Ayrton Senna's fatal crash is a tragedy that made Formula One safer | other | Hindustan Times
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Ayrton Senna's fatal crash is a tragedy that made Formula One safer

Senna's legacy: On the 20th anniversary of the Brazilian's fatal car accident during the San Marino Grand Prix, HT takes a look at how the incident changed F1.

other Updated: Apr 27, 2014 01:52 IST

It has been 20 years since Formula One last suffered a driver fatality but that milestone, an achievement that would once have stretched credulity, will get less attention than the anniversary of Ayrton Senna's death at Imola.

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 teammate 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.

Catalyst for change
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.

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.

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.