I never met Ayrton Senna. I never even saw him drive in the flesh. And so I’m afraid that this article will give you no amazing new insight into him as a person or as a racing driver on the 20th anniversary of his passing. But May 1st 1994 changed my life forever, and would come to influence every day of my life that followed.
In 1994 I was a 13 year old chorister at Worcester Cathedral. As such, Sundays were always busy; Eucharist in the morning, home for Sunday lunch, then back to the Cathedral for Evensong. I sung so many times and for so many years in that magnificent place of worship that, over 20 years later, it has all pretty much merged into one. Except for that one Mayday.
I remember leaving the house to go and sing Evensong, wondering whether my hero was alive or dead. I asked the Precentor to say a prayer for him that evening, as I had that morning at Eucharist in memory of Roland. But walking through the front door at home that evening, my Father turned on the television just as the evening news was starting.
I ran to my room, slammed the door and cried.
Nobody at school the next day understood why I was so upset. I was pretty much the only kid in my class that loved Formula 1. Most of the other boys liked football and footballers simply didn’t just drop down dead. There was no reference point. To some, it was just a joke.
“What’s the difference between Ryan Giggs and Ayrton Senna?”
“Ryan Giggs can take a corner.”
I was a small, skinny, weedy child. Well behaved. In the choir. Never got into fights.
It was the only time in my life I ever punched anyone in the face.
That week, Dad bought me Motoring News and Autosport. My first copies of both publications. In their pages I found the solace for which I had searched so desperately. In the journalists and their writing, I found people just like me, people trying to make sense of the tragedy, people grieving. It helped me come to terms with the mortality of a man I had always seen as immortal. And it made me certain of what I wanted to do with my life.
I wanted to write those words. I wanted to let the geeky kid at school whose friends didn’t understand why he loved racing cars and racing drivers know that he wasn’t alone. I wanted to tell kids just like me why racing was cool. I wanted to help them understand, as those journalists had done for me.
Ayrton’s death, while devastating for me as a 13 year old, had given me purpose and a dream.
It was a dream I was to realise eight years later, whilst still at University, when I got my first gig writing for Joe Saward at GrandPrix.com. On graduation, David Tremayne employed me at Formula 1 Magazine. When the magazine was closed down with a few days to go until the start of the 2004 season, my parents lent me some money to buy a campervan, and I embarked on the European tour as a freelancer.
The first race was Imola.
Ten years on from that fateful weekend, and ten years on from the birth of my own personal dream, I was at my first race as an independent journalist. The fact it was Imola simply seemed like fate. Before I had even visited the media centre, I walked to the Senna memorial to pay my respects. Every race weekend I attended in 2004, I wore a red and white striped shirt on the Saturday and a yellow shirt with green and blue pin stripes on Sunday. One for Roland and one for Ayrton.
As the years went on, my job role in motorsport changed and I moved to GP2 as press officer. And it was in that job, one evening of a winter test session at Jerez, that I got talking to a confident and beautiful brunette in the hotel bar. She had an eerily familiar face and the most incredibly magnetic personality. We consumed a bottle of 18 year old malt and talked about her Uncle Ayrton until the early hours of the morning and the hotel kicked us out.
Bianca and Bruno Senna are two of the nicest people I’ve ever met in racing. With so much expectation and pressure on them, so many people wanting a piece of them, their time, their history, I have always been staggered by their humility. They’re never too busy to stop and talk. Bruno, even on the way to the grid or to qualify, would always stop for a photo, to sign autographs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn away a request.
But of course, this was a career which Viviane, Bruno’s mother, never wanted for her son. I vividly remember Bruno explaining how he would creep downstairs in the middle of the night to watch F1 races with the sound turned down. After her brother, and tragically her husband, Bruno’s father, just a few years later had passed, Viviane couldn’t bear the thought of her son going and doing something dangerous. But racing was in his blood. When he broke his ribs karting in secret, Viviane phoned her old friend Gerhard Berger and begged him to do something about it.
And so it was that Bruno was to get his first test in single seaters.
Not what Viviane had meant at all. And Gerhard knew it.
I will never forget her face after Bruno had retired after hitting a dog at speed in the 2008 Turkish GP2 race. Freakish misfortune, obliterated right front wheel bouncing back towards the cockpit thankfully now held on by the very tethers brought in post-94… it was all too much. She sat at the back of the garage all alone, eyes fixed on an imaginary point far in the distance… trancelike, dazed… lost. A few idiot journalists were trying to get her to talk. They knew where her mind was taking her and the vultures wanted that Red Top headline quote. Her face was haunting. And haunted.
Of course, Bruno had always raced with the spectre of Ayrton hanging over him. That famous quote from his Uncle about how if we thought he was good we should see his nephew, only served to make things harder. How could he ever live up to that kind of billing? But Ayrton believed in Bruno, and he had good reason to, because it was Ayrton who had taught Bruno to race. On his own private go-kart track.
When Bruno finally graduated to Formula 1, he, Bianca and I talked about doing a book. Sadly, nobody was commissioning anything back then. Even a book on Jenson, who’d just won the championship, was a hard enough sell. In the end, we decided to do a feature story for F1 Racing magazine. And so it was that, in January 2010, I visited Sao Paulo as a guest of the Sennas. We drove for hours, to the outskirts of the city of Tatui and turned off down dirt tracks and through farmland to a place I had only ever seen in photographs. The number of journalists to have visited this place before could be counted on one hand. This wasn’t just anywhere. This was Ayrton’s home.
The day will stay with me forever, and there were some immensely special moments. A few of which I’ll share.
We found an old bag, a mustard coloured holdall with maroon trim sitting on a shelf, its zips rusted shut, the colours dulled by a thick layer of dust. Stuck to the centre panel was a blue and white Japan Airways label, whose edges had curled over time. Its ownership was still visible, scrawled in blue ballpoint: “A. Senna – Suzuka International Hotel.”
“Shall we see what’s inside?” Bruno grinned. “I bet it hasn’t been opened since…”
He paused, suddenly realising the words he’d need to finish that sentence. We both knew the bag probably hadn’t been opened since its owner closed it himself for the last time 16 years previously.
“Typical Ayrton,” Bruno laughed, pulling it open. “It’s full of go-kart engines!”
Ayrton’s home today still operates as a working farm. But the part Bruno and I had come to see and reminisce over, hadn’t been used in almost two decades.
The go-kart track is covered with a thick layer of dirt. It would take a lot of cleaning up to get it ready for competition today, but you can get the gist of what made Ayrton tick as a racer from its layout. Every corner is different, tricky cambers, and all incredibly fast. We walked the track and then got to drive it, albeit in a minivan.
This was where Bruno received tutelage from arguably the greatest racing driver that ever lived… but to Bruno, he was just Uncle Ayrton. As we stood around chatting, we receive word there was something in one of the warehouses used primarily for storing tractors. We headed over and Bruno bounded up the stairs to the top level.
Upstairs was a small room, crammed full of go-karts behind a mini Lotus 99T pedal car. There were six karts, stacked two deep, stood against the wall, covered in a thick layer of dust. The white number 42 was Ayrton’s famous kart, and behind it the machine in which Bruno had taken his first win, tyre marks all up the sidepod. It was quite something, finding those karts and being in that place in the days before Bruno was to make his F1 debut. It was an honour to be a part of it.
That day was like visiting Graceland for me. Looking back now, I can still barely believe it happened. Being in the house, by the pool, looking through Ayrton’s things with Bruno, walking the go-kart track… it is one of the most incredible highlights of my career, and helped take me one step closer to the man I still thank everyday for inspiring me to follow my dreams in this sport.
Twenty years on from his death, Ayrton Senna continues to inspire. It seems amazing that so many young karters who never saw him race, still claim Senna to be their inspiration and their hero. He has become an almost mythical figure, deified within our sport. But why does his legend transcend? What puts him on that level?
Perhaps it is because he was taken too soon. Perhaps it is because of the tragedy that we never truly got to witness the passing of the baton from him to the next generation, at a time when we all believed motorsport had left its darkest days behind. His battles with Schumacher were only just beginning when Senna left us. What incredible heights those two might have pushed each other to achieve.
To me they were, and to some degrees still are, Formula 1’s Lennon and McCartney. I say this because Lennon wrote some awful crap as a solo artist, and yet is sanctified as the songwriter’s songwriter due, I believe in no small part to the fact he was torn from the world too soon. His death brought about a mythical status, whilst also serving to not permit him time to make too many musical faux pas. McCartney however lived to write The Frog Chorus and pen some pretty horrible duets with Michael Jackson.
Ayrton was ruthless, and he often pushed over the limit in his on-track battles. But he is revered as a hard-nosed battler. Michael was equally as ruthless, but in driving into Damon and Jacques, parking his car at Rascasse and trying to put Rubens in the pitwall at Hungary, he was afforded the opportunity of penning his own Frog Chorus.
Lennon and McCartney.
Michael never spoke much of Ayrton. The only real insight we ever truly got were his tears on equalling Senna’s win record at Monza in 2000. To many, this moment was a reflection of Michael’s true self, his true emotion and true feelings of loss over that mystical “what might have been.” But to a few within the Formula 1 paddock, there remains a belief that Michael had long carried a regret, some claim an unresolved feeling of guilt, over Ayrton’s death, knowing that at the time of the crash Senna had been trying to beat a Benetton which was, in the recent words of Ron Dennis, “absolutely black-and-white illegal in the sense of traction control” via the use of what has become known as Option 13.
I couldn’t tell you which it was. I wasn’t around the sport in 1994, and in my time in the sport since the early 2000s I was never close enough to Michael to be able to give any real insight into his true character.
Perhaps, on this the 20th Anniversary of Ayrton’s passing, Michael might finally have broken his silence. Perhaps we might finally have learned his true feelings. Perhaps not. Either way, it is utterly tragic that our daily concern for Michael is now far deeper and far more meaningful than what his thoughts on a given topic or his emotions about Ayrton might be.
It was Michael that won on that dark day in Imola, and with that victory began a new era in Formula 1. It has been an era of unprecedented safety, of pioneering technology which has made not only the sport but the world around us better and less hazardous. Would that have happened had the greatest driver in the world not been ripped from us? It is impossible to say, but certainly the impetus would never have been so great.
Similarly, without Ayrton’s passing I do not know if the cogs would have been set in motion that led me to where I am today. Without that chain of events, It is almost certain that I would not have had the fortune of doing this incredible job. And more importantly, I certainly would not have met the woman with whom I had the most precious and wonderful gift on this earth: my little girl.
Out of darkness, comes light.
Saudade. E obrigado Ayrton.