THIRTY-FOUR years old, Ayrton Senna da Silva was Brazil's most popular sports idol since the footballer Pele, and his death at the Imola race track yesterday provoked nationwide mourning and an offer by President Itamar Franco of his personal plane to bring the driver's body home for burial.
Senna's fatal accident took place just after 9 o'clock yesterday morning in Brazil and crowds began to gather outside the family home in Sao Paulo, as well as at the nearby Ayrton Senna Fan Club.
The decline in Brazil's national football teams, whose last World Cup victory was in 1970, allowed Formula One racing to become a rival as Brazilians' favourite sport, particularly after their countryman Emerson Fittipaldi was world champion twice in the Seventies. Senna was a worthy successor.
His life was the subject of national interest. This week's edition of Caras, a leading gossip magazine, is still on the newstands with a cover story on the driver. Senna and his 21-year-old girlfriend, Adriane Galisteu, are photographed at his farm in Tatui, 100 miles outside Sao Paulo, and Ayrton talks about love and the possibility of marriage.
Senna was such a well loved figure in Brazil that he was developing a lucrative parallel activity in marketing. He had advertised for a leading bank since 1984, and had recently launched a fortnightly children's comic featuring 'Little Senna and his gang'.
The country's television networks spent yesterday interrupting programmes with news flashes about Senna's death. Frequently replayed was his last interview, given over the telephone on the eve of the accident, in which Senna complained about the current rules in Formula One racing and the conditions at Imola.