On May 1, 25 years ago, Ayrton Senna had a fatal accident in Imola. ABMS and F1 Insider interviewed his physiotherapist Jo Leberer who remembered him as a very special person.
Remembering Ayrton Senna
“These memories are not very easy for me, because the weekend in Imola 20 years ago was like no other. Everything started with Barrichello’s crash (who was slightly injured). Ayrton went straight to the Medical Center and took care of his countryman. That had a real impact on him.
Also on Saturday, after Roland Ratzenberger’s deadly accident Ayrton immediately rushed with a Marshall to the scene of the accident and talked to the F1 medical doctor Sid Watkins. When he came back, he told me, “Roland is dead.” Ayrton was extremely tense at the moment, really under shock. He was also terribly annoyed that the local track guards sent him away arguing that’s none of his business. I have never seen him so angry and annoyed that he even said: “We risk our lives and they want to tell me what is dangerous.”
That evening, as always, we went to a restaurant. In the conversation, however, everything revolved around the accident. He couldn’t switch off at all. The fate of a colleague really had an impact on him. The whole discussion was about the meaning of life and racing. He didn’t even want to have his usual therapy. He just wanted to phone and talk to his family.
That didn’t surprise me. For many spectators, he was known as a reckless and hard-hitting racer. Yet, he wasn’t like that. When we drove around Brazil together and he saw the poverty in his own country, I could recognize that he didn’t just ignore it but that it mattered to him.
The Two Sides of Ayrton Senna
There was always this other side to him, next to that talented and ‘hungry for success’ persona. There was always this other person who was a justice fanatic, who fought for the poor. He never wanted to do it publicly because he didn’t feel he was powerful enough to really change something, yet.
Step by step he also wanted to develop himself there. Nevertheless, there had already been many initiatives like children’s hospitals, which he supported or unemployment groups and charities. But he never made a big fuss out of it.
It was like racing. He was a perfectionist. Always at the limit, on and on, on and on; that’s how he ticked. We have all seen what he meant to Brazil and what Brazil meant to him. His credo was: ‘Every two weeks I can make people happy by giving everything for them.’ That was authentic, not just meaningless sound bites. And this charisma, this aura and extreme strength reached people.
I still notice that today: Sometimes I am asked by Ferrari mechanics if they are allowed to touch me …
He always remained a restrained person but over the years he generally became calmer and a stronger personality. And he was able to admit mistakes. A very important trait. Without self-criticism, you can’t develop further. He always wanted to be able to look and see himself in the mirror.
My McLaren Days and My Friendship with Senna
I already worked with Ayrton at Lotus way back. Since 1988 I worked for McLaren. I was responsible for Prost’s and Senna’s fitness. That move was a jump into the cold water for me! I also cooked for the boys and even had my own research facility for cereals. Ayrton put a lot of emphasis on healthy eating.
Both were very correct. They never tried to take advantage of me politically. Though, Ayrton didn’t let a lot of people get close to him. In a way, he was always very suspicious of others. Our friendship just evolved over the years.
In 1988, in Rio de Janeiro, Alain Prost had a serious accident at the first race. He had extreme headaches, and he was all white and blue. I treated him then, intuitively what was possible at that time. With acupressure and what intuitively felt was the best for him. After that, I was totally drained and went to sleep. Later Prost called me and asked: “What did you do? I’m not in pain anymore, but I’m hungry!” He won the race that Sunday. A fantastic start in my new role. Senna, however, dropped out of the race.
In the evening my phone rang again. It was Ayrton that time, and he invited me for dinner with him and his friends – in Brazil of all places, where everyone would have queued just to see their superstar eat, let alone having dinner with him. And he asks me!
Here again, we can see this contrast between his forcefulness in the car and the sensitivity outside. He noticed that I paid attention to detail, and he was able to relax around me. Of course, there was the discretion part. Therefore, over time a relationship based on trust evolved.
The Fateful Sunday in Imola
Accordingly, I also noticed on Sunday how tense he was that weekend in Imola. Normally, we always drove together to the track. That time he took the helicopter. The whole morning was marked by what had happened the day before.
Then there was the discussion with Sid Watkins, who told him: “Let’s go fishing! Stop with Formula 1!” He also knew him well and recognized not all was well that day. Ayrton replied that he couldn’t do that, Formula 1 was his destiny.
In addition, there were problems with the Benetton team. Their tires behind the Safetycar were just too cold. Ayrton had already criticized that. Political problems in Formula 1 that simmered within him.
I don’t want to overdo it, but I sensed that something wasn’t normal that Sunday. On the grid he took the helmet off again, had a drink and looked at me. The crowd cheered for Gerhard Berger, who drove for Ferrari. Ayrton only grinned because he had a good relationship with Gerhard with whom he always enjoyed pranks together. That was the last time I saw Ayrton.
When I watched the accident on the screens, I knew immediately: ‘Now it’s over.’ I rushed out of the box and met Sid Watkins. He just looked at me without saying anything.
I was asked to console Ayrton’s brother in Bernie’s bus and after a while, we were flown to a hospital in Bologna. There they told us that the brain injuries were so severe that they couldn’t do anything – there wasn’t any hope.
I entered the hospital room one more time. It was an intense moment. You know every fiber of his body and then you see him hanging on all these machines. I tried to stop Gerhard Berger from entering the room as well, but he really wanted to see him again. He and I lost a good friend that day.
In the evening, all machines were turned off.
A Nation Stood Still
The family wanted me to accompany the coffin to Brazil and the following Tuesday we flew from Paris to Sao Paulo. It was a bizarre experience. The center rows of the Business Class were cleared for the coffin. The family didn’t want it to be transported in the cargo hold. Of course, the passengers in Economy didn’t have a clue. I remember, on the coffin was a Brazilian flag with a rose on it. During my eleven-hour flight, I had plenty of time to say goodbye to Ayrton.
When we entered Brazilian airspace, the sun rose and two jet fighters escorted the machine. I have to be careful now not to start crying. Just remembering it still moves me to this day.
The sympathies in Brazil were extreme. The people lined up along the roadside. Poor and rich, black and white, young and old. They came running next to us, kneeling, praying or applauding. A nation stood still. I’ve never experienced something like this before and never again. In the three days of mourning, there was no crime, no murders. Unimaginable at the time. For them hope died that day. For me a friend and a very special person.”
*This article was first published in German at autobild.de/motorsport.