Ayrton Senna is the epitome of what we think of when we imagine a racing driver. Charismatic with a near-religious fervor for the sport that etched his name into the history books, Senna gave viewers a taste of sheer excitement packed into the space of a lap. He was incredibly quick and precise behind the wheel. He was involved in one of the most compelling rivalries in F1’s history.
One of the all-time greats, he stands firmly among the likes of Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, and Niki Lauda as a fellow three-time world champion. At that time, it had been twelve years since a fatality at a Grand Prix. Riccardo Paletti was killed in the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix—only his second start in Formula One, just over a month after Gilles Villeneuve was killed.
In the intervening years, racing had changed. In 1985, the first-ever crash tests were performed on F1 cars to understand how they sustained a frontal impact, as F1 recalls in its own history. In 1986, medical helicopters were required at tracks in case of emergencies.
In 1988, crash tests for the car’s safety pod and fuel tank were introduced. In 1989, track safety walls were required to be at least one meter tall. In 1991 came roll bar crash tests. In 1992, the safety car. And in 1993, better head protection around the cockpit was mandatory.
Where death in Formula One had once been a disturbingly prominent feature of the sport—a near-guarantee that you or a few of your peers wouldn’t make it through the season alive—modern technology had brought with it a stark reduction in fatalities. There was the sense that the disastrous, mind-numbing deaths of the 1960s and 70s just didn’t happen anymore.
But when Ratzenberger and Senna died, F1 officials and race fans were forced to look the truth of the matter direct in the face. If we could lose two men in one weekend—if we could lose one of the sport’s legends, its shining stars—then something was wrong. Something desperately needed to change.
Because F1 races had only started being broadcast on international television in the mid 1970s, when the sport’s rapid-pace fatalities were beginning to wind down, Senna was one of handful of drivers whose death was captured on the screens of fans across the world. And, as one of the most popular drivers at the time, the reaction was swift.
While just as stunned as the fans at the loss of such a key figure in their sport, F1 officials acted swiftly. That isn’t to say that they had become complacent prior to Senna’s death—but their efforts to improve the safety of the sport became far more proactive than reactive. Burgeoning safety technology was growing more advanced everywhere you looked, and it was time to start actively seeking out how to implement those standards into open-wheel racing.
Immediately after Senna’s death, the FIA announced a handful of safety measures to be implemented at the next race in Monaco—such as forcing cars to slow down on pit entry and exit. Niki Lauda and Gerhard Berger re-formed the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, which is essentially a driver’s union dedicated to improving racing conditions.
Senna had actually been in conversation with them about getting it back going just before his death. It was the Drivers’ Association that demanded the reduction of downforce for the Spanish Grand Prix later that month. For the Canadian Grand Prix, the structural integrity of the F1 cars themselves was improved, specifically with the aim of keeping drivers’ heads and necks safer inside the cockpit.
The changes for the rest of the 1994 season weren’t quite as dramatic as those implemented in the three races immediately following the San Marino Grand Prix.
In the following years, crash tests became far stricter, with FIA requiring each car to have an accident data recorder installed in it for precise accident analysis starting in ‘97. Prior to this, accident data could be difficult to obtain. The list of improvements goes on and on.
What started as a push to prevent anyone from dying as senseless a death as Senna and Ratzenberger became a full-fledged safety revolution, the likes of which F1 hadn’t seen since the early 1970s.