Motor Racing: A nation weeps for its idol: Richard Williams joins the mourners in Brazil paying homage to a champion driver

THE FIRST flush of daylight was lining the eastern sky as Flight 723 said goodbye to its fighter escort and swung into the landing pattern, bringing him home for the last time. Already his people were gathering along the expressway from the airport through the suburbs, a million of them, carrying their flags and banners, preparing their tears of welcome and lamentation as the big jet came out of the rising sun into Sao Paulo.

A city cried for Ayrton Senna last week. Sao Paulo may be one of the biggest and ugliest cities on earth, a vast megalopolis of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, but when its 15 million inhabitants learnt of their bereavement, they turned themselves back into villagers, sharing in the mourning for their golden boy, their favourite son, their champion.

An arrowhead of police outriders in white leathers led the motorcade into the city, a fire engine bearing the polished mahogany coffin draped with the bandeira: the familiar yellow and green flag of Brazil. Behind it came the official cars and the police vans, and behind them came the unofficial cars: several hundreds of them, in all shapes and sizes and states of repair, crossing and recrossing the grass of the central reservation, some racing headlong down the wrong side of the motorway in an effort to keep up with Ayrton Senna's last ride. Most of the cars had his photograph stuck to the windscreen, or black scarves tied to the radio aerial. From many side-windows, in an echo of Senna's own trademark gesture, a spare hand held a bandeira, its colours stiffened in the airstream.

Witnesses to this spectacle, this Mad Max remake of a lap of honour, the people of Sao Paulo thronged the pavements and windows and parapets and bridges of their endless crumbling concrete canyons, applauding the passage of their champion's mortal remains and shedding the first of many tears. Those who couldn't get close enough to see for themselves simply watched the sky, where a dozen police and TV helicopters hovered and circled, marking the motorcade's progress towards its destination like a cloud of midsummer gnats.

Beneath the pink blossom of the late-blooming paneiras trees, tens of thousands of people were already waiting in line outside the state's Legislative Assembly building, a classic of Fifties concrete brutalism set in a city park. By the time the doors were opened to the Monumental Hall, where the coffin was guarded by a quartet of soldiers with rifles reversed, the queue was at least three miles long, winding round the perimeter of the compound and snaking back and forth, unsupervised but in perfect order, through the park. It would take those at the back of the queue seven hours to reach their goal, shuffling slowly forward in what, by the middle of the day, had become 80-degree heat.

With October's general election in mind, President Itamar Franco had instantly declared three days of national mourning, and the state schools had been given the day off. People of all ages and types came to Ibirapuera Park to say a personal farewell - the first in line when the doors opened, the first of perhaps 150,000 over the next 22 hours, was Adelia Scott, 84 years old, who had made an arduous journey from her home in the south of the country. But the vast majority of the mourners were under 25, which said something both about Ayrton Senna and about Brazil.

Senna was young and beautiful in a country where those assets often seem to represent the only stable currency, and the naked distress of the young people showed very clearly what he had meant to them. 'He was our hero,' 18-year-old Silvia Barros told me. 'Our only one.'

Among the family, friends, business associates and racing colleagues who came to the hall to pay their respects was Christian Fittipaldi, 23 years old, a member of Brazil's foremost motor racing dynasty and in his second season of Formula One. I asked him to explain the dead man's special significance to the young people. 'He was a good example to everyone,' Fittipaldi replied, as his colleague and fellow countryman Rubens Barrichello, 21, broke down and wept openly a few yards away. 'He was someone you always looked to, and not only on the track. You know, if a country has a lot of political and economic problems, and it has someone like Senna who does so well, who goes out into the world to represent a Third World country and succeeds against people from places where the conditions are very much better . . . well, he was a big plus for us.'

Hour after hour the young and old filed by, thousand upon thousand, glancing quickly across at the little grandstand filled with press photographers and TV cameramen, all of whom were concentrating on the VIP enclosure opposite, anxious not to miss the visit of the President, of the footballer Viola, still glowing with the goal he had scored the previous night for the national team against Iceland, of Senna's girlfriend, the blonde 21- year-old model Adriane Galisteu, or of his long-time personal physiotherapist, Nuno Cobra, who wept as he stroked the head of the coffin and addressed it with tender words, as though he were trying to console an unhappy child.

In normal circumstances, the coffin would have been open. But so grievous were the injuries to Senna's skull that the conventional cosmetic preparation was abandoned and the lid stayed shut. Still, some of those who passed by blew kisses to the coffin, or gave it a poignant little wave. Others could do nothing but clutch each other in grief, one or two giving way altogether and collapsing into the arms of waiting paramedics. Over the rope separating them from the coffin they dropped keepsakes - a single flower, a bracelet, a poem. Lots of them held up photographs of the dead man; one older woman had a scrap of paper pinned to her T-shirt, with a scrawled message: 'Senna obrigado'. Thank you, Senna. A blind man passed by, led by a friend; he, too, had spent seven hours in line.

Many of the younger people - the girls, generally - had his name felt-tipped across their foreheads. Even more of them had three stripes painted on each cheek, in the colours of yellow, green and black. A Brazilian friend explained that this custom began two years ago, when the youth of the country took to the streets for the first time in 20 years to demand the impeachment of their corrupt president, Collor de Mello. 'They painted a yellow stripe and a green stripe, the colours of Brazil,' she said. 'Now they've added black, for mourning.'

Some of the banners hanging from the railings around the compound bore Senna's name, and a single word: Saudade. 'It's the most beautiful word in the Portuguese language,' my friend said. 'And it's the only one for which there's no direct translation. It means the sense of loss and sadness you feel when the person you love isn't there any more. No other language has this word.'

EVEN those of us accustomed to tempering our sincere admiration of Senna's supreme talent as a racing driver with a measure of distaste for the more manipulative and self-regarding side of his nature could hardly remain unmoved by the wave of emotion that swept over Sao Paulo last week.

But by the time the lying in state ended and a 21-gun salute heralded the carrying of the body back to the fire engine for transport to the burying ground, a new and very different feeling had been added to the outpouring of love and grief: a shaft of anger, directed at those believed to be responsible for the tragedy, intensifying as the Brazilian media concentrated on two particularly disturbing aspects of the dreadful weekend at Imola.

Leonardo Senna da Silva, the dead man's younger brother, articulated both concerns in an impassioned but dignified press conference on the eve of the interment. First, he said, other drivers - notably Nelson Piquet and Gerhard Berger - had experienced bad accidents at Imola's Tamburello curve in previous years. If the FIA had done something about it, he said, 'my brother would be intact today'.

There is probably no defence against that accusation. 'Ayrton was unlucky to have his accident at this particular corner,' Alain Prost, Senna's greatest rival, told me as he arrived at the cemetery in the suburb of Morumbi, a kind of Beverly Hills high above the city. 'The angle of the crash was very bad. There was almost no chance for him.' Raul Boesel, a Brazilian who raced in grands prix 10 years ago and is now on the IndyCar circuit, said he was convinced that something should have been done: a barrier of tyres to cushion the impact, a sand trap, something.

But Leonardo also touched on something more profound and perturbing: the question of whether his brother had died at the moment of impact, and of whether that fact had been covered up in order to get the race restarted. The part played by Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's ringmaster and dealmaker, was the subject of intense and bitter speculation among ordinary Brazilians, who believe that if Senna was indeed dead, the news should have been broken and the race cancelled.

A motor race has never been cancelled in such circumstances. Even when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes flew into the crowd at Le Mans in 1955, killing 80 spectators, the race was run to a finish. Today's attitudes towards the value of human life are probably different from those that prevailed only 10 years after the end of the Second World War, but mortal danger remains an acknowledged part of motor sport. Ayrton Senna became who he was not only through his innate skill and his dedication to perfecting his mastery of the craft, but also - perhaps mostly - because he could do something that required an extraordinary ability to operate in the face of lethal forces. Otherwise he would have been you or me, and certainly not worth dollars 20m a year.

Contrary to the cynical view, people do not go to motor races to see accidents. But they do want to see the evidence of drivers working at the very edge of control, and that was what Senna gave them, in more thrilling abundance than any other driver of the modern era. His first lap in the European Grand Prix at Donington Park last year, when he put total faith in his own ability on a treacherous track and disposed of Karl Wendlinger, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and Alain Prost to go from fifth to first within a couple of miles, is the kind of thing that will live for ever in the memories of those who saw it. But Senna's own massive self- belief perhaps blinded us to the truth that, for all his calculation and his unique ability to intellectualise his actions on the race track, for all his claims that Jesus appeared before him on the final bend at Suzuka in 1988 and his amazing description of how he entered a state 'beyond my conscious understanding' during qualifying at Monaco that same year, his risks were still risks, and as subject to hazard and luck as anyone else's.

Those risks will always be there. As long as there is motor racing, drivers will die. This happens rarely in modern grand prix racing, and it is the job of the authorities to learn from every accident. That seems more likely to happen if, at Monaco next weekend, the surviving competitors do indeed reactivate the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, which died of apathy many years ago. The message of Senna's death came through loud and clear. As Prost said: 'He was the kind of guy you really think that won't happen to.' In other words, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.

Still, there's not much doubt that Senna's last few weeks on earth were beset by an unusual degree of doubt. He had spent a difficult two years negotiating his way into the cockpit of the all-conquering Williams-Renault, only to find himself in a car that had seemingly lost the technical superiority he saw as the natural complement to his own gifts. Stripped of computerised driver aids, the Williams twitched on fast, bumpy curves and had difficulty transferring the power of its Renault engine to the road on slow corners.

Opening the season at Interlagos, in his home grand prix, he committed a novice's mistake, spinning off late in the race while in pursuit of Michael Schumacher. A month later, at Aida in Japan, his nervousness at the start almost certainly contributed to the first- corner collision with Mika Hakkinen which left Schumacher with maximum points after two races and Senna with none.

From Senna, two such errors in a row seemed unthinkable. The third race, at Imola, suddenly assumed a new importance. He took pole position, but his work was clouded by his preoccupation with the accidents to Rubens Barrichello and Roland Ratzenberger. When the Austrian died during the second qualifying session, Senna was the only driver to go and look at the site of the crash, as if that could tell him something.

THE seven planes of the Brazilian air force's display team laid smoke trails in the clear blue sky as the final procession came up the hill to the cemetery at Morumbi. Again the avenues of Sao Paulo were full to mark his journey, and the last kilometre of steeply winding road looked like the Alpe d'Huez on Tour de France day, lined with people applauding and holding out messages as the parade went by. The difference was that many of these people were weeping.

Under canopies on the cemetery's greensward, the guests waited by the open grave. They included the owners of three of the grand prix teams for which Senna drove. Ron Dennis, of McLaren, made his entrance surrounded by the cast of Reservoir Dogs, silent men in black suits and Ray-Bans. Frank Williams arrived in a van with curtains drawn. Peter Collins, of Lotus, came with Ken Tyrrell, the doyen of Formula One.

A distant buzzing of gnats announced the imminent presence of the cortege. Across the lawn to the gate strode the pallbearers: Gerhard Berger, Michele Alboreto, Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart, Thierry Boutsen, Rubens Barrichello, Roberto Moreno, Derek Warwick, Hans Stuck, Johnny Herbert, Pedro Lamy, Damon Hill, Maurizio Sala, Raul Boesel, and the three Fittipaldis - Emerson, Wilson and Christian. Their faces bleak beyond words, the 17 men halted the coffin opposite a detail of green-uniformed guardsmen, who pointed their automatic rifles to the ground and fired a salute of three volleys. Then, surrounded by a scrimmage of photographers, the drivers guided Senna to his final resting place.

The ceremony lasted half an hour, and only one voice was heard: that of Viviane, Senna's beloved sister. Or half-heard by many of her audience, since she spoke only in Portuguese and anyway the rattle of the circling helicopters sliced her words to pieces as she clutched her brother's yellow helmet. 'I think the message was that he's not down there,' said Peter Collins, pointing to the ground, 'but up there.' And he pointed to the sky, where two of the planes had just traced a big heart and a giant S in white smoke at 5,000 feet.

As the guests dispersed - Adriane Galisteu on foot while Senna's ex-girlfriend, the popular TV presenter Xuxa, took a ride in the da Silva family helicopter - some absences were noted. No Nelson Piquet, for instance, the other Brazilian triple world champion perhaps deterred by the memory that he used to refer derisively to Senna as 'the Sao Paulo taxi-driver', and much worse. No Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, the international automobile federation, and therefore responsible for circuit safety standards. And no Bernie Ecclestone, who had been sighted in a Sao Paulo hotel that morning but had been informed by the dead man's family that his presence would be 'inconvenient'.

Nevertheless, flowers from Ecclestone were among those to be seen when workmen backed a truck across the lawn and heaped wreaths around the grave, taking care not to obscure the small bronze plaque that read 'Ayrton Senna da Silva 21.3.1960-1.5.1994: Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus.' Nothing can separate me from the love of God.

Almost 24 hours earlier, a small boy had passed in front of the coffin and, barely breaking his stride in the moving column, let fall a single leaf of exercise-book paper bearing a simple crayon drawing of a racing car. Many of us had once been that boy. For a few hours last week, some of us were again. Those simple dreams, that unbought affection: maybe they justify it all.

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