Following last weeks look at the motor racing legend that was Jimmy Clark, this week we take a look at Ayrton Senna. Senna is the forth motor racing legend in this series and started life in Brazil. His tragic end at the San Marino Grand Prix left a resounding mark on Formula one racing.
Born 21st March 1960 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Ayrton Senna da Silva was the son of a wealthy Brazilian landowner. He started his life fascinated with cars, from a very young age he showed signs of his future career. Senna was diagnosed early on as having motor coordination difficulties, something which his father (also a motor racing fan) sought to improve when he brought Senna a 1hp (one horsepower) kart at the age of four! It is said that from then on he became a different boy, less awkward with more focus and great bursts of confidence which was to become somewhat of a Senna trademark later in his life.
Spurred on by Ayrton’s previous success with the 1hp kart his father purchased a full size kart (100cc) for the young Senna, which allowed him to further hone his ability’s. As soon as he was legally allowed (thirteen years old) Senna was entering kart racing competitions and won the South American Kart Championship in 1977. Proceeding to enter in the World Karting Championship, although he never accomplished more than the runner-up spot.
In 1981 Ayrton moved to England with his 19 year old wife Liliane Vasconcelos. He adopted his mothers name ‘Senna’, as “da Silva” had been very common in Brazil. They lived together in a rented bungalow near Snetterton. That very same year Senna won the British Formula Ford 1600 Championship for Ralph Firman and the Van Diemen Team.
Unfortunately to continue to stay racing and in England Senna required sponsorship, but with several up and coming Brazilian drivers already featuring in the higher Formulas Senna was unable to find sponsorship. Announcing his retirement he returned home to Brazil to work for his father.
After just four months at home Senna was longing for a racing career again and made the decision to return to motor racing. Liliane, having been brought up in a life of luxury and knowing that with his absolute passion for racing and focus for the sport decided that life would be a struggle with Senna. Refusing to follow Senna into racing once again they agreed to mutually separate, with the marriage ending in less than a year.
Senna got sponsorship (from his father and a Brazilian bank) in 1982 and returned for another year of racing. Joining the Russel Green Racing Team he entered the British Formula Ford 1600 Championship, winning it with a total of 22 wins. Senna also won the European Formula Ford 2000 Championship in the same year!
Senna did not stop there, progressing to British Formula 3 Championships, where he joined West Surrey Racing. Senna had been made a pre-season favourite for winning along with Martin Brundle and the competition was tough between the two drivers. After a tough fight for championship points it was to be that the Championship would be decided by the final race at Thruxton. Prior to the race Senna had his engine rebuilt and tuned by Novamotor, which seemed to give Senna the winning advantage as he went on to take Pole Position, the race and the Championship.
The conclusion of the season was at the Macau Grand Prix with drivers from each of the national series competing. Senna won, opening up serious opportunity for him to enter Formula one with a number of teams.
Given the choice Senna would have gone to Brabham but unfortunately Nelson Piquet, Brabham’s then leading driver, vetoed such a move. This meant Senna was left with the single choice of Toleman Hart. A classic example of the politics behind Formula one, Senna noted this and learned never to allow himself to be left outside the negotiations again.
From this move for the following ten years Senna was a force to be reckoned with in Formula one, driving for Lotus, McLaren and Williams. Senna managed a total of 41 wins starting with his first in 1985 (Portugal.)
Tragically Senna’s last race was the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. A disastrous weekend of racing that many will never forget. During the Friday afternoon’s practice Ruben Barrichello’s car was launched onto the tyre wall, with enough force to keep him out of the race on Sunday. Saturday saw disaster as Senna’s young friend Roland Ratzenberger was killed during his practice. Upsetting Senna incredibly, the following morning before the race he began to talk to all of the other drivers, arranging a safety meeting. Furthermore he accepted the role of leader in an effort to establish a drivers safety group. Senna even went to his rival Alain Prost, apologising for his manoeuvre that took the championship from him.
The race was just as disastrous, beginning with a crash between JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy ensuring that the safety car was out for several laps. Just two laps after resumed racing Senna left the track on the corner known as ‘Tamburello’. The race was red-flagged as medics and race marshals rushed to the track side, attempting to revive the young racing driver. A helicopter was called in to take him to hospital and the race restarted. No-one at this point was aware of the severity of Senna’s condition. Within hours it was announced on television that Ayrton Senna was on a life support machine, not capable of making a recovery. His parents rushed to the hospital, taking the advice from the doctors they then agreed to remove Senna’s life support. Ayrton Senna, the motor racing legend died at the young age of 34 years. Brazil immediately began to mourn its famous racing drivers death.
Senna was truly a motor racing legend, who had stopped mid race on numerous occasions to help other drivers who had encountered crashes. It was announced after his death that he had secretly donated millions of pounds over the years to children’s charities. His family started the Ayrton Senna Foundation to carry on this good work.