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Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso pay tribute to their 'hero', Ayrton Senna

Modern champions acknowledge legacy of Brazilian great 20 years after his tragic death

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 10:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 10:05pm

Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have paid emotional tributes to Ayrton Senna on the 20th anniversary of the death of the maverick Brazilian superstar and three-time world champion.

Senna, widely regarded as the greatest racing driver of all time, died when his car careered off the Imola track in the early stages of the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1, 1994. He was 34 years old.

It was Formula One's blackest weekend - it also saw Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger killed and Senna's compatriot Rubens Barrichello injured.

You like to think that one day you may be recognised as someone that was able to drive similarly to him
Lewis Hamilton

"When I was a kid I had all the books, all the videos, he was the driver I looked up to," said Hamilton, who was just nine at the time of Senna's death.

"He inspired me to be a driver and on the day of his passing, his death was... I went off to a quiet place and it was very difficult for several days ... your hero's gone."

Senna, the outspoken world champion of 1988, 1990 and 1991, was leading in San Marino on lap seven when his Williams car veered spectacularly off the racing line at 307km/h at the Tamburello corner and straight into a concrete wall.

He received emergency treatment at the scene before being airlifted to Bologna hospital where he was later declared dead.

"He was an incredible legend. You like to think that one day you may be recognised as someone that was able to drive similarly to him," added Hamilton, the 2008 world champion.

Alonso, the 2005 and 2006 world champion, was 12 when Senna was killed and the Spaniard vividly recalls the tragedy.

"On my schoolbooks I didn't have pictures of girls; I had Ayrton there and the same in my room," said the Ferrari star.

"Even my first go-karts were in the colours of Ayrton's McLaren. It was a very sad moment."

Senna himself admitted he feared for his safety in the 1994 season after a series of technical changes were made to a sport, which had not seen a fatality since Riccardo Paletti was killed in Canada 12 years earlier.

On the Friday of the racing weekend, Barrichello's Jordan hit a kerb at the Variante Bassa corner at 225km/h, causing the car to barrel-roll and knocking him unconscious. Barrichello suffered a broken nose and arm.

Worse was to follow in qualifying on the Saturday when Ratzenberger smashed into a concrete wall after his Simtek car failed to negotiate the Villeneuve curva. The Austrian died in hospital from multiple injuries.

The race started in dramatic circumstances when the cars of JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy collided on the grid, spewing debris into the grandstands and injuring a number of spectators.

The safety car was summoned to clear the track, fatally cooling the tyres of Senna and the chasing pack as they waited to be released. Minutes later, the legendary driver suffered the accident, which killed him and changed the sport forever.

Senna's death led to a raft of changes to improve safety in the sport. Engine capacities were reduced and tethers to help prevent wheels flying off following accidents were introduced.

The HANS device to protect drivers' heads and necks were made compulsory, and run-offs were extended and improved.

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