What if Ayrton Senna had walked away from that accident in Imola on May 1, 1994? What if the three-time world champion had lived and gone on to race in Formula 1 for years to come? He was, after all, only 34 years-old when he lost his life, crashing his Williams on lap six of the San Marino Grand Prix. And what if the passionate Brazilian had eventually followed his heart and signed to drive for the legendary Scuderia Ferrari?
Combining facts and speculation on the 20th anniversary of Senna’s tragic accident, we look at what might have happened with Senna and the world of Formula 1 had he raced on until the end of the decade.
One thing for sure is that there would have been titanic duels between Senna, who was at the absolute peak of his powers, and the young upstart Michael Schumacher who was 24 years-old and only embarking his third full season in Formula 1 in 1994.
They had already had their run-ins – including nearly coming to blows in the pits during testing at Hockenheim when Senna grabbed Schumacher’s overalls and accused him of blocking. Senna believed that Schumacher did not show enough respect. And Senna, remember, knew that he was always right, and that truth, justice, honour, family and God were always on his side.
“You are talking about two of the most extraordinary drivers in the last two decades,” Derek Warwick, who raced against Senna, says. “To see those two guys go head-to-head would be pretty extraordinary. But you have to remember that there was 10 years between them, and that is a big difference in F1. It would have been interesting for all of us.”
Johnny Herbert, who was Schumacher’s teammate at Benetton for the last two races of 1994 and the entire 1995 season, agrees.
“Their battles would have been intense because their edginess as drivers would be brilliant to see,” Herbert says. “Two utterly ruthless drivers; driving on the edge and living on the edge. It would have been a dream for us to watch.”
Benetton had a better car than Williams in the opening stages of the 1994 season. Senna was absolutely convinced that this was because Benetton was cheating. The FIA seized and examined the black box out of Schumacher’s B194 from the Imola race, but it was not until the end of July that the FIA’s report, which stated that the box’s software contained an illegal launch control system, was made public.
Benetton’s defense: it didn’t use the system on race weekends. To this day Ross Brawn and Pat Symonds, technical director and engineer at Benetton back then, insist they did nothing illegal with the car in 1994.
“We simply had a better car,” Symonds maintains 20 years later.
“Early in ‘94 Schumacher was in a dominant car,” Warwick says, “but the Williams was very good later that year as Damon Hill started winning races and almost won the championship. Would Ayrton have been world champion again? Absolutely.”
Hill won five times in 1994 and Schumacher eight times, but Hill would have been champion if Schumacher had not barged into him in the Australia season finale. Senna was a far better driver than Hill, so there is no doubt Senna would have earned his fourth world title that year.
Senna had a three-year contract with Williams. Would he have won the championship again in 1995? The Williams FW17 won only five races with Hill and David Coulthard in 1995 compared to the 11 victories that Schumacher and Herbert racked up in the Benetton B195. Again, Senna would have extracted more out of the car than Hill would have, but the FW17 did have mechanical reliability problems that year, so Schumacher would have narrowly edged Senna to win his first world championship.
Senna would have easily won championship number five in 1996 in the dominant FW18 that Hill and new Canadian teammate Jacques Villeneuve used to score a total of 12 victories. That was the year, of course, that Schumacher moved from the championship-winning Benetton squad to the shambolic Ferrari team that last won the drivers’ world championship in 1979.
Blending fact and speculation, however, Schumacher would not have joined Ferrari in 1996. In reality, he was considering both Ferrari and McLaren, and he was leaning towards the latter team because it had teamed up with Mercedes in 1995 and Schumacher wanted to once again drive for Mercedes just as he had in sports cars. It was Schumacher’s manager Willi Weber who convinced him to go to Ferrari instead.
But if Senna had still been around, Ferrari would have been extremely interested in signing the best driver in Formula 1 to the point of 1) telling Schumacher there was no place for him at the Scuderia and 2) waiting until 1998 while superstar Senna cruised to his sixth championship in the mega Williams FW19 in 1997.
Some people speculate that Senna would have retired from Formula 1 at the end of 1997 after he had beaten Juan Manual Fangio’s record of five titles. Others believe he would have continued to race because there was one box left to tick in his Formula 1 career: Ferrari.
I asked Senna’s close friend Rubens Barrichello for his opinion. “Ferrari is a dream for every driver, especially for the Brazilians because of the Latin connection,” Barrichello says. “I really think he would have liked to go there and be the first Brazilian to race F1 for Ferrari.”
So Schumacher would have gone to McLaren in 1996 and eventually brought technical director Ross Brawn (despite his distaste for McLaren boss Ron Dennis), designer Rory Byrne and other talented people with him from Benetton.
“We have not seen it before or since that one guy picks all the people around him like Schumacher did,” Herbert notes. “Even Alain Prost did not do that. When Prost and Senna were at McLaren they were so busy looking after their own interests that they did not look at the bigger picture like Michael did.”
Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart has the same opinion.
“Schumacher, beyond his driving, was THE ultimate in the history of the sport of knowing he had to choose and pick the very best people to make up the package that he created at Ferrari,” Stewart says. “I don’t think anybody would have beaten him because of that – because of the Ross Brawns and all of the people that he brought from Benetton to Ferrari. What a collection of motor racing talent and hierarchy of influence and success! I don’t think that would have happened with Ayrton in that way. That was not Ayrton’s bag.”
Still, however passionate Senna’s desire to race for Ferrari was, it would not have blinded him from the fact that the team was in a mess. He would not have signed unless he knew the Scuderia would have hired the right people to turn it around.
Schumacher did just that by convincing Brawn and Bryne to switch from Benetton to Ferrari. Senna would not have had that option, so instead he would have persuaded design guru Adrian Newey to come with him from Williams to Ferrari instead of going to McLaren as he did. Part of Senna’s deal with Ferrari would have been that Newey would be given carte blanche and an open cheque book. It would have been Newey rather than Senna who would have lured top people away from the British-based teams to reorganize Ferrari while he got down to business of designing a competitive car.
But McLaren would have had the momentum in 1998 and one of the fastest drivers ever – and certainly faster than Schumacher – Mika Hakkinen would have won the championship that year.
Senna would have won races in 1998 and 1999 with Ferrari (and his teammate David Coulthard would win as well) but the Schumacher/Brawn/Hakkinen/Byrne/McLaren combo would have been better overall.
“Ayrton and Michael would have had a real ding dong because their mentalities in some regards were quite similar,” Herbert says. “Ayrton was always about driving on the edge and so was Michael. The relationship between Michael and Ross Brawn was always very strong when it came down to strategy, and maybe that was something where Ayrton’s relationship with Williams was not as strong.”
Senna would have realized that he needed to up his strategy game, especially because by 1998 he would be 38 years old and no longer be able to beat Schumacher and Hakkinen on sheer speed alone.
If Schumacher had not broken his leg when he crashed during the British Grand Prix in the actual 1999 season, he would have won his first championship with Ferrari instead of Hakkinen taking his second title with McLaren. In the “what if” 1999 season, Senna would have been a contender but the championship battle would have been fought out between McLaren’s Schumacher and Hakkinen, with the German narrowly defeating the Finn.
By 2000, however, Newey would have worked his magic at Ferrari and created a fabulous car for Senna, who at age 40 would still be a superb driver, and Senna would have won his seventh world championship and his first for Ferrari. Despite Ferrari offering him a huge amount of money to stay on in 2001, Senna would have retired at the end of 2000 on top of the world.
With Hakkinen losing interest and motivation, Schumacher would have won another title in 2001 with McLaren.
So, what would have happened if Senna had survived that accident and gone on to race against Schumacher? Jackie Stewart sums it up perfectly.
“It would have been a very interesting and somewhat disturbing period because Senna’s passion was greater than Michael’s passion,” he says. “They were both very ruthless.”