Imola 1994: The last interview
Shortly before lunchtime on Sunday 1 May 1994, Williams commercial director Richard West conducted what he thought would be a routine interview with Ayrton Senna for Paddock Club VIPs. It would be the last time Senna spoke in public. Twenty years on, Richard shares that interview and tells his personal story of the time he spent with Senna leading up to that fateful Imola weekend
An unmarked package arrived at my home in late 2001. Inside it was a VHS video cassette with a yellow Post-it note inscribed: "You should see this - memories of a great man." I was busy at the time rebuilding the British Touring Car Championship, and I put the Jiffy bag in a filing cabinet and immediately forgot about it. Some years later, while clearing out my office, I was about to discard the package when I remembered the video. I decided to watch it and was amazed at what I saw.
Shot two hours before Ayrton Senna sat in a racing car for the very last time, the footage was of my Paddock Club interview with Senna and Damon Hill on the morning of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Many years passed before I contacted Bernie Ecclestone and sent him the tape. Kindly, he has granted permission for the content of that interview to be made public for the very first time, but to this day I still don't know who sent me the tape.
The San Marino GP at Imola was always my favourite race of the year. It was the beginning of the European season and the motorhomes had returned to that beautiful, cramped paddock. It was all very Italian, with the pizzeria down the road, lots of pretty girls and great wine. There were the church bells that woke you up on a Sunday morning, just audible above the barking dogs and the raised voices of women rousing their husbands in the distance...
...When I first worked with Ayrton at McLaren in 1988, one weekend that stood out was Monaco. If you recall, he simply demolished Alain Prost in qualifying. After the session, I had a big sponsor event and located Ayrton to ask him if he was ready to come and speak on the VIP boat in the harbour.
He said: "I'm not doing it. I've done what I need to do today and I'm not getting in a boat to talk to a bunch of people when I don't need to. Take Alain instead." Of course when Alain learned Ayrton wasn't going, he didn't want to go either. I asked Ron Dennis to intervene, and his response was: "I can't make them do it."
Suddenly, I was aware we had a new force in our midst, and from that point on I had to treat Ayrton in a different way. It didn't put a rift between us, but it shocked me a bit. This guy knew exactly what he wanted and what he was prepared to do, and he didn't go one step beyond it. Once you understood that, dealing with him became much easier.
With that past experience in mind, we had a sponsor event planned for the Sunday morning at Imola, and, given everything that had already happened, I doubted he would attend. I made a point of asking him early that Sunday morning. He asked who would be there, how many people were going and whether he was really needed. I said yes, and in return he asked me to keep the appearance short and to the point.
When he arrived at the Paddock Club marquee behind the pits, he was wearing his race overalls tied casually around his waist, his Senninha T-shirt and his obligatory blue cap, of course. Damon was wearing white chinos and a white polo shirt and his blue Rothmans cap.
One of my roles in the team was to inform the guests about the weekend's event and I had been doing this for the 40 or so guests present for ten minutes when Ayrton and Damon arrived at the Paddock Club. As Ayrton ushers Damon towards me, you see on the video that he squeezes his shoulder as if to say, 'We'll get through this, it won't take long.' It's a short interview, but incredibly poignant, and it was lost until now...