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Ayrton Senna more than just an F1 driver to Brazilians

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The dashing Ayrton Senna was a major star who left a lasting legacy in Formula One.

SAO PAULO (AP) -- Brazil's adoration of Ayrton Senna transcends sports. It's something only someone like Pele can relate to in the country of soccer.

When hundreds of thousands of people lined up for hours to take a final glimpse of Senna's body before his funeral, they were paying tribute to more than a three-time Formula One champion.

To Brazilians, Senna was more than a sports idol. He personified pride and patriotism.

Every time he pulled the country's green-and-yellow flag to celebrate his victories on the track, Brazilians rejoiced back home.

At a time when Brazil's national soccer team had few victories to celebrate and the country was beset by political and economic turmoil, Senna gave Brazilians reason to cheer.

"He was the Brazilian who made it," said Galvao Bueno, the voice of F1 in Brazilian television and Senna's close friend. "He was the Brazilian who went abroad and did better than the Europeans."

Senna's death at the San Marino Grand Prix 20 years ago did more than shock the country. It dealt a blow to a generation of Brazilians that woke up on Sundays expecting to hear Brazil's national anthem after another Senna victory.

"His determination, perfectionism, sense of justice and patriotism made Ayrton a very special person to Brazilians," said Bruno Senna, who was 10 when his uncle died in a crash on May 1, 1994.

"There is this nostalgia and unforgettable memories of his great overtaking maneuvers, great races and great qualifying runs," said Bruno, who also became a race driver and briefly drove for the same Williams team that his uncle was driving for when he died. "But there's also the legacy of his personality away from the track. He was successful in the sport but at the same time was able to transcend that to become an example of life principles."

What happened in the days following Senna's death underscored what he meant to the nation. The Brazilian government declared three days of mourning and said it would give Senna the same honor as heads of states.

At a decisive soccer match, just after news of his death started spreading, nearly 60,000 fans started chanting, "Ole, ole, ole, ole, Senna, Senna." The tribute came even though Senna was an avid Corinthians fan and the teams playing that afternoon were Palmeiras and Sao Paulo.

When his body arrived from Italy, authorities estimated that more than a million people lined the streets of Sao Paulo. Senna's coffin was transported on top of a firetruck draped with the Brazilian flag. Television channels were broadcasting live as fans sobbed, waved flags and tossed flowers as the truck went by. Thousands of cars followed behind, honking horns.

During Senna's memorial services, more than 200,000 people lined up for hours to spend about 10 seconds in front of the coffin. Many celebrities, sports figures and top government officials attended the services, including then-Brazilian President Itamar Franco.

About 250,000 people followed the procession that took Senna's body to a cemetery, where his coffin was carried by drivers Ruben Barrichello, Gerhard Berger, Damon Hill, Alain Prost, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jackie Stewart, among others.

A Brazilian sports channel will mark the 20th anniversary of Senna's death on Thursday by airing nine of his greatest races. The first victory, with a Lotus at the 1985 Portuguese GP, will be broadcast as will his title-clinching race with McLaren at the 1998 Japanese GP.

Senna's first victory at home, in 1991, was just as special to Senna as it was to Brazilians who packed the Interlagos track year after year to see their idol. Senna had come close to triumph at the Brazilian GP several times and finally came through after overcoming a faulty gearbox late in the race. Fans invaded the track and swarmed Senna's McLaren to celebrate.

The first time Senna used the Brazilian flag to celebrate inside his car was at the 1986 U.S. GP in Detroit. He stopped after crossing the finish line and asked a steward to give him the flag from a fan. The gesture was especially meaningful because it happened the day after Brazil's national team lost to France in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Mexico.

As Brazilians were grieving yet another soccer defeat, Senna eased their disappointment. It was something that happened many times after that. Brazil went without a World Cup from 1970 until shortly after Senna's death in 1994.

When Brazil failed on the field, it was Senna and his trademark celebration who gave Brazilians a reason to be proud. No wonder Senna remains on par with Pele when Brazilians talk about the country's greatest sports idols.

To Brazilians, there's no one like Pele. Just as there won't ever be anyone like Senna.

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His legacy

The deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 were the last driver fatalities in Formula One, due largely to the safety review prompted by their deaths and ongoing measures to reduce the almost annual incidence of such tragedies in the series.

Here are the main F1 safety measures enacted since that time:

HEAD AND NECK SUPPORT

Senna died due to head injuries, and protection of the head and neck is the principal safety priority, as it is those traumas which are the most likely to cause death in the short time before on-track medical personnel can attend. Helmets are subject to testing to ensure they can withstand heavy impacts. The modern helmets are made of carbon fiber, Kevlar and polyethylene, and are fire resistant. The visor has removable strips which can be torn off if debris or liquid gets onto it, so the driver can retain a clear view. In 2003, F1 made compulsory the Head and Neck Support (HANS). The device, attached to the rear of the helmet and resting on the driver's shoulders, is connected to the interior of the cockpit adjacent to the safety-belt mounting. It prevents rapid and excessive head movement during accidents.

MAKING THE CARS SAFER

F1 cars are safer now than they have ever been, able to withstand extremely powerful impacts. Robert Kubica's terrifying crash at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2007 was evidence of just how much the cars can withstand. The Pole sustained only minor injuries from a collision with a trackside wall that was heavier in impact than Senna's at Imola. Most focus has been on the literally named "survival cell," which is the area in front of the engine and surrounding the driver. Made of light but very strong carbon fiber, they are designed to resist both impacts and penetration by the sharp debris created in accidents. The opening of the cockpit has also been forcibly increased in recent years, to prevent drivers being trapped inside during fires, and enable safer and easier removal of injured drivers. Crash tests have been made more rigorous, showing cars can withstand impacts from all directions. Tethers prevent wheels detaching during accidents to protect other cars, trackside marshalls and spectators. Another key change has been the switch away from the old metal fuel tanks to hi-tech rubber-coated, fiber tanks which are much less likely to rupture in a crash, and therefore prevent fires.

EMERGENCY MEDICINE

Prof. Sid Watkins was the on-course doctor at the San Marino GP in 1994, and performed an emergency tracheotomy on Senna at trackside. It was a particularly tragic moment for Watkins, as he was a close friend of Senna, and he had done more to improve the series' safety than any person since entering F1 in the 1970s. It was at his insistence that many of the post-Senna medical improvements were made. The medical cars, with paramedics on board, are stationed around the circuits and can reach the site of any crash within 30 seconds. The state-of-the-art trackside medical center has a surgeon and other staff on site, and there are helicopters at every race to transport seriously injured drivers and personnel to nearby hospitals. F1 says there are an average of 130 medical staff at each race.

TRACK DESIGN

Gone are the days of straw bales and, for the most part, concrete walls on the edge of tracks. Modern circuit design puts a premium on safety. With the exception of Singapore's Marina Bay, which has the inherent restrictions of all street circuits, the new tracks designed since the 1990s have generous run-off areas at high-speed corners, unlike the Tamburello bend at Imola where Senna lost his life. The efficacy of trackside barriers has been greatly increased, and they are able to absorb most of the energy of a car crashing at high speed. Among the other trackside measures is the introduction of the safety car to slow the field while the scene of an accident is cleared or a stricken car removed. Pit lane speed limits have also been introduced and progressively lowered to prevent racing in an area full of team crews and trackside personnel.

SLOW PROGRESS

The relative safety of F1 compared to the past has evolved only slowly. It is staggering to the modern fan to realize how lax safety standards were in past eras. Helmets became compulsory only in 1953, fireproof overalls were first introduced in 1963, and seatbelts in 1972. Crash tests to show the cars can withstand impacts were introduced only in 1985. Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart was a strong advocate in the 1970s for improving safety standards, and his work, along with that of Sid Watkins, and the tragedies of Imola 1994 have vastly improved the series.

Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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