Sebastian Vettel Drives Ayrton Senna's McLaren In Tearjerker Tribute At Imola

Screenshot: Formula One
Screenshot: Formula One

McLaren has previously called its 1993 MP4/8 “one of the best cars we ever made.” And while Ayrton Senna didn’t win the championship that season, losing to Alain Prost five wins to seven, it was seriously fast. It was also the last chassis to carry Senna to a race victory, winning the season-closing Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. This year marks the thirtieth since Senna died in a crash at the Tamburello corner during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Retired four-time champion Sebastian Vettel took to the track in Senna’s McLaren (which Vettel owns) as a tribute to the champ, and to complete some unfinished business.

You can watch the full tribute here, as F1 doesn’t allow its YouTube videos to embed. Or you can watch this clip of the drive below.

Way back in 1994, during qualifying for that same GP, Austrian rookie driver Roland Ratzenberger tragically and fatally crashed his Simtek. The following day an Austrian flag was found in the wrecked cockpit of Ayrton Senna’s Williams race car. The Brazillian champion had intended to unfurl the flag on his cooldown lap following the Grand Prix, and hopefully a race victory, in his own tribute to the dead 33-year-old Ratzenberger. During this weekend’s demo run of Senna’s McLaren at the track where the two lost their lives, Vettel pulled out a Brazilian flag first, and followed it shortly with an Austrian flag.


That deadly race weekend three decades ago completely changed the sport of Formula One, ushering it into a much safer era. Losing Ratzenberger, a driver in just his third Grand Prix, might have been easier to overlook for the sport, but the death of Senna sent the sobering shockwaves that the organizers probably needed to see that change was necessary.

“Obviously, the Brazilian flag was clear, because it was something that he used to do after the races,” Vettel explained. “But I know the same story. I was thinking about it, whether it’s the right thing to try and finish the job. I don’t think it will ever be finished, it’s not about finishing, but trying to just make people remember. It felt very special when I got the flag out and very special when I got both of them out. It was a very special and very meaningful weekend for me.”

“It’s difficult to put in words, I think it was one of the strongest emotions I felt behind the wheel despite being alone on track and not even racing. Incredible. When I got the flags out, the people... it was so powerful.

“I’m happy that I had the courage to address my idea and invite the Senna family. And I only got positive feedback. The compassion he had, the courage he had to speak his mind. Pushing education, trying to fight poverty in his country. In many ways, he was ahead of the game as a person of that time, but also as a racing driver in particular. And therefore it’s a very important and powerful story to share, especially with young drivers coming up.”

As he aged Vettel certainly began showing signs of using his station in life to affect change for those who need it. In recent years he has adopted climate and environmental policy as his motivating force, pushing efforts to save the bee population, development of carbon-neutral fuels (which he used in the MP4/8 for this run), and cleaning up air, water, and ground alike. If Senna, who died when Vettel was six years old, proved inspiration for these efforts, events like this must feel so much more powerful. I, for one, hope Vettel’s efforts are still inspiring young drivers in thirty years time.

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