F1: What Caused Ayrton Senna’s Imola 94 Crash?

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One of the most fundamental mysteries of the 1994 Formula One season still remains.

Why did Ayrton Senna, one of the sport’s greatest ever drivers, crashed fatally at a relatively easy corner?

To this day, no-one knows for certain why Senna crashed. Many theories of varying credibility have been put forward. One view which is that Senna, desperate to break free from the car behind, carried a bit too much speed into Tamburello.

The car went slightly offline onto a part of the track known to be extremely bumpy. The ride height was still too low after the safety car so it “bottomed out”.

This also caused the peaky aerodynamics on the Williams to stall. This resulted in a catastrophic loss of grip made worse by tyres not up to working pressures or temperatures.

Perspective from the Cockpit

This view is shared by Senna’s teammate Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher, who had the clearest view of what started the crash.

Arguably, they are the two best people to judge its cause.

Ayrton Senna leads Michael Schumacher moments before his fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. © Alan Dahl

The pursuing Schumacher later explained what unfolded at Tamburello on Lap 7.

“I saw that Senna’s car was touching the track at the back quite a lot on the lap before. It was very nervous in that corner, and he nearly lost it.

“Then on the next time through he did lose it. The car just touched the track with the rear skids, went a bit sideways, and then he just lost it.”

We know Senna did 188mph through Tamburello on Lap 6 and 193mph on Lap 7.

We also know from video footage that Senna took a faster but bumpier line. This sent huge sparks flying from the rear of his car – evidence of “bottoming”. The largest plume appears as he left the third dark strip of resurfaced tarmac in the middle of Tamburello.

Throughout qualifying and practice, you can see Senna’s car “bottoming” through Tamburello much more than others.

The difference then was, he did not have Schumacher right up behind him, his car was not fat with fuel and he would not have had tyre temperature/pressure issues caused by an Opel Vectra.

In his 2016 autobiography, Hill said he applied greater caution than Senna through Tamburello after the safety car. Instead he preferred to wait for the optimal heat and temperatures in his tyres.

Hill also details the bumps at Tamburello explaining how he took a slower line than Senna to avoid the worst of them. Immediately following Senna’s crash Patrick Head, Williams Technical director stated:

“The car was set up the same as Hill’s. The two were identical for springs and settings, but the underside of Hill’s car is unmarked”.

Whereas there were suggestions the floor on Senna’s car was heavily worn.

Nigel Mansell’s Williams FW16 bottoming out, as indicated by the sparks emanating from the rear of the car. © Alastair Ladd

Is Tamburello Flat Out?

Furthermore, an unnamed driver suggested to Autosport magazine at the time that Tamburello wasn’t as easily flat out as people believed. Stating it was much more difficult with the passive suspension than the active ride used in 1993.

Admittedly quoting an unnamed driver isn’t the greatest source. However, Autosport magazine is known for its credibility.

Ex Formula One driver Jonathan Palmer said from his own experience of Tamburello:

“If the car is right, it’s actually not a real corner: it’s flat, foot down, you don’t really think about it….But if the car’s set up isn’t right – which includes cases where the car is bottoming out too much – the picture changes considerably.”

Also consider that crashes due to driver error on apparently easy flat corners do happen. Look at Kevin Magnussen’s crash at Eau Rouge in the 2016 Belgian Grand Prix as an example.

Alternative reasons why Senna crashed include a partial/total steering column failure, and a slow puncture from debris from the Lehto/Lamy startline crash causing the car to bottom out.

Another theory that the steering column getting ovaled enough to seize in the bushing and prevent the driver from steering is also very plausible.

Further Reading

Tamburello is a book which investigates all these theories and more in great detail to try and resolve this mystery.

The book is available for free and can be downloaded at; http://www.martinzustak.com/tamburello.html

Whilst my book is not about what caused Senna’s accident, it is well known that the triple Formula One Champion died believing that Schumacher’s Benetton was illegal. If there is any truth behind these accusations, then – out of respect to Senna – that truth must be known.

A new book entitled 1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season is a new book, which sheds light on hitherto unpublished facts & stories regarding that fateful year. It is available from Performance Publishing’s website where you can also read a free sample of the book. Alternatively, an audio book version of 1994: The Untold Story is now available for purchase from the below websites. In fact you can listen to it for free at Audiobooks.com or estories.com via their initial trial period: https://www.audiobooks.co.uk/audiobook/1994-the-untold-story-of-a-tragic-and-controversial-f1-season/380646

Images courtesy; of Alan Dahl, Alastair Ladd and Martin Zustak

 

 

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