There are a very few sportsmen whose very name becomes synonymous with the sport that they compete in. The names Pele, Ali, and Tiger all conjure up images of sporting excellence when at their peak. Motorsport has added some of its own heroes throughout its history – Nuvolari, Fangio, Schumacher, and recently back in the public eye, Senna. Since his premature death at Imola in 1994, the legend has grown and Ayrton Senna now transcends the sport and is recognisable by almost anyone, motorsport fan or not.
As the years pass and his 20th Anniversary of his passing comes into view, the recent documentary “Senna” has re-ignited interest into the complex and contradictory man. The conclusion is that this individual was indeed in a genius behind the wheel but one that was somehow fundamentally flawed. It is difficult to reconcile the man possessed who drove his rival, Alain Prost, off the road at the start of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, thereby putting the whole grid in mortal danger of collision while bunched up for the first turn. How does this reconcile with the compassionate man who used his accumulated wealth to set up a charity for those who found themselves born into less fortunate circumstances. That the Senna Foundation only came to light after his death is another element in the puzzle, the philanthropy was genuine, not some PR stunt, as is the case with the majority of “celebrities” adopting a worthy cause. The Senna Foundation was about the beneficiaries, not the donor – he did not feel the need to be seen in a favourable light.
The film “Senna” is largely about the exploits of Ayrton Senna in Formula One, his three World Championships, his struggle with Prost, and finally his death at Imola. His early career receives little attention, save for showing his roots in karting, where as one might expect, he competed at World Championship level. Between these stages in his career came a brief period of racing in the UK – his motorsport apprenticeship, if you like.
For three seasons, Senna worked his way through the single-seater junior formulae, trashing the record books and opponents alike. Ayrton Senna was an unstoppable force; not that some did not try… they pushed him to the limit at times. It was through this experience that Ayrton was able to prepare himself for his destiny. It was also at this period in his career that his path crossed with my own, a case of hero meets zero.
In the early 1980s, I lived in a small town called Charlton Village, near London’s Heathrow Airport, a place of farms and low key housing developments surrounded by the massive water reservoirs that supply West London. There were also some industrial estates and on one of these was located West Surrey Racing. This now famous team was formed in 1981 as a partnership between local entrepreneur Mike Cox and motorsport engineer Dick Bennetts. Bennetts had worked for Ron Dennis running the Project Four BMW M1 ProCar entry for three-time F1 World Champion Niki Lauda. Ron Dennis would soon take over the McLaren Formula One team, later to be the partner in virtually all of Senna’s greatest successes.
During the 1980 season, Bennetts was parachuted into the Project Four Formula Three team that was struggling with the then new Ralt RT3. The Kiwi managed to put some order into the team to the extent that Stefan Johansson was able to snatch the Vandervell British Formula Three title at the last race.
1981 marked the point where Project Four and Ron Dennis ascended to Formula One, taking on the struggling McLaren team, a deal brokered by the main sponsor Philip Morris aka Marlboro. West Surrey Racing took over the successful F3 project and the Ralt chassis and scored another title win for Jonathan Palmer. 1982 saw almost a hat trick of Championships for Dick Bennetts but Argentinian Enrique Mansilla was narrowly beaten by Tommy Byrne. At that point WSR were the top dogs of British Formula Three so the logical home for anyone aspiring to greatness.
There was an end of season non-championship race held at Thruxton that year, an opportunity to test out new talent and hopefully cement a programme for 1983. WSR had another South American in the hot seat, Ayrton Senna da Silva. The Brazilian had swept all before him Formula Ford 1600 and 2000 categories and was marked out as a rising star. Senna shrugged the opposition aside on that cold November day. He had laid down a marker to his opponents for the season to come.
South West of London at that time featured quite a racing community, Grand Prix teams Brabham, McLaren and Tyrrell were all locals and the Ralt factory was also situated nearby. One of the favourite places for social interaction of the motorsport fraternity was The Kings Head, an old public house based in Shepperton, not far from the film studios. Characters as diverse as Brabham F1 team manager Herbie Blash, sportscar legend David Yorke and of course Dick Bennetts could be found propping up the bar on a regular basis and there was a full supporting cast of mechanics and of course wannabes like myself. In 1982 I had one of Dick’s mechanics renting a room in my house and I would make regular visits to the workshop to see what “my team” was up to. My wife had even made some of the team’s uniform during their first two seasons, F3 was still a bit of a cottage industry back then. The gang at The Kings Head felt part of the extended pit crew of West Surrey Racing.
This feeling of belonging grew over the first two seasons, the drivers “JP” and “Que -Que” embracing our small community, being repaid with unswerving support. The feeling of intimacy changed on the arrival of Ayrton Senna. He was polite enough but somewhat reserved, part shyness, part language driven but mainly that he was at all times fully focused on the task in hand, that of winning the 1983 Formula Three Championship and than getting into Formula One. He had a maturity far beyond his years and even then his ruthless streak was finely honed. Senna was able to assess very soon as to whether you would be useful or could contribute in some way to his ultimate goals. Those, like myself, who could not bring much to the party were marginalised, it was nothing personal, just business. Senna brought a new level of intensity to the lower levels of motorsport. His briefings with Dick Bennetts have passed into legend with the disciplined and methodical approach of the engineer allied to the fierce commitment and work ethic of the Brazilian producing set-up sheets and data logging rarely found outside of F1 at that time. No effort was to be spared in the pursuit of victory, nothing and no one would be allowed to obstruct the march to glory.
If Senna was ruthless with others he was even harder on himself. He arrived in the UK in 1981, with a beautiful young wife, Liliane. The culture shock of encountering 80’s Britain as opposed to the freewheeling Brazil was profound, almost as bad was the cold and damp weather compared with the heat and humidity of Sao Paolo, South America seemed a world away. Despite overwhelming success in his Formula Ford 1600 campaign taking both the RAC and Townsend Thoresen titles, there was little interest in either the UK or Brazil to fund his next step up the ladder. The couple returned home before the worst of the English winter and Senna was faced with a number of questions regarding his future.
First was would he continue racing? His family and his wife were keen for him to knuckle down, stay in Brazil and join the family business. Despite his disappointment at not getting a ride in Formula Three he made his mid up to return to Europe, an offer had come through that would allow the Brazilian to make the next step up the ladder.
The one offer he did have was to race in Formula Ford 2000 for Rushen Green Racing, a snip at £10,000 for both the British and European Championships. Senna decided that this was the way forward and in typically uncompromising style pursued his objective. “You have to understand that what I really care about is my career. I’ve given up a lot of important things for it, including my marriage, including living in Brazil with my family and friends. If I was going to establish myself, make it into Formula One, I knew I had to give it all my time and attention. I couldn’t do that if I was married, so we parted.”
Whatever the personal cost, on track things worked as planned, he comfortably won both titles. During that year Senna showed the kind of intelligence that would illustrate the difference between him and his contemporaries. He linked up with rising star photographer, Keith Sutton, and got him to send out press releases to all the Formula One team bosses, detailing his successes in FF2000, completely unheard of at the time but a good example of his forward thinking.
Ayrton would nod hello to me at most races in 1983, I was on the edge of the team and he was friendly enough, however the same drive that had caused him end his marriage ensured that he was intensely focused. Senna was four years younger than me but he was light years ahead in the mental department (nothing changes). He spent every moment at the track thinking about how to make the car and himself perform to the optimum, so he had little time for idle chatter with a photographer. Looking back he was, of course, on the money.
Off track, Ayrton Senna followed the same principles that he did while behind the wheel; you were either for him or against him. Those who tried neutrality were consigned to the wrong side of the line. Again, nothing personal, just business. Those who were on the right side of the line that he drew found a warm, loyal friend, an intelligent and engaging man on the up.
Most of us neutrals admired him and his talent. We instinctively understood his approach; motorsport was changing and the era of maximum attack was at hand. Senna would provide the blueprint for those who would follow – these days, even the most microscopic of talents has a manager and a PR agent. It must be worth some time on the track as Senna had one, goes the rationale.
The 1983 British Formula Three season is remembered as one of the most fiercely contested, even by the high standards of this historical competition. However anyone conducting even a cursory review of the Championship after the 9th round, near the halfway point, would have reached a very different conclusion. At that time nine points were awarded for a race win plus one for fastest lap, so theoretically the maximum points that anyone could have scored at that point in the season was 90………..Senna had 88.
His only real opposition in 1983 for the title came from an Englishman, Martin Brundle. Despite the pummelling he received in the first half of the year, Brundle consistently raised his game and took the challenge to Senna. At first Ayrton made a mistake in a non-points scoring round giving a win to Martin.
The Brazilian seemed to get a bit rattled and alternated several wins with collisions and accidents. He even tried to kill me during Qualifying at Cadwell Park when he hit an earth bank that I had just managed to vacate a second or two earlier, nothing personal, just business.
This wreck was followed by another clash a week or two later, this time with Brundle at Snetterton. An optimistic move from Senna was blocked by a resolute Brundle. Another win for Martin, another retirement for Ayrton. The Race Stewards were kept occupied for hours trying to work out who, if anyone, was to blame. No conclusion was reached but relations between the drivers and both the teams was strained to say the least. Certainly the crew at WSR were not happy not least because they had to set to and rebuild the car once again. This was having a serious effect on progress, as Dick Bennetts put it at the time “You can’t go testing when you are spending late nights rebuilding a car.” The Kings Head saw precious little of the team personnel during the mid summer period.
Matters on track boiled over a month later at Oulton Park. The leading pair(Brundle and Senna) were scrapping for the lead when Ayrton tried a move that stepped over the boundary of recklessness. The result was that both cars retired on the spot with the WSR Ralt ending up perched on the top of the EJR example. The Stewards moved swiftly to nip this nasty situation in the bud, someone was going to get badly hurt if the fight was allowed to escalate. The Brazilian got a £200 fine plus an endorsement on his licence, this was not popular with WSR or their star driver. Another race another rebuild. No Kings Head for WSR, just another set of late nights and early mornings; ah, the glamour of motorsport.
As with all great Championships it all came down to the last race, whoever won would take the crown. With a surprising lack of drama Ayrton did it, finishing just ahead of Brundle in what was a dull race. On reflection was the appropriate order of things, Senna was a worthy Champion but Martin Brundle could hold his head up high, both were destined for greatness it seemed at the time.
The next task was to retreat back up towards base and celebrate. The Kings Head was busy that Sunday, then thanks to the Licensing Laws a mob ended up at The Riverview Club, eating and drinking to excess. Someone, not sure who, spiked the drinks of those who were on non-alcoholic beverages, including Ayrton’s mother. So everyone was intoxicated, and for the revellers the next day passed quietly.
Offering my rambling congratulations to the new Champion at dinner that night was the last time I spoke to Ayrton. The next year he graduated to Grand Prix racing and proceeded to turn that world upside down.
By 1994, some ten years later, Senna was almost a household name. He had to fend off the attentions of a young German upstart who went by the name of Michael Schumacher. By now, Senna had left McLaren, who were in a period of relative decline, signing for the Williams team, who were leaders of the pack. The 1994 Williams Renault FW 16 was not yet the finished article and was really only at the head of the field through the sheer willpower of the Brazilian. The first three races went to the German but on 1st May the cars were lined up for the San Marino Grand Prix, held at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola. The natural order of things would reassert itself, surely.
As I sat watching the television that Sunday, it was clear that this was a weekend out of kilter with the universe. On Friday, Rubens Barrichello had somehow survived a violent barrel roll that destroyed his car. Saturday witnessed the death of Roland Ratzenberger during Qualifying, the first fatality in Formula One for nearly a decade. This had a profound effect on Senna but there was a sense in the paddock of what more could go wrong? The answer as we all know now was plenty.
The start of the race was chaotic, with JJ Lehto stalling on the grid while sitting in fifth position, his Benetton was hit from the side by an unsighted Pedro Lamy’s Lotus. The front wheel of the Lotus flew over the barriers injuring four spectators and a policeman, another bullet dodged. The ensuing Safety Car period gave everyone a chance to catch their breath………sitting at home watching the TV and listening to TV commentator Murray Walker babble uncontrollably it appeared that the restart might be normal and that we might get a real race from the Old Master and the Young Pretender…………it was a nervous time, I was told later by friends working at the race that everyone just wanted to get the race done and get out of Imola. Then after a few laps Senna was being pressed by Schumacher’s Benetton, the feed disappeared as Senna speared off at what I now know to be the Tamburello. It was clear that there had been a huge impact but beyond that no one except those on the scene really could assess the situation.
We should be grateful that the viewers in the UK were spared the live feed of the accident scene that was broadcast in some countries. The news, awful as it was, soon filtered through………Ayrton Senna was dead, there was nothing more to be said.
The whys and hows were for others to discuss, the star that had crossed my part was gone…an era had ended, all we have left are the memories and a film like “Senna.”
All photos used with permission from John Brooks and Sutton Motorsport Images.