knew why.
Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger had died in a qualifying crash only hours earlier and Senna’s countryman Rubens Barrichello lay in a local hospital bed, lucky to be alive after a violent Friday afternoon practice smash.
Keeping my distance, I took a few frames and left. It just didn’t seem right to stay.
Race day. With a drama-free morning warm-up session over, everyone looked forward to 58 laps of fierce racing. Could polesitter Senna fend off the Benetton team’s championship-leading young German – F1's new star, Michael Schumacher?
What happened at Imola that awful afternoon has of course been written about endlessly. Opinions as to Senna’s state of mind, the reasons for the crash and who was to blame have been debated at length. Some questions have been answered, some never will be.
Hearing the Tosa tifosi speculating about Senna's death, I feared the worst but resolved to put such thoughts to the back of my mind. Never a crash chaser, I decided not to run to the scene of the shunt, keeping my position on the photographers' tower ready for the race restart.
Walking back to the start-finish straight for the post-race 'celebrations' I looked across at the deep scars, gouges and black rubber smears that all too graphically bore evidence to the violent impact the Williams FW16 had suffered with the Tamburello corner’s concrete wall.
Parc fermé and podium duties completed, only upon arriving in the paddock did the enormity of the situation hit me. Blank faces and disbelief all around. Usually cool and unemotional, hardened F1 people were visibly shocked and saddened. Passing McLaren's hospitality unit I saw Giorgio Ascanelli - Senna's 1993 race engineer - slumped over a handrail obviously in distress. I can't say if Giorgio was crying but if he was, he was not alone...
Bologna airport that evening was an uncomfortable place. Everyone wanted to be somewhere else.
Lights, cameras, TV news crews; a media throng greeted the F1 chartered plane’s arrival at London's Gatwick airport very late that sad Sunday night. Making my way past the melee I stopped to look at the newspaper front pages.
“Ayrton Senna Dead” written large in bold black letters across every cover.
We'll never see his like again...