IMOLA, Italy (Reuters) - Twenty years after Ayrton Senna died at Imola’s race track, the town is gearing up to honor a Formula One driver it remembers as much for his charity and charisma as his three world championship wins.
Memories of the great Brazilian are still clear in the minds of many in the northern Italian town where five days of events to commemorate the anniversary begin on April 30.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I cried for a week,” said bar owner Gianni Mezzetti, 56, founder of the Barrichello Fans Club named after Senna’s compatriot and former Ferrari driver Rubens.
Mezzetti and other Imola residents recalled how Senna visited a young fan paralyzed in an accident every time he came to the town, and the owner of the hotel where he stayed said he always gave race tickets to staff.
The May 1 death of Senna, the last driver killed during a Formula One race, and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger the day before sent shockwaves through the motor racing world and led to sweeping changes to safety regulations.
A devout Catholic, who took solace from the Bible and donated significant sums to helping the under-privileged in his homeland during his career, Senna was nonetheless a fierce competitor and outspoken critic of his rivals.
Spats with other drivers, and notably team mate and rival Alain Prost, were well publicized during his life and in the 2010 documentary ‘Senna’ by Asif Kapadia which will be shown during the celebrations.
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, who drove because it was his passion but he never forgot the final finish line,” said Don Sergio Mantovani, known in Italy as the “Pilots’ Priest” for his close relationship with the drivers.
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, recognized the world over.
“He was really admired even by Ferrari fans, and most of us here are Ferraristi. He was respected for more than his victories, also as a person. And dying like that, he became a legend,” said retired market trader Oliviero Lanzoni, 63.
Senna won three times at the circuit - in 1988, 1989 and 1991 - but kept a lower profile than some of his flashier colleagues.
“He was unusual. I remember seeing him shopping alone in the supermarket here,” said Maria Pia Rocca, secretary general of Formula Imola, which manages the track.
Senna died when his Williams car crashed into a concrete wall at the flat-out Tamburello corner after leaving the track at around 310kph.
Professor Sid Watkins, the late Formula One doctor and eminent neurosurgeon who was in the medical car and one of the first to reach the stricken driver, recalled the scene.
“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,” he wrote in his book ‘Life at the Limit’.
“As we did, he sighed and, though I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul departed at that moment.”
Fans still pin flowers and handwritten notes to the fence while a statue has been erected in a park next to the track as a lasting tribute to a man whose funeral in Sao Paulo brought an estimated million people out onto the streets.
Organizers hope the anniversary events will bring people back to the track, which disappeared from the Formula One calendar in 2006 but still hosts the superbike world 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 circuit are gone.
“We are celebrating Senna and Ratzenberger, but also reviving the circuit,” said Mariella Mengozzi, who is in charge of coordinating the commemorative events for formulapassion.it.
The track layout was changed after Senna’s death, amid controversy surrounding the incident 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 champions Red Bull.
Engineers will discuss the evolution of safety in Formula One at the track on April 30 as part of unceasing efforts since Senna’s death.
“After him there have been no more super-champions, no one that left a mark like he did,” said Luisa Tosoni, owner of the hotel in Castel San Pietro Terme some 10km from Imola where Senna spent his last night.
The room the Brazilian always stayed in will be open to the public on April 30.
“He was a champion on the track but above all he was a champion in life,” said Tosoni. “He was compassionate, had a unique rapport with people and always helped anyone who was in difficulty.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin