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Senna: Imola remembers, 20 years on

2014-04-25 04:28

AYRTON SENNA: It's 20 years since the now immortalised Formula 1 driver was killed at Imola and the village near the track is preparing for a flood of fans.

ISLA BINNIE

IMOLA, Italy - Twenty years after Ayrton Senna died at Imola's race track the town is gearing up to honour the Formula 1 driver it remembers as much for his charity and charisma as for his three F1 championship wins.

Memories of the great Brazilian are still clear in the minds of many people in the northern Italian town where five days of events to commemorate the anniversary will start on April 30.

Bar owner Gianni Mezzetti, 56, founder of the Barrichello Fans Club named after Senna's compatriot and former Ferrari driver Rubens, said: "I remember it like it was yesterday. I cried for a week."

DEVOUT CATHOLIC

Mezzetti and other Imola residents recalled how Senna, every time he came to the town, visited a young fan who had been paralysed in an accident; the owner of the hotel where the driver stayed said Senna always gave race tickets to the staff.

The May 1 death of Senna, the last driver to die during an F1 race, and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger who was killed the day before, sent shock waves through the motor-racing world and led to sweeping changes to safety regulations.

How South African motoring writer EGMONT SIPPEL remembered Senna on the 15th anniversary of the F1 driver's death.


Senna was a devout Catholic who took solace from the Bible and donated significant sums to helping the under-privileged in his homeland but he was also a fierce competitor and outspoken critic of his rivals.

Spats with other drivers, notably team mate and rival Alain Prost, were well publicised during and in the 2010 documentary 'Senna', by Asif Kapadia, which will be shown during the remembrance week.

The day Senna grabbed F1's attention
Ratzenberger: Gone, but never forgotten
Dennis: 'I miss the fun with Ayrton'

In Imola, whose circuit is named after the late Ferrari founder Enzo and his son Dino, they prefer to remember the champion for his humility rather than for any track controversies.

'HE WAS A MODEST GUY'

Don Sergio Mantovani, known in Italy as "the Pilots' Priest" because of his close relationship with the drivers, said: "He was a modest guy who drove because it was his passion but he never forgot the final finish line."

Even in a Ferrari-mad town with close ties to Maranello, Senna - who never drove for the Italian team and won all his titles and most of his races in a McLaren - was a hero, recognised the world over.

Retired market trader Oliviero Lanzoni, 63, recalled: "He was really admired, even by Ferrari fans, and most of us here are Ferraristi. He was respected for more than his victories,as a person. And, dying as he did, he became a legend."

Senna won three times at the circuit - 1988, 1989 and 1991 - but kept a kept a lower profile than some of his flashier colleagues. Maria Pia Rocca, general secretary at  Formula Imola (which manages the track) said: "He was unusual. I remember seeing him shopping alone in the supermarket here."

Senna died when his Williams car crashed into a concrete wall at the flat-
out Tamburello corner after leaving the track at around 310km/h. Sid Watkins, the late F1 doctor and eminent neuro-surgeon who, in the medical car, was one of the first to reach the stricken driver, recalled the scene.

'HIS SOUL DEPARTED AT THAT MOMENT'

He wrote in his book 'Life at the Limit': "He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did he sighed and, though I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment."

Fans still pin flowers and hand-written notes on the fence and a statue has been erected in a park next to the track to honour a man whose funeral in Sao Paulo brought an estimated million people into the streets.

Organisers hope the anniversary events will bring people back to the track; it disappeared from the F1 calendar in 2006 but still hosts the World Superbike championship.

Flags from Scotland and Brazil left at the site are testament to the people who come from all over the world to pay homage to their hero but the days when hordes of racing fans descended on the cirucit are gone.

Mariella Mengozzi, in charge of co-ordinating the commemorative events for the website formulapassion.it, said: "We are celebrating Senna and Ratzenberger but also reviving the circuit."

ENGINEERS TO MEET

The track layout was changed after Senna's death as controversy whirled about the crash which saw team owner Frank Williams, technical director Patrick Head and former designer Adrian Newey go on trial in Italy.

All were eventually cleared. Williams, now 72, is still principal of his team and Newey is with 2013 champion team Red Bull.

Engineers will on April 30 discuss at the track the evolution of safety in F1 as part of unceasing efforts since Senna's death.

Luisa Tosoni, owner of the hotel in Castel San Pietro Terme some 10km from Imola where Senna spent his last night alive, remembered: "After him there have been no more super-champions, no one that left a mark like he did."

The room in which Senna always stayed will be open to the public on April

30. Tosoni said: "He was a champion on the track but above all he was a champion in life. He was compassionate, had a unique rapport with people, and always helped anyone who was in difficulty."
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