The Tamburello Mystery

Deconstructed: What happened on that tragic Sunday at Imola

                                                       Image credits:

It has been a quarter of a century since Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian great, embraced immortality. His passing away at the height of his powers granted him a mythical air- a testament to the wonderful human being he was. Along with Bruce Lee’s, Senna’s death is one of the most speculated in recent history.

In this article, we are looking at how the world would have been different, had he not suffered that fatal accident. Oh, and we look at what set in motion the blackest Sunday the sport has ever known.

May 1, 1994

Race day

After topping the qualifiers, Senna starts on pole. He is yet to open his account for the season. The pressure of trailing the young rival from Benetton, Michael Schumacher, is weighing him down.

As the lights go green, J J Lehto’s Benetton stalls on grid. Pedro Lamy, who was caught unawares, collides with him from behind. The drivers and some spectators are injured in the ensuing debris shower.

The safety car is brought in. The family saloon ambles along and prompts a few yawns. Senna pulls level with it and gesticulates to its driver to pick up the pace. After five laps, the safety car is withdrawn. Senna zooms ahead with the newfound freedom. He is tailed by his championship rival, Michael Schumacher.

As he approaches the Tamburello corner, the car mysteriously continues its straight line trajectory at over 320 kmph, instead of sticking to the track. He manages to slow the car down to 218 kmph in less than two seconds, which proved too little, too late.  The car’s right front tire ricochets off the wall and hits Senna hard on his head.

The race is stopped and track officials instantly rush to the scene. The car is slashed in half by the violent collision. The officials standby, waiting for the paramedics to extract Senna out of his car.

Paramedics hoist the unconscious Senna out of his car and perform an emergency tracheotomy, to aid his breathing. He is found to have suffered three different head injuries and lost four liters of blood. Prof. Sid Watkins, the neurosurgeon, takes a look at Senna’s dilated pupils. He realizes with much horror that the trauma is fatal.

                                                                             They shared a special bond.

An air ambulance lifts Senna to the hospital. He becomes the third victim of on-track collisions in three days.

After four hours of fervent prayers, an official confirms the worst fear.


The Natgeo/Williams’ claim

In a documentary made by National Geographic (Natgeo), they claim to have unraveled the cause of the fatal accident.

Although I have tried to explain as lucidly as possible, brace for some physics mumbo-jumbo:

They argue that since the safety car was deployed, tire temperature, and consequently, tire pressure dropped. This decreased the clearance (vertical separation of the lowest portion of car from ground) of the car. As a result of this, the chassis made contact with the ground, which blocked the pathway of air under the car, which decreased the downforce of the car.

And evidently, the car did make contact with the ground, moments before veering off the track.

Natgeo says Senna’s car lost stability thus and the car’s back end kicked out. Paraphrasing Natgeo, “Senna’s lightning-fast reflexes took over and he counter steered in an attempt to prevent the car from spinning”.

This proved inadequate, however, and he lost control over his car.

 The photograph of debris

 Some theorists blame the incident in the beginning of the race. They propose that Senna was trying to dodge a piece of debris and ended up losing control over his car. Some photos have surfaced, depicting what looks like a piece of rubble near the Tamburello corner.

Image credits : PH Cohler 

 Other claims

Senna’s teammate for three races, Damon Hill and Senna’s title rival, Michael Schumacher, said that they believe the reason for the grave accident was a driver error.

Hill said that Senna was under great emotional stress that weekend. One of his ex girlfriends had contacted him and this drove him distraught.

Senna was under immense pressure to win the race to stay in the hunt for the world championship, and he was trailing the leader by 20 points. Also seeing a fatal accident the day before wouldn’t have put him in the best frame of mind.

While these claims are merely hypotheses, we have to consider them and give them its due importance.

Flip side 

 Steering column broke

According to another theory making the rounds, a broken steering wheel caused the mishap. Williams admitted that Senna had found the driving position uncomfortable and requested a longer steering column. For want of time, the team couldn’t make the replacement and improvised by inserting a metal plate into the steering column and reinforcing it with a weld.
The head of Williams engineering team later admitted that the solution was only a quick fix.

This theory was proposed after videos from the cockpit emerged of the fatal race. The steering wheel seemed to be swerving unnaturally.

Williams refuted the claim, saying that the accident broke the steering column, and not the other way around. They released their own video, which conveyed that the weird movement observed during the final laps was indeed intentional. Observers were not satisfied with this explanation and analyzed cockpit videos of Senna driving in a few other races which had similar track conditions. Apparently there are no similar steering movements or wild sways in any of the races they examined.
Black box tampering

Team Williams was also accused of tampering with the black box and destroy any clues that may have been in it.

A black box keeps track of a zillion parameters, ranging from engine rpm and temperature to the lateral G forces. Shortly after the race, a Williams crew member reportedly demanded to see the wreckage. However, the demand was denied.

Later the primary memory chips were found to be damaged. Remarkably, the less important ones were intact. Speculations are rife that Williams may have tampered with it to destroy any evidence that could possibly incriminate them during the trial.

The scorching laps

While Senna was a driving great, he was merely a human and hence error prone.
As proposed by Damon Hill, he was off the groove.

But, his lap times and pole position contradicts Hill’s claim that Senna was distracted.
He set the fastest lap of the race in the lap before he crashed. The effort was bettered by Hill and Schumacher only in the closing laps of the race.

The proponents of the steering column theory also point out a flaw in natgeo’s theory. If natgeo’s theory was indeed correct, Senna should have crashed in the previous lap itself, because tire pressures were lower then.

Tamburello is a flat out corner he had driven through hundreds of times in his life before that fateful lap. It is not a treacherous corner, per se. How would he fail to go through the corner, with all the experience he had?
Inconclusive steering data
Some of the data that was retrieved from the car suggested that the steering column was not broken until the crash. A sensor which measures the rotation of the steering column showed a torque of 7.76 Nm at the instant of impact.

Some experts argue that the sensor measures the rotation of the steering wheel, and not the column itself. Because of the fact that steering column could have rotated without being connected to the wheel, the data becomes irrelevant and fails to build a conclusion.

Senna did pass away. When?

                                                                Image credits: pinterest

According to the Italian law, a sporting event should be stopped in the event of the death of a participant.

Senna was ‘treated’ for about half an hour on the spot before being airlifted to a hospital. Even though the hospital pronounced him dead after several hours, officially his time of passing away has been recorded as minutes after the horrific crash.

That brings us to an important question. What is death? Is it when the heart ceases to beat? Is it when brain finally shuts down?

His heart stopped at the hospital and was revived once, before letting go. If brain death is considered to be the passing away of a person, there is something else that needs to be told.

It can be argued that the race officials be held culpable for violating the Italian law, for blindly running after the money. Stopping the race would have cost the organizers an obscene amount of money; hence they carried on, perfectly aware that Senna was dead and with little regard for his memory.

The aftermath

In  memoriam 

The blackest weekend in the history of F1 has rung in some changes; it has ushered in an era that emphasizes safety. In tribute to his friend’s memories, Prof Sid Watkins spearheaded the movement to make F1 a safer place.

The drivers' association was revived and new features made an entry that decreased the speed and the risk. The car designs and the track layouts were altered to dilate the risk factor. These measures are considered a huge success, because only one more life has perished in a race after Senna's.  Seeing modern F1 cars make me wonder: if the halo and HANS were in place 25 years before would Senna have died? As much as I know that it is a moot point, I am tempted to imagine.

The fateful day snatched arguably the greatest F1 driver from us, the loss being much more so.

Senna Sempre.

About author

Pranav PS is yet another B-Tech student from Trivandrum. An incurable petrol-head, he is a Senna fanboy. You can reach him at


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