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'Ayrton Senna was reluctant to race at San Marino Grand Prix'

F1 legend's former press officer Betise Head pays tribute to the Brazilian's will to win on his 20th death anniversary

Ayrton Senna's Williams was cruising at 307km/h after regaining the lead on Lap 7 of the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1, 1994. As Senna approached Tamburello corner, his car veered off the track and hit the concrete wall at 250km/h.

Ayrton Senna waves from a podium after winning the Belgian Grand Prix in 1989. Pic/Getty Images
Ayrton Senna waves from a podium after winning the Belgian Grand Prix in 1989. Pic/Getty Images 

Immediately, the alarm bells went off as the 34-year-old didn't move despite receiving first-aid on the spot and then being airlifted to Maggiore Hospital in Bologna. He was later pronounced dead at 6.40 pm local time.

It has been exactly 20 years since that fateful day — a day that is etched vividly in the mind of Betise Assumpcao Head, Senna's press officer at the time.

She was in the trackside media-room when Senna's car hit the wall and as she made her way to the sidelines, she expected Senna to be in a foul mood over the car's poor handling.

What she eventually saw was much worse — the Williams crew was huddled around the monitors witnessing desperate attempts to revive the three-time World Champion.

Betise Head
Betise Head 

"He was not in a very good mood (going into the San Marino GP). He was under immense pressure after two races and zero points," Head told mid-day in an e-mail interview.

However, Head said that the driver was not one to give up easily. "I believe his will to win came from within. He simply raced to win," she said.

Reluctance to race
It was this will that seemed to overcome Senna's initial reluctance to race in the San Marino GP after the race weekend witnessed Rubens Barrichello being knocked unconscious during the first Qualifying session and Roland Ratzenberger's death in the second Qualifying session.

Head, who worked for Senna for four years, said: "Ayrton was very shaken by Ratzenberger's death and decided not to take part in the Qualifying. But as time went past, he went to the hotel, talked to friends, calmed himself down and decided to race. That is what he did for a living… that was his passion.

Worried about safety
"He felt very sad and worried about safety. Ayrton planned to get the drivers to meet in the following race — Monaco Grand Prix, to start working on improving car and circuit safety."

After the accident, a devastated Head returned to Senna's native Brazil. "It was a very difficult time (for me). I was quite numb for a while and just got on with life. I dreamed quite often about him for a few years and I also had a few health issues. Not to mention the fact that I lost my friend, my boss, my job and my status," she added.

For his peers, Senna was an outspoken individual, a leader and considered one of the best drivers who aspired to win even if it involved taking risks.

Twenty years on, F1 is a much safer sport. But for Head, the sport has no lure. "I don't watch Formula One any longer. I was never a huge fan of the sport but thoroughly enjoyed working for Ayrton. Being there, following what was going on and being part of it is fascinating, but watching on TV is tedious," she signed off.

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