The Making of Senna part 8: The Death of Ayrton Senna


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1994: San Marino Grand Prix

When it came to composing the scenes of Ayrton Senna’s death, the filmmakers had a clear idea what they were trying to do – and what they were keen to avoid.

The film’s writer Manish Pandey explained: “We had certain rules. We were not going to move anything from one date to another. It’s like that all the way through the film but at Imola we were really rigorous about it”.

He stresses their first priority was to “tell the truth” and “leave as many opinions as you can out of it until you’re out of Imola”.


“We always got this slight sense from Williams of ‘are you trying to do this investigative thing on what killed Ayrton Senna?’”

He makes it clear were “absolutely not interested” in doing an investigative piece:

“He died because of bad luck, a combination of circumstances which were terrible.

“We were very clear on [this] fact. I’m not an engineer, nobody’s apportioning blame, but what we needed to do was at the same time give the audience a range of options as to what might have gone wrong.

“The only thing that we felt adamant about – and it was good because Richard Williams felt the same way, Ron Dennis felt the same way – was that it wasn’t a driver error. That was the only thing we wanted to make completely clear. He did not go into, basically, a left-handed kink and make some kind of mistake.

“I remember after he died some of the rubbish rumours going around: ‘he was holding his breath’, ‘he passed out’”.

A “cursed weekend”

Pandey described the events of Imola in 1994 as a “cursed weekend”.

“That’s the only explanation I have for it. I’ve missed four races since I was 13 years old and I’ve never seen, and I hope I never will see, anything like that.

“I’ve been watching some old footage of the fifties recently and the closest thing to Imola, for me, is Mike Hawthorn’s massive accident at Le Mans in ’55. I find that impossible to watch”.

The team were also quick to rebuff any questions about how much detail Senna’s death would be shown in:

“The other thing – which I could look Bernie and the family in the eye about and say was we are not going to do anything graphic around the death. No way.

“First of all the footage doesn’t exist. Second, if you tried to give it to me I’d shove it back in your face, or down your throat.

“That’s not what this was about either: here, come and have a gawp. No way.

“This was the death of somebody that we, in the last 80 minutes, came to understand and came to love. And it’s sad enough that he’s going to die and you’re going to see the aftermath of that: what his death meant to Brazilians, his family, to people who weren’t his family.

“We were absolutely adamant that we were not going to make it graphic.

“It’s one of the few mercies, I think, that no-one had a camera on the inside of the corner. Tamburello is a long shot, so you don’t have to see anything”.

“He knew these things could happen”

At the same time, they were aware that presenting F1 as being anything other than a potentially dangerous sport would be misleading.

Pandey said: “Formula 1 is dangerous. Things happen. Senna knew that when he went into a car for the first time, and he knew that when he went into a car for the last time.

“He had some big accidents: he had the Mexico ’91 accident which we show in the film, he had one a week later at Hockenheim which was worse: the car was thrown five metres into the air because of a tyre failure at the first chicane.

“So he knew these things could happen”.

“I felt his soul had departed”

Part of the voiceover is supplied by Professor Sid Watkins, the neurosurgeon who spent over two-and-a-half decades as the FIA safety and medical delegate. A close friend of Senna’s, it was Watkins who tended to Senna immediately after the crash.

Pandey said that without his input the death scene would have been handled differently:

“If we hadn’t had Sid Watkins’ words, we wouldn’t have shown [the resuscitation]. But Prof makes that human. When he saw that for the first time he cried.

“He’s 80 years old, and he’s seen some stuff – he’s a neurosurgeon, he’s seen head injuries. But just hearing the emotion in his voice and understanding that it’s such a deep loss but he had to be a doctor in that situation”.

“We used to have the official announcement – the guy who tells you: ‘I’ve just received an announcement from Maggiore hospital: Roland Ratzenberger has succumbed’ – we had him, and we felt it was just too much.

“Once Prof has said: ‘I’m not religious, but I felt his spirit had departed’, you didn’t need to know any more”.

Pandey concludes:

“We knew we’d have footage, we knew we could have gone a graphic way with this, we knew we could have gone a ‘pointing fingers’ way with this, but all of that would have been to the absolute detriment of Senna, and all the great people who helped us.

“Because the truth was, it was just bad, bad luck. And that’s the story we tell”.

The concluding part of “The Making of Senna” will be published tomorrow.

To ensure you don’t miss an instalment subscribe to F1 Fanatic for free via RSS, Twitter or our email subscription service. Click here for more information.

See the official website for more information on the film and the official Facebook page for a list of cinemas that are showing it.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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34 comments on “The Making of Senna part 8: The Death of Ayrton Senna”

  1. Steve Lyons
    5th June 2011, 11:21

    I hope all these make the DVD release. Unfortunately it will be the only way I see the film, as it doesn’t look like there’s a Swiss release date.

    1. A-Safieldin (@)
      5th June 2011, 14:57

      Do u know when the dvd release is coming out (the english version) because im actually in Sudan and there is definetly know way im gonna get to watch it except maybe online, only way that would happen is if a dvd comes out.

  2. I read about how one photographer has close up pictures of the accident scene, but he vowed to keep that under lock in his safe and not publish.

    I think no graphic images could have made the fact what happen more shocking. And reliving the events gives a new feeling of how that weekend was damned.
    Horribly I had the same feeling of something going wrong all the way from Thursday this years Monaco, fortunately no one got seriously hurt though.

    Really great series of articles on the movie Keith.

    1. Yeah I’ve heard that too. The guy was apparently able to jump up on the wall just after the crash and he snapped a few pictures without realising what happened. After he developed them he knew what he had, told the Senna family and agreed to keep them a secret despite being offered ridiculous sums of money for them. He’s done the right thing in my book, no one wants to their hero like that.

      The only thing I can think of which would be similar are the video of Gilles Villeneuve’s crash at Zolder and the pictures of Martin Donnelly’s carsh at Jerez…well any fatal/serious crash really, they are things I wish I’d never seen and I’m sure those pictures of Senna are the same.

    2. His name is Angelo Orsi and you can read about him in this great article on 8w.

  3. maxthecat12
    5th June 2011, 12:04

    They say there is no graphic footage but that isn’t true, not using it is a good move though. I remember watching Eurosport when the crash happened, the BBC cut away but Eurosport broadcast the whole resuscitation and the scene at the side of the track, it wasn’t pleasant and i still see it 17 years later.

  4. Yep, I remember the Eurosport footage well. The BBC did the right thing by cutting away, but the heli cameras stayed on the scene. I remember that cursed weekend as if it was yesterday.

    1. The BBC did the right thing by cutting away

      The BBC have a policy of not showing an accident or a replay until such time as they know the driver is alright. They don’t want to inadvertently show a sportsman’s death live. It caused a bit of an uproar at Budapest in 2009 when Felipe Massa had his accident; the BBC followed their policy to the letter, but I remember a lot of people on the live blog demanding to see a replay of the footage. It was nearly twenty-five minutes before a replay was shown, but there were a lot of disgruntled posters at the time. Which was disappointing.

      1. As I understand it, Imola 1994 was the first time the BBC had the option of not showing any particular part of the race because it was the first time they had their own secondary filming unit at the circuit. Which was very good timing indeed…

        1. @PM, yeah i was watching the TF1 feed during the Massa Crash and was feeding the Live Blog with info that you guys on the BBC feed were missing.

          I have watched the long version i got from Torrents, it’s over 2 hours long, and many of the cut scenes Pandey mentions in the interview are in it…

          I watched it twice already, crying every-time, but i felt there was something missing. maybe for me, being such a huge fan married to a Brazilian that is an even bigger fan and was actually on the street of SP when his motorcade drove past for the last time. She and I have seen countless documentaries done on Senna, scoured YouTube for plenty of clips of him, read his books, the gazillion articles on the internet, maybe for such huge fans, the Movie/documentary lacks a fulfillment, i felt that despite the very cool unseen footage something was amiss, i think it’s the fact that you see him so alive that you start wishing that his death was just a nightmare, but then you find out that it isn’t, it’s gut wrenching… I love Senna, Human and Driver and you cannot deny that he was the greatest, perhaps not only the greatest F1 Driver, but also one of the greatest men to walk the earth, too bad he didn’t live long to see his Vision of the Senna institute succeed the way it did…

  5. I saw the race on Eurosport too, I was 8 at the time, having seen the film again as an adult, I’m starting to feel awful about how the whole thing happened.

    I saw the whole weekend, Ruben’s crash, qualifying, Roland’s death, everything. But all I was interested in was seeing Senna finally get his first win of 1994 and shut that annoying German kid Schuey up. I’d even had a discussion with my mother about F1 and safety a few days before where I had categorically affirmed “Nobody dies in F1 anymore today”.

    Looking back it’s amazing the race ever happened given the horrific crashes there were in practice. I suspect a lot of people, especially young fans, had the same attitude. We were overconfident, removing active suspension and various electronic aids, going faster and faster, and expecting the drivers to keep it all together.

    I understand better now the drastic and unpopular measures that Max Mosley imposed to reduce speeds and increase safety. They probably weren’t the best decisions but something had to be done in the utmost urgency.

  6. maxthecat12
    5th June 2011, 13:19

    I still have the paper from the day afterwards with ‘Death of a Champion’ as the headline, the pictures in that aren’t nice to look at either. I remember contacting the Senna foundation a few days after and donating a few pounds, i got a letter from his sister (generic letter obviously) and included was a Senna book, i was so happy until i opened it and saw it was a list of Senna branded items to buy, up to and including a speedboat. I thought that was a bit off to be honest, i felt like they were trying to cash in at the time, no i realize they just did what they could to respond to all the people contacting them.

  7. I remember how unbelievable his death was — the accident didn’t look too bad at first. I saw the film and thought it was a well-constructed fanboy homage to their hero, Saint Senna, the martyr of Formula One. It didn’t seem “true” to me, because it was so one-sided. Prost in particular, deserves better treatment. I never bought into the whole “Senna spiritualism” thing, regarding himself as some sort victim at times, and I thought he deserved a lifetime ban for what he did at Suzuka in 1990. I will say that the era he raced in had more purity and exitement to it than any of the gimmick-laden races of today.

    1. more purity and exitement

      I disagree, it’s different for sure, but you can make the same argument putting down Senna’s era by talking about the 50’s and 60’s, where the drivers would stop in the pits and themselves work on their cars to re-enter the race.

      The last few years have been really good. There hasn’t been a boring race yet in my opinion.

  8. Even though the Imola weekend has become sadly infamous and has played such a significant part in motorsport, I am extremely glad not to have seen it happening live. I’ve seen other sickening crashes and not knowing the driver’s conditions after the impact is an awful feeling, and the only way I can watch the accident now in videos is that I know his destiny before, although that does not make me less sad, but just sad all the way through instead of making me feel sad suddenly during the impact.

  9. I don’t know, in the film they seemed to make a big deal about Senna being unhappy with the Williams’ handling.

    1. That’s because he was. Only later in the season the FW16 became a good, fast and drivable car.

    2. I don’t know, in the film they seemed to make a big deal about Senna being unhappy with the Williams’ handling.

      I believe one of the reasons why Williams was considered liable was because they shortened Senna’s steering arm. He wasn’t happy with it, so they tried to replace with with a shorter one – but when there were no spare parts available, they cut a section out of the existing steering arm and then welded it back together. One of the theories as to the cause of the accident suggests that the weld was not strong enough and it snapped under load. The last few seconds of footage from Senna’s on-board camera are lost – the footage cuts out just as he goes off the circuit – but the darker conspiracy theories suggest that the final few seconds were destroyed by the race organisers because they showed the steering wheel coming clean off in Senna’s hands. It’s part of a larger conspiracy theory that suggets Senna was unethically kept on life support because if he was declared dead during the race, the organisers stood to lost hundreds of thousands in sanctioning fees.

  10. Read the wiki article on the FW16.

  11. I remembered a piece of footage I saw years ago with Ayrton walking through a busy line of fans somewhere in Japan, obviously in a hurry to get somewhere. Out of nowhere this very, very old lady breaks free from the crowd and spontaneously hugs Senna, clinging to him. As she does so the baseball cap that she is wearing strikes Senna in the face and falls off her head to the ground. Senna not only stops to pick it up, but bows slightly to her as he hands her cap back.

    That struck me as so different in terms of virtue or character with the things we had been seeing lately with current drivers (Raikkonen I believe) stepping over small children who were crying and pushing photographers to the ground. It would have been a benefit to the movie had they included footage of Senna like that. Or the moments before Ayrton was to go on a live Japanese tv show, where while in the dressing room, when viewing footage of the Suzuka race he got tears in his eyes.

    Or Senna stopping to help Eric Comas in ’92. I can’t believe they missed out all of these.

    There were many pieces of footage that I saw years ago that were very powerful and strange premonitions. The one I remember most was an interview Senna gave to RTL in 93. The interviewer asked Senna if he was ever afraid in the car, to which Senna responded by asking in return why he asked this and why he thought he should be fearless. Senna said that he was aware of being hurt and afraid of dying. Exactly when he said the word dying the footage broke up for a fraction of a second. It was obviously not edited but authentic. Here is the footage:

    Note 02:08s. And also note how completely perfect the video is apart from the moment he says “Die”.

    There are more pieces of footage like this, that would have added to the film.

    5. Nuno Cobra

    To conclude I have to say this. The most powerful and moving piece of footage I have ever seen regarding Ayrton Senna was that of Nuno Cobra at his funeral. Nuno Cobra was Ayrton’s physical trainer, coach, meditation tutor and spiritualist in Brazil. He is a very very emotional and spiritual man and saw Ayrton as his protege and the pupil he taught so many things to to improve himself and get better. Nuno was so visibly devastated at Ayrton’s funeral that I could not bear to watch his sadness. If you want to see Nuno’s very heartfelt reaction it is here: (a part of me says that this is such a private piece of footage that it should not have been taped but nevertheless it demonstrates what Ayrton meant to those around him.) I have not seen a more moving display of emotion it’s still very hard to watch.

    Those are some of the things I think the movie missed.

    PS: I was surprised the movie does actually include the footage of Senna hitting the wall. I thought it didn’t. I still can’t watch the moment of impact after all these years.

  12. wong chin kong
    6th June 2011, 10:37

    I remembered the Senna crash. At that time, I just started to watch F1. Senna’s car just went straight and plough into the wall. I saw one wheel flying through the air and it knocked Senna’s head, that knock killed him. His car was so low that underparts were scrapping the track sparks flying as he raced many times around the track before the accident. At that time of the accident, I wondered why he did not attemtp to brake to slow the car (is it airborne at the time?) as it headed for the wall or why he did not attempt to steer away from the wall. A very sad day for Brazillian fans and I remembered people crying at the tragic news.

  13. that incident with eric comas was shown in the end credits

  14. One thing that always supprises me that is never talked about with respect to this awful weekend is the consiquences of the changes to the rules for the 1994 season namely the banning of active suspension. When I heard this I was immediately concerned, at the time. Active suspension basically means that you don’t have springs just a hydrolic system that actively adjusts the suspension every few milliseconds keeping the ride hight optimum for aero performance and grip. The cars were designed around this technology from an aero and mechanical perspective, especially the Williams, they led the development of this technology. With this technology removed and conventional springs and dampers in place, the cars were compromised. They were running the cars as low as posssible to get to the levels of downforce they enjoyed with active suspension. You combine this with the safty car period. This also probably the first low down force circuit of the season (i haven’t checked) now wonder cars were leaving the track left right and centre. But the FIA take no blame for how the rule change was imposed.

    1. Luke,

      Flat bottoms weren’t anything new – but the aero and power advances did mean that the cars were getting relative large performance envelopes. Indeed, the ’94 cars remained the quickest configuration for some time, certainly up to 1998 (according to Peter Wright’s book).

      Sensitivity to pitch is always an issue with F1 cars (and performance cars in general) and I think FW16 was particularly temperamental, hence the floor being reprofiled for the ‘b’ revision.

      I think Williams just got caught out with a car that they didn’t initially understand too well. Benetton, on the other hand, got it bang-on, and whether you believe the traction-control stories or not, they had a very stable car.

  15. There have already been three fatalities at this year’s Isle of Man TT, and over 200 in the event’s history.

    Can you believe that there is still a motorsport event in which a terrible tragedy on a par with Imola 1994 happens every single year, and yet people still watch? It defies all comprehension.

    1. We had a discussion on that very topic last year – see here:

      Why you should watch… Isle of Man TT

  16. I thought it was in poor taste that Manish Pandey and Asif Kapadia decided to include footage of Ayrton Senna’s twitching head in the FW16. Not once but twice.

    Very poor taste.

    1. In all fairness, what did you expect? It wasn’t graphic, it wasn’t blood-thirsty. Senna knew what he got himself in to and he knew that should his end come in an F1 car it would be a very public end.

      1. In reality that is the most graphic footage that exists of the accident. The only more graphic image are the pictures taken by Orsi that will remain unpublished.

        When Watkins performs the tracheotomy there is nothing graphic, Senna’s upper body is hidden under blankets.

        The only reason that is there is to gawp at. It doesn’t add anything to the film.

        The fact that Senna knew if he died it would be public does not mean he must be stripped of what dignity he had left by filmmakers. I just think it was inappropriate.

  17. What Sid Watkins said at the end of the film really, really hit home. I could imagine exactly what was happening which was equally disconcerting yet warming. To be that close to someone in their final moments must be reassuring to all parties concerned.

    I’ve never felt my heart beat so fast when the yellow Imola 1994 text came up on screen in the cinema. Literally, never so fast.

  18. I may be unpopular on this, but I actually wanted to see footage or close-up photos from the inside of Tamburello and also of Ayrton in his cockpit soon after the crash with the mangled helmet and visor. I wanted to get a close-up shot of that moment till the medical staff arrived. I don’t understand why we should not seek to see such shots. Just how Massa’s close-up shot soon after the accident (with one eye open and the other closed and the damamged visor) gave a firsthand idea about how brutally dangerous motor racing this, Senna’s close-up shots should also have been available. I don’t think there is anything wrong in wanting to see it.

    1. go take a look at The Senna Files….its all there in detail if you need it. #:)

      1. Thanks, mate. I checked them once I think. I’ll visit them again.

  19. I wish he’d stayed with McLaren

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