What Could’ve Been: Reflecting on F1 Legend Ayrton Senna’s 64th Birthday

F1 has changed drastically since 1994. In other ways, it's stayed the same. I can't help but wonder what Senna would be up to if he were still around.

Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna, one of the most revered pilots in the history of motor racing and a sporting icon in his own right, would’ve turned 64 years old today. His name still comes up more than anyone else’s when today’s F1 racers are asked about their childhood heroes. His name is still plastered on merchandise ranging from hats and t-shirts to McLaren supercars and even Lego sets. But with the 30th anniversary of his death around the corner, I can’t help but reflect on how much F1 has changed—or stayed the same—since he was around.

I was just seven years old when I watched Senna turn left at Tamburello in 1994. I saw the crash. I didn’t think much of it. My dad, who idolized Senna and had posters of him all over his office, was out of town and couldn’t watch the race live. I don’t exactly remember the rest of the race—not sure if I even finished it—but I remember getting a call from my dad a few hours later. He told me what had happened.


I often wonder how F1 would look today had he walked away from that crash. At 64, he obviously wouldn’t be racing today, but I am curious how much longer he would’ve continued. His last F1 car, the Williams FW16, was a pig and he never came to terms with it. And then there was a young Michael Schumacher, who was hot on the Brazilian’s tail and would eventually eclipse Senna’s successes—including winning the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix 53 laps after Senna died.

This is all to say that maybe Senna would’ve retired shortly after the ’94 season. If the books, magazines, and documentaries I’ve consumed are anything to go by, he was warming up to the idea of retirement. He had pondered hanging up his helmet and enjoying life with his girlfriend Adriane Galisteu, or so friends Sid Watkins and Jo Ramirez often said. Even the last helmet-off footage of Senna shows that he wasn’t in a good headspace, frustrated by the politics of F1, an underperforming car, and the death of Roland Ratzenberger the day before.

I believe he would’ve continued a while longer, fighting as he always did. That said, I don’t believe he would’ve found much success after 1994. Things were changing in F1; new technologies, new cars, and teams were finding new ways of doing business and hiring up-and-coming drivers. F1 was booming and Senna, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, and Nigel Mansell’s megastar status was fading away. The sport was turning a page, and Senna’s untimely death accelerated that process.

In just his second year as FIA president, Max Mosley was tasked with moving F1 forward, but his predecessor Jean-Marie Balestre left him a messy house. The mourning of Senna’s death and a criminal investigation against Williams didn’t help. F1 had to quickly regain control of the narrative post-Senna. As a result, new safety technologies were introduced, new regulations for cars and race tracks were established, and F1 at last began paying attention to safety.

F1’s technological and commercial renaissance opened the sport to new venues, new sponsors, new drivers, and ultimately, new partnerships that made it what it is today. Bernie Ecclestone’s famous handshake deals took F1 to new heights, and I believe that Senna would’ve played a role in that. Senna wasn’t just a racing driver—he was an ambassador for the sport and a damn charitable one. He was also a keen businessman, and I don’t doubt he would’ve worked hard to expand and improve the sport on all fronts.

From his institute to end child poverty in Brazil to his close ties with automakers and friendships within F1, I’m confident that Senna would’ve carved out a nice role for himself after retirement. Schumacher did something similar after retiring from Mercedes and countless other drivers do that today in sports cars, IndyCar, and endurance racing.

Sadly, I’m never going to know what could’ve been. Maybe he would’ve won a fourth world title, or maybe his destiny was written and it was only a matter of time until another crash took his life. After visiting his memorial at Tamburello a few years back, the only thing I’m sure of is that he’s sorely missed.

Happy birthday, Ayrton.

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