Senna vs Schumacher: a great rivalry lost


Where did that go? On May 1 the motor racing world will pause to mark the 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death. It’s hard to believe the shock and despair of those dark events arose so long ago. It doesn’t feel like it.

Where were you?

Like April 7 1968, May 1 1994 is a ‘JFK moment’ for motor racing people. I bet you remember exactly where you were. Feel free to share in our comments section below.

Me? I’d returned home from university for the weekend (complete with clichéd student long hair and dodgy beard) to attend my sister’s Confirmation at Worth Abbey in Sussex. My dad and I had watched the start with Murray on the Beeb, saw the accident – and had to leave for the service.

It was hard to concentrate at the Abbey. After the formalities, I made my excuses, returned to the car and tuned the radio for news. Was it as bad as it had looked? I had a hunch. But there was nothing on the airwaves, AM or FM.

It wasn’t until after 6pm, back home, that I heard my fears confirmed, via the recently launched Radio 5 Live. It didn’t seem real, even less so the following morning when I caught the bus back to uni, where concerned friends treated me as if I’d suffered a family bereavement rather than that of someone I’d met only once, when he scribbled an autograph at a Brands Hatch tyre test in 1984.

Marking the anniversary

Twenty years later, I’ve been reflecting with the rest of the Motor Sport team on how to mark the anniversary. We kept coming back to the discussion of what might have been, had Senna survived Tamburello, just as Nelson Piquet and Gerhard Berger had done in previous shunts at the flat-out sweeper.

Would he have recovered from his rocky start with Williams and beaten Michael Schumacher to the 1994 crown? Would he have stuck around at the team, or would he have been drawn back to McLaren – or even to Ferrari for the final years of his career? When would enough have been enough for this driven man? What would he have done next?

But the most intriguing question we kept coming back to was this: what did we miss by losing the rivalry that would only have intensified between Senna and Schumacher? It’s one of the great ‘what might have beens’, perhaps second only to Moss vs Clark as a battle we tasted all too briefly.

Speculation on what we missed wasn’t the basis for a full article in Motor Sport, we decided (although you might disagree). So instead we set Paul Fearnley the task of examining what we did see, the battle that was brewing between Schumacher’s F1 debut at Spa in 1991 and Senna’s fateful last GP at Imola.

The result is a great piece of writing by Paul, who builds a clear picture with the help of Damon Hill, Martin Brundle, Pat Symonds and Jo Ramírez, all of whom had close-up perspectives of the two protagonists at various stages of this era. It serves to emphasise just what we lost on that May day in 1994.

It felt a little uncomfortable commissioning an article with Schumacher at its core, given his current situation, and I know Paul shared similar feelings when I asked him to write it. But the devastating reality of Michael’s current battle has no bearing on his sporting legacy, what happened 20 years ago and how he will be remembered as a truly fantastic Grand Prix driver.

He’s in our thoughts every day, as I’m sure is true for many of you. But the light and shade of the most divisive F1 career since, well, Ayrton Senna is unrelated to our concerns for the husband, father and brother that is Michael Schumacher.

Brawn on Schumacher

He crops up elsewhere in the May issue, too, within Mark Hughes’s interview with the German’s old comrade-in-arms Ross Brawn. Ross was in relaxed mood the morning after being inducted into the Motor Sport Hall of Fame and spoke frankly to Mark on some – but not all – aspects of a career that ran in parallel for most of the way with that of Schumacher.

His admission of “standing by” Michael at times when he disapproved of his actions, most notably at Jerez in 1997 when the German failed to drive Jacques Villeneuve off the track, offers some insight into their relationship. How and why it was formed, during their years at Benetton, is particularly enlightening, as are the paragraphs on Rubens Barrichello and the team orders debacle of Austria 2002.

When Simon Taylor interviewed Rubens for one of our ‘Lunch with’ interviews last year (October issue), his account of how he was forced to give up his victory at the A1-Ring read thus:

“Ross comes on [the radio] and tells me I have to slow and let Michael win the race. We argued about it on the radio for eight laps. I thought, I’m not going to do it. I don’t deserve this. I was still thinking that as we started the last lap. The final corner was approaching, and I had only two or three seconds left to decide. And then I thought, I have to move aside, because otherwise it will be very negative for me. Ferrari is not thinking straight, and my job should be to change Ferrari, help them to learn and think straight. And the best way to do that is away from the circuit, away from the public. What I didn’t realise was that I would never be able to change Ferrari.”

In Mark’s interview, Ross adds detail that changes the perspective somewhat. It turns out that, according to Brawn, the subject had been discussed before the race and that Rubens had agreed to move over if he was asked to. So would it have been correct for Barrichello to plough on regardless and win the Grand Prix, ignoring ‘the call’? You decide…

Of course, whether it was required of Ferrari to impose team orders so early in the season is another question. As Ross admits, “The whole thing was a mess.”

On that, I think we can all agree.