If the focus is on the late Brazilian triple world champion – an idol to millions and arguably the greatest driver of them all – rather than the safety record since 1994 then it is with good reason.
The sport – already praying for Michael Schumacher’s recovery from a skiing accident that left the seven-times world champion in a coma – is only too aware of the dangers still lurking around every corner even if it is enjoying the safest period it has ever known.
“It’s quite true to say that it’s good to focus on the fact that we’ve done 20 years. But one always has this feeling don’t tempt fate,” Max Mosley, former president of the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA), told Reuters.
“You have this feeling that if you start boasting about that, it will come back and bite you.”
Damon Hill, Senna’s team mate at Williams and the 1996 champion whose father Graham raced at a time when F1 averaged a death a year, agreed: “You do not want to be seen celebrating that. We are superstitious creatures, aren’t we?”.
Mosley, who raced in the 1968 Formula Two race that claimed the life of the great Jim Clark and was FIA president at the time of Senna’s death at Imola on May 1, 1994, is nonetheless proud of what has been achieved since then.
That, for him, is the real legacy of a grim weekend that took the lives of Senna during the race and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying the day before.
Mosley, with F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins and others in the FIA, was instrumental in forcing through important Formula One safety measures with lasting consequences for the car industry as a whole.
“That (Imola weekend) was the catalyst for change on the roads that has literally, without question, saved tens of thousands of lives,” he said in an interview at his London home.
“It is the truth. Without that catalyst, we would never have gone to Brussels. We would never have the Euro NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme), the crash testing, we wouldn’t have got the legislation through the European Commission that has upped the standards of safety.
“You know thousands of people walking around, happy, alive, uninjured would be dead if it weren’t for what was done. And all of that started with Ayrton’s accident. That to me, when I sit down in my rocking chair in another few years, is the thing that really matters.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the odds were heavily stacked against racing drivers. There were straw bales around the edge of circuits and aluminium fuel tanks alongside the drivers. Seat belts were not made compulsory until 1972.
A classic book from the 1960s was entitled, without exaggeration, “The Cruel Sport”.
“You used to go to the people running the sport in those days and say ‘It’s unnecessarily dangerous’ and they’d say ‘well, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. It’s entirely voluntary’,” said Mosley.
“I remember thinking at the time you ought to be able to do a sport without getting killed. You can accept a risk, but not a massive risk. It was like being in a front line platoon in Vietnam or something.”
But by 1994, it seemed at least that the dangers had receded. There had not been a driver death for nearly 12 years and there were even suggestions the sport was becoming too safe and too sanitised.
“I think people were beginning to think that no-one gets killed. And yet it was quite obvious that it was still far more dangerous than it needed to be. And of course these things are statistics. It’s never safe,” said Mosley.
“It’s like aviation. What you have to do is everything you can to reduce the probability but you can’t make it safe.”
After Imola, the FIA gathered together a group of experts to assess systematically and scientifically how to make racing safer. Crash tests became stricter and speeds reduced.
Helmets became more regulated, barriers improved and circuits and car design modified. At the same time, the FIA began to push for greater road safety and change through government and the European institutions.
“I think the reason it (Senna’s death) had such an impact was he was recognised by everybody, including the other drivers, as number one,” said Mosley.
“And then his personality was such that people found him a very attractive individual. Everybody liked him.”
Mosley is convinced that without the two deaths at Imola, it would have been virtually impossible to impose the changes quickly and more lives would have been lost.
“The really serious scientific work done by Sid could never have happened because we would never have put that committee together without the impetus of the accident and then of course even if we had put a committee together nobody would have taken any notice,” he said.
“What would have happened if it hadn’t been for Ayrton, there would have been at some point in the next four or five years another fatality.
“I can think of two or three accidents that would have ended badly had it not been for work done post-Senna. And then there would have been a slow movement.”
A generation of drivers has now grown up who have never been in a race with a tragic outcome, who expect to walk away from serious accidents.
Mosley said that was not an unreasonable demand to make for any modern athlete.
“It was very clear after 1994 that society had changed,” he said. “In the ’50s and ’60s, war was a fresh memory and people were quite used to somebody getting killed. By the ’90s that was no longer the case.
“So yes it had changed. When we had the Senna accident we even had politicians saying Formula One should be banned.
“The whole of Formula One was in turmoil. But we had no idea how big it was going to become eventually.”
Something had to be done and it went far beyond the confines of Formula One.
“If you say ‘What has Formula One given society?’ then Formula One, and unfortunately Ayrton and Ratzenberger as well, have given a step change in road safety which has affected the lives of thousands. That’s not maybe, it’s sure,” said Mosley.
“The road safety would have happened, but it probably would have taken another 15 or 20 years. Meanwhile all those thousands of people would have been killed and they are alive. And that really matters.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)