We all know where we were when Ayrton Senna died. But do we really? Asif Kapadia’s documentary is only the latest chapter in the 17 years of collective remembrance which has turned Senna’s death into the epochal event it now is. A new piece of amateur footage from the grandstands of Imola shows a very different reality on the ground. On the afternoon of May 1, 1994, all one saw was a confusing but rather mundane motor race in the Italian spring.
The shared memory of catastrophes is a strange play on the mind in the age of mass media. We tend to think we remember the moment something happened but we don’t, actually. What we remember is the moment we first heard about it on the news. I learned about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on a tour bus in Czechoslovakia while on a ski trip, but what was it like to stand in the winter chill of that Florida morning and watch the spaceship’s fuel tank go up in a big cloud of hydrogen? I don’t know.
Events like this have remarkably few witnesses, and this is what makes the video above such a chilling and remarkable historical document. It was filmed on the grandstands above Acque Minerale corner, and what it shows, mostly, is an unremarkable motor race. Cars
break brake for the corner. There are a few laps behind the safety car. People cheer, clap, blow horns. At one point, it’s Michael Schumacher who leads the race and not Ayrton Senna. Acque Minerale is right across the track from Tamburello, a thousand feet as the helicopter flies, but no violent crash is heard above the crowds. There is a pause. The race continues. Michael Schumacher
takes the fifth Grand Prix victory of his career. People celebrate the #27 Ferrari of substitute driver Nicola Larini. Would anyone present have guessed that it would be the last time an Italian drove a Ferrari to a podium finish?
It’s a chilling video because Senna’s death is like JFK’s death and it is just as confusing. We know so much now and yet so little. The entire English-language broadcast of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix is available on YouTube, and even with the aid of helicopter shots and expert commentary, it’s terribly unclear. Only in retrospect did we realize that Senna had died on the spot. Only later did we all see the blood. Only a man who’d raced through Formula One’s blood-drenched glory years realized it in real time, as recalled in Dylan Jones’s article “The last 96 hours of Ayrton Senna”:
But before the marshals could get to Senna and the first medical car had reached the scene, his head moved forward in the cockpit and unknowing viewers were encouraged that the champion was intact. Another man, sitting thousands of miles away in Balcarce, Argentina, knew different. Five-time world champion, 82-year-old Juan Manuel Fangio knew the outcome when he saw the spasm, the sign of a massive head injury. He switched off his television. He said later: “I knew he was dead.”
A few hours later, we all did.
Photo of Ayrton Senna’s Williams by Pascal Rondeau/Allsport