27 July 2014

What caused Ayrton Senna's death?

Disclaimer: This blog is an independently-run blog and this post is nothing more than hypothesis and opinion. This blog is not seeking to accuse anyone of manslaughter. This blog does not lay blame at any one person or group of people.

Ayrton Senna is one of the world's greatest drivers. He was a three-time Formula One World Champion, for one thing. Most people I meet say that Ayrton Senna is the best driver in Formula One who ever lived. It's not a statistical reason, certainly: Alain Prost, Sebastian Vettel, Juan Manuel Fangio, and Michael Schumacher have won more world championships than him, Prost and Schumacher have more race wins, and Schumacher has more pole positions. It was his will to win, his ability to take any pile of rubbish to the front of the grid.

After a dramatic battle in Formula Three with Martin Brundle, Senna was signed by the Toleman F1 Team. In only Senna's sixth Grand Prix, he dragged a Toleman (who have evolved into the team we know today as Lotus, which isn't the same Lotus that was actually Lotus, it's all very confusing and would probably take up a post in itself) into second place in the Monaco Grand Prix in torrential rain, and was hunting down leader Prost when the race was halted on lap 31. The Toleman was so unreliable that Senna only finished six races of the season and didn't even qualify for the San Marino Grand Prix. In 1985 he moved to Team Lotus after Nigel Mansell fell out with Team Principal Peter Warr. Senna was at Lotus between 1985 and 1987, during which time he took six wins. In 1988 he moved to McLaren where he had a legendary feud with Alain Prost between 1988 and 1989. Then, although he didn't know at the time, it all started to go downhill. After ramming Prost off the road in 1990 to win the World Championship, Senna's contract had expired, and Ron Dennis wanted to tie Senna to McLaren on a multi-year deal. Senna turned down an offer from Williams and stayed at McLaren. However, Williams were in the ascendancy - and it was only reliability gremlins in 1991 that stopped Mansell from winning the Championship, which he did quite easily in 1992. Senna wanted to jump in the Williams but Prost had done an early deal for the second seat in 1993. Prost had one thing in his contract: Senna was not going to be his teammate. Senna and Mansell held out for deals that never came, and Mansell was forced out of Formula One and Senna was forced to remain in the McLaren. Damon Hill got the second Williams seat (to the surprise of many, who expected it to be Martin Brundle). Then it was the beginning of the end for Ayrton.

It seemed logical to Senna to get in the Williams for 1994; Prost was retiring and with the only likely candidates out of the equation (Riccardo Patrese was retiring, Michael Schumacher had re-signed for Benetton, Martin Brundle had signed for McLaren), Senna thought that he would have the best driver in the best car - and the World Championship in 1994 as a result.

However, Williams's trump card was taken away from them - as the driver aids, such as traction control and active suspension - were banned at the start of the year, which Williams had more or less innovated in 1991 and so had the most advanced systems.

As the Formula One circus rocked up in Brazil for the first round of the season, most thought that Senna's nearest challengers would be Damon Hill (Williams-Renault), Mika Hakkinen (McLaren-Peugeot), Martin Brundle (McLaren-Peugeot), or perhaps Gerhard Berger (Ferrari) and Jean Alesi (Ferrari). How surprised they were, then, that Schumacher's Benetton was pushing Senna quite hard. To make matters worse, the Williams was difficult to drive and Hill was nowhere. When Schumacher beat Senna in the pits at Brazil when the same amount of fuel had been put in, Senna pushed too hard and spun out on lap 54. Schumacher won. At the second round of the season in Japan, Senna was taken out in the first corner. Schumacher won.

Heading into the third round of the season, at San Marino, the points table stood thus:

Senna was under the most extraordinary pressure to not only get a good result but to win and close the gap to Schumacher. No one predicted that Schumacher would have a 13-point lead heading into San Marino; most people thought the best he could hope for was an 8-point deficit to Senna.

Rubens Barrichello suffered a horrific crash on Friday and did not qualify as a result. Paul Belmondo did not qualify either. Roland Ratzenberger did, but suffered a fatal accident on Saturday. It is known that Ratzenberger broke his front wing and this became stuck under his front wheels at 200 mph; Ratzenberger went head-on into the wall at the Villeneuve curve and died almost instantly.

As a mark of respect, the race went ahead. Ayrton Senna started on pole position with Michael Schumacher second. Almost immediately there were yellow flags everywhere - JJ Lehto, Schumacher's teammate, had stalled on the grid, and Pedro Lamy in the Lotus was unsighted and ploughed into the rear of the Benetton - and this is where our hypothesis begins.

If this occurred in the year that you're reading this, the words "the safety car was brought out" won't seem too much of a shock to you. However, in 1994, many people expected the race to be red flagged. The safety car had been in the rule book for 12 months and had only been used twice previously - at Brazil 1993 and Britain 1993 - and only one of those was in the dry. Jeremy Clarkson famously does not like the Vauxhall Vectra, criticising it for its lack of speed even for a family car. You won't need me to tell you what the safety car was that day. Yep - an Opel Vectra (the European version of the Vauxhall; the race was in San Marino). Ayrton Senna moved alongside the safety car, telling it to speed up on a number of occasions. We at Benjamin's Blog feel that it is only right that the screenshots we are going to use will only be the shots shown on the day itself in the live broadcast. However, we have added our own graphics for your benefit. For example, Senna's onboard camera was only shown for about 3 seconds on the day, behind the safety car, whereas it has since been repeated in documentaries ad nauseum. Ergo, we do not have a screenshot of this moment.

Nonetheless, this is one of the theories: the tyres contracted behind the safety car, causing the ride height of Senna's Williams to drop dramatically, making it unstable, and causing a sudden loss of mechanical grip, disabling the car from getting around the corner. However, I don't believe this theory for one simple reason, for which a small amount of backstory is required. The safety car pulled in at the end of lap five and the race restarted. Senna judged the restart perfectly, but so did Schumacher. Gerhard Berger did not and was gapped by Senna and Schumacher.

This is why I discount that theory: this screenshot is from lap six, the first racing lap. Senna is furthest away from the camera as Senna and Schumacher round Tamburello. We'd like you to have a look at Senna's car. There are noticeable sparks there, which does give substance to this theory. However, on lap seven, when Senna does crash, there are less sparks there. Many people who parrot this theory do not answer this question: why didn't the accident therefore happen on lap six? Notice too, the ripples where the surface changes colour. In March 1994 Senna asked for bumps to be surfaced out: the resurfacing is the darker areas. 

Three miles later, Senna is back at Tamburello, turning into it for the seventh time. Even at racing speeds, Tamburello is not a corner you would make a mistake on. In this first screenshot, which, again, disproves the tyres theory, you can clearly see (OK, maybe not clearly, but it's still there) sparks coming from underneath Senna's Williams. These sparks are not as proficient as they were on lap six in any case, and Senna's car does not lose control at this point: the bumps in the track do not cause Senna to lose control

In this second screenshot, which is taken five frames later, this is where Senna loses control of his Williams-Renault. One second later, the driver of the car ahead of the one from which this screenshot is taken would be clinically dead. These 0.9 seconds between this screenshot and the impact have been well documented.

It is my personal view, as well as the view of a Sammarinese judge, that the steering column failed. In 1994 Senna was uncomfortable with the height of the steering column. As a result, the team modified the column on Senna's #2 car, Hill's #0 car, and the spare car, which is what the team themselves say. Furthermore - and this is where the steering column failure theory holds up very well in my view - these modifications were executed before the Brazilian Grand Prix. There was a bright yellow button on the steering wheel of the FW16. One can track its movements throughout onboard footage from Brazil, Japan, and San Marino. As the wheel turns, the button turns with it. In theory, this should mean that the button should end up in a perfect arc if you track its movements - and it does throughout the Brazilian and Pacific Grands Prix and throughout qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix on both cars. During the race itself, it is also working perfectly on Hill's car. The only time the yellow button does not move within its perfect arc is on Senna's car during the San Marino Grand Prix's race. 

No one denies the steering column was broken by the time the crash had ended. But was it broken by the accident or did it break, causing the accident? Look at this screenshot, which we've enhanced and annotated. What is this that Senna appears to be throwing out of the cockpit? It's not the airbox as it's appeared in the previous frame too. I think - and this is pure speculation here - that this is the steering wheel, still attached to the column, trying to allow himself cockpit space for this impending crash. That's just my theory.

There are some other theories that we don't have screenshots for. Firstly, there is the theory that the power steering failed. From Senna's onboard, his head moves to left, obscuring the steering wheel, so we don't know whether he was still applying torsional force in real terms to the steering wheel. Patrick Head of the Williams team was heard to shout "steering power" in the garage when Senna hit the wall, and was asked by journalists "what happened to the steering?". Damon Hill was asked to turn off his power steering too for the restart. In any case, if Senna was still steering, how would we know whether it was a power steering failure or a steering column failure? The hydraulic pressure rises and falls abnormally just before the incident - but a failure would cause it to drop immediately to zero. 

There is the "debris theory", which is that Senna's car ran over a piece of debris from the incident between Lamy and Lehto that wasn't properly cleared, which broke Senna's suspension. However, in the case of a broken suspension, one of the rear track rods would break, and, in either case, would cause the car to spin.

The final credible theory is that driver error caused the accident, with Senna lifting off, causing a loss of downforce. However, this has happened several times since, with a different result: the car oversteers, rather than sails clean off the road as Senna does. This happened to Fernando Alonso at the 2010 British Grand Prix and he oversteered.

Then there is the inevitable conspiracy theory. There are two of these: firstly, that Eastern Europeans were betting on Schumacher to win the Championship and so caused an electronic failure on Senna's car, which is pure tosh as Williams had installed software designed to withstand outside interference, and the data was still intact after the crash.

The other conspiracy is that he was shot by a sniper. But Senna slowed the car down by 60 mph before he hit the wall, which disproves that theory. In any case, the angle the car came at - and the angle of helmet penetration - would mean that that the only location could be in the middle of the river behind Tamburello, or the photographer Alexander Orsi, the only photographer at Tamburello that afternoon. Orsi did not own a gun, and it is known for a fact that Senna's helmet is not pierced until he hit the wall.

To conclude, therefore, this blog believes it was either a steering column failure or a power steering failure. 

Gerhard Berger took the lead at the restart as Schumacher made a bad start, and Hill made contact with Schumacher, dropping Hill to the back of the field. However, he did secure an excellent recovery drive to finish sixth. Schumacher passed Berger before Berger retired with suspension failure. It was then a tad processional, with Schumacher winning from Nicola Larini and Mika Hakkinen.


  1. I don't think we can discount the bottoming out theory. It is possible that Senna was being cautious on the first lap after the restart, knowing his tyres were cold, but felt confident enough on the next lap to go at full tilt. Also, there is the possibility that a piece of carbon-fibre from the Lamy-Lehto incident may have caused a slow puncture.

    1. I would like to see some superimposition of laps six and seven, personally. Senna on the sixth lap set a 1:24.886 according to his biography published in 2004, the third fastest lap of the entire Grand Prix, in a car fat with fuel on a two-stop strategy (as we learned later, Schumacher was on a three-stop). If he was travelling faster through Tamburello, surely the extra downforce as a result would press the car harder into the ground and therefore create more sparks? We do know that the throttle readout was showing at 102% during lap seven, mind you.

      With regards to the carbon fibre, no one denies that it was there and Senna ran over it - but what did it break if anything? I don't think it caused a slow puncture as the telemetry would have been able to pick that up, even in 1994. According to his biography, there was no radio contact after Senna acknowledged the team's message to him that the safety car was pulling in - so Senna clearly didn't feel any vibrations which either a broken suspension or a slow puncture would have given him.

    2. Maybe a diffuser stall? An aerodynamic issue with the car which causes a sudden loss of downforce at that speed, that corner, that line?

    3. That is, in effect, the "tyres" theory. There would have been some oversteer, but this is not noticeable from the footage.