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.”
An accomplished racing driver himself, Bruno Senna has driven for several Formula One teams throughout his career — including Williams and his uncle’s former team, Lotus. This, he says, was his own special way to pay tribute to Sao Paulo’s favourite son.
“It’s a big responsibility to carry the legacy,” he adds, gesturing around the track. “But in a good way. It could be very easy to take a name like this, carry it your own way and spoil it, tarnish it. So, for my family, the most important thing is to keep the name very clean, very positive.”
"It's a big responsibility to carry the legacy — but in a good way..."
It’s an enviable task, but one the Senna family has taken in their stride. Bruno’s mother, Viviane, and his sister, Bianca, are also trackside at the Grand Prix today — and their charitable Instituto Ayrton Senna has spent years realising a vision the racer had in the final months of his life.
In early 1994, Senna confided in his sister a plan to create a charitable organisation, one that would invest in social programs and education across Brazil. 25 years on from his death, schools across the nation owe a debt to the driver’s memory — with global partners including Heineken helping to donate over $80 million so far to better prospect for Brazil’s youth. At the charity, Bernie Ecclestone and Alain Prost are official advisers, Ayrton’s nonagenarian mother still clocks in daily, and the offices are so full of memorabilia that they could pass as an unofficial Senna museum.
The foundation is full of statues and signed collectibles. There are gifted artworks, tokens taken from cities as disparate as Hortolândia and Huddersfield. There are model cars, action figures and even empty McDonald’s burger boxes from the days of the Senna Big Mac. By the lifts, a Ducati Senna Edition stands; one of many limited-run vehicles to bear the name of the racer, from a commemorative Vespa to the new McLaren Senna supercar. And splashed across walls are images of the champion — many of which are candid family photographs.
“With Ayrton, the best moments were when he was back home,” reminisces Bruno, back by the track. “And he wasn’t at home very often, of course, so it was really nice when he was there.
“He was the biggest prankster around,” he adds. “He would always put chilli pepper on your food, in your drinks, on your cutlery. Or, if you were just chilling out, he’d throw you into the pool, or the ocean. It was always some sort of fun. Obviously, the memories on the track are awesome. But, for me, the really key memories are the family times. We had some fantastic times.”
They were fantastic times shared by all of Brazil. And, trackside today, the ghost of Senna not so much hangs heavy over modern Formula One rather than dances through the pits. Conscientious to the last, the legendary racer secured his legacy long before his final race at Imola; and was integral in ushering in a new age of racing safety standards.
“Ayrton was a guy very full of ideas,” says Bruno. “He was always trying to make things fairer and better. Safety was always one of his major concerns. And, once he had retired, I think he would have been someone trying actively to improve safety in racing.”
There’s a wistful irony to Senna’s death, then. But no-one at this Grand Prix is wallowing or mourning. Instead, both Bruno and Brazil are choosing to celebrate Senna’s life. During the main race, the crowd don’t chant ‘Hamilton’, ‘Verstappen’ or ‘Vettel’ — they chant ‘Senna’. In what other city, what other stadium, what other sport would you hear a champion’s name still being chanted two decades after their death?
“He is still very much alive in our memories,” smiles Senna’s nephew. “Ayrton left these examples, these values, these achievements. And they have never died.”
As a Global Partner of Formula 1, Heineken‘s #ObrigadoSenna