Ayrton Senna died the year I was born; at least, that’s what I’d been led to believe. Over the intervening years, I’ve read both short articles and entire books about a life abruptly cut short on the race track. I’ve listened to countless interviews with his contemporaries, exploring and unpicking the rivalries and alliances of his career. I’ve even seen the film; the efforts of an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker to tell Senna’s story — from his birth in 60s Sao Paulo to the accident that claimed his life at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
From all of this, I gleaned that Senna’s life was well-lived, fast-moving, big-hearted and — most regrettably — over.
But then I came to Brazil. And here, in hot Sao Paulo, Ayrton Senna is not gone. He may not be tearing around tracks anymore, strapping on his iconic yellow and green helmet or returning home with championship titles tucked into his race suit, but the driver’s presence is still palpable throughout the country.
25 years after the driver’s death, 22 million people are still celebrating his life across the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. Apartment blocks tower colourfully on the horizon, murals of Senna staring out thoughtfully from their painted walls. Children sit glued to Senninha; an animated television program where a fictionalised version of the local hero embarks on adventures with a magical driving helmet. And, once a year at the Brazilian Grand Prix, the city converges on the Autódromo José Carlos Pace, ready to glorify a man who hasn’t seen the chequered flag for over a quarter century.
I am, however, watching another Senna take the turns of the fabled motor circuit. In front of adoring crowds, Ayrton’s nephew Bruno Senna is coming to the end of a commemorative lap, driving his uncle’s legendary McLaren MP4/4. There are flags waving, fans cheering and the stadium is splashed green with huge Heineken sponsorship banners proclaiming ‘#ObrigadoSenna’ — a celebratory campaign from the beer brand, and one that sees five Brazilian reals donated to the development of public education in the country every time it is used on social media. It’s a glowing atmosphere; and Bruno — a happy torchbearer for the family name — is beaming.
“I carry Ayrton as my reference every day!” Bruno tells me as he jumps out of the 1988 race car. “He’s the guy who I still really aspire to be like. Our whole family used to pay attention to how he would do things from a very young age — and try to emulate him.”
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