Former Formula One star Gerhard Berger has revealed that racing legend Ayrton Senna told him about his plans to do more to make the sport safe in the hours leading to his tragic death.
A devout Catholic, Senna was Formula One’s brightest star, a sporting giant, an icon in his native Brazil. But on lap seven of the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 – a black weekend that had already claimed the life of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger – he ran off the road at 190mph and hit a concrete wall. He died, aged 34.
Marking the 25th anniversary of Senna’s death in Imola, Berger, a 10-time Formula One winner, spoke out for the first time about the sporting tragedy which rocked the world and resulted in the death of his team-mate and close friend, revealing that the Brazilian had voiced his concerns on safety and wanted to ensure Formula One was safe for all who take part.
Berger was hospitalised after being in an accident at the same corner as Senna in 1989 and, during his time in hospital, the friends had agreed that the wall needed to be moved as someone would die there someday.
“The next time we were at Imola we went to see what we could do about it,” recalled Berger. “I remember it like it was yesterday. At lunch, Ayrton and I walked out from the pit-lane and down to the Tamburello corner. We looked over the wall and behind it there is a river. We both looked at each other, and said there isn’t anything we can do. There is no space behind the wall, we didn’t think about putting in a chicane to slow the cars down, and we just accepted it for what it was. So, we walked back and didn’t do anything. That was the place where he would die some years later.”
Berger continued: “After Roland’s death in qualifying, we came out of the drivers’ briefing on Sunday morning before the race and Ayrton said to me that next week we need to do more to make this sport safe.
“We went to the grid, and Ayrton was on pole. I was driving for Ferrari and getting a lot of support from the tifosi. I was out of the car, he was in his Williams. I remember looking at him, and he was laughing underneath his helmet. He had always been happy when something good was happening to me. That was my last eye contact with him.”
Berger explained that he joined other drivers in restarting the race after it was stopped to deal with Senna’s crash, as he thought his team-mate had hit the wall at a good angle and had gotten out of the car safely.
However, when he retired with a mechanical failure in lap 16, Berger was told his close friend was in fact fighting for his life. After arranging a helicopter to Bologna to see him in hospital, Berger entered the operation room but discovered that Senna was already dead.
“I lost a colleague and a friend. It was very hard, but you know that these things can happen in our sport and you have to cope with it,” said Berger. “I went home and considered stopping. But then two days later I decided I had to keep going. It went back to normal quite soon because racing is racing. But there were times when I would think: ‘Imagine if Ayrton was still in the Williams when Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve won their titles?’ Had he been alive, I don’t think anyone other than Ayrton would have won the championship for the next five years.”
Picture: File photo dated 11-04-1993 of Brazilian Ayrton Senna flying the Brazilian flag as he works his way through the crowd to the winners podium after victory in the European Grand Prix at Donnington Park. (David Jones/PA).