Ayrton Senna: My uncle Ayrton is still a driving force

Bruno Senna tells Kevin Garside about the Brazilian’s legacy, 20 years after his fatal crash at Imola, and what it means to follow in the great man’s wheel-tracks

There might be more than the odd double take next week when a trademark yellow helmet is glimpsed through the mists of the Ardennes forest, the car that hosts it tracing an exquisite line as it sweeps aggressively down the hill towards that marvellous kink in the road, Eau Rouge, taken flat-out, obviously.

Beneath the visor the same brown eyes burn with a familiar intensity. The car is an Aston Martin; the driver is called Senna – Bruno Senna. And on the 20th anniversary of his uncle’s death he will be paying the ultimate tribute, contesting a race at Spa-Francorchamps, a circuit of amended yet still stunning rigour that more than any other links racing’s present to its past.

The asphalt ribbon cutting through Belgium’s arborial belt was a favourite of Ayrton Senna, who won five grands prix there, including four on the spin at the height of a Formula One career that returned three World Championships. That kind of fabled entry in racing lore was never available to Bruno, who at 30 is making his own way as a member of Aston Martin’s endurance racing squad. 

Inevitably at this time of year, the more so as the mark strikes 20, we join him in turning our gaze towards a quaint Italian town 650 miles to the south. Imola is preparing for a four-day wake at the Autodromo Enzo Ferrari, where arguably the greatest driver of them all perished on May Day 1994.

The Tamburello Curve, now slowed to a chicane, has become a permanent shrine to the Brazilian icon, whose legend maintains as powerful a hold on the racing imagination today as ever it did.

Bruno was just 10 years old when the Williams that Senna was driving was transformed into a tomb on impact with a concrete wall. The date has acquired a heightened duality for the Senna family, who mourn Ayrton’s loss with sadness yet are buoyed immensely by the way his memory is preserved in the devotion of the people of Brazil and the racing public abroad.

“It is not easy for family members; it is a more personal thing,” Bruno said. “But I am aware that most people feel that they had almost a personal relationship with Ayrton because he was regarded so highly.

“It is a matter of pride that people not only remember him but that they do so strongly and vividly. It is a special case of him being able to touch people and to represent something to them so strong that 20 years on it is still there, still relevant, something they still care enough about.

“People can’t believe it has been 20 years. It doesn’t feel that long. These things are hard to explain but it proves that some live longer than their own life periods.”

Bruno does not allow harrowing recollections of that tragic afternoon at Imola to colour the memories he has of his uncle, who fostered his early love of racing and who would engage in karting romps on the family farm and jet-ski battles by the beach-house to the south-west of Rio de Janeiro.

“I always try to keep the happiest of memories of Ayrton and the man he was and what he represented. I try to keep those things alive inside me instead of the tragic side, which is easy to focus on at times like this.

“We are all very proud of Ayrton because of the person he was. He was a patriot. This is something that separates Ayrton not only from Brazilian figures but quite a few international sports figures too. He was always trying to show that he was Brazilian, and proud to be so. Not many people have identified themselves with that, considering how many difficulties there are in Brazil, the differences between the poor and the rich, etc. Brazil is still very much a Third World country when it comes to the social side, even though it is a very strong economy. That he was proud of the association, proud to be Brazilian, is still an example to us all.”

Bruno’s mother, Viviane, the elder sister of Ayrton, put an immediate stop to her son’s racing ambitions, forbidding any further involvement with racing. The junior career his uncle enjoyed was denied to Bruno, who would not resurrect his interest until he was 20, the age at which Ayrton left Brazil to race in England.

The shared name and the physical similarities were both advantage and hindrance, opening doors while at the same time fuelling expectations that for one reason or another could not be met.

A decade ago Bruno raced in the Formula BMW Series in England before progressing via Formula Three and GP2 to the nirvana of Formula One with start-up HRT and eventually two years ago to Williams, for whom his uncle raced his last.

HRT was an underfunded disaster and the Williams team was a shadow of the force it was when winning world titles 20 years ago. Neither vehicle proved an appropriate showcase. Bruno is sanguine about that now.

“Everybody is fighting to be in F1. Whether you like it or not they are the nicest cars to drive, the coolest thing to do in motor racing, but there is life after F1. You just have to be clever enough to see it and to grab the right opportunities. It is very easy to be caught up in the idea that F1 is the only thing available and if you don’t make it then to think you have failed.

“Motor racing is very diverse. Endurance racing is very cool. There are many opportunities coming up and I’m trying to make my racing like the time in the 1960s and 1970s when people raced in a few championships at the same time.”

The world is a different place at 30 than it is at 20. Our histories change shape when viewed through the prism of maturing years. Bruno has come to understand better what it means to be a Senna, to be the nephew not only of a national hero but of a global figure of improbable romance. Being the nephew of Ayrton was never a burden, but it comes with baggage that at times has felt heavier than others.

“It will be impossible for me to disassociate my image from Ayrton’s completely. First of all, that is not something I would like. In a certain way I race in tribute to Ayrton. Of course, I do it not because of him but because I love to race, but I am aware that people think of Ayrton still when they see the colours of my helmet. This is one way that I can always pay tribute to Ayrton, always be close to him in a certain way.

“With time and results, especially away from Formula One, it is a little bit easier to create my own personality, let’s say, where people see that I’m not trying to be Ayrton. That has always been clear to me but not necessarily to everybody else.

“At different stages of your career, graduating up the ranks, trying to understand who you are, it is hard to be completely free of the past when you have my surname, but as life goes on it becomes more straightforward to understand who I am and what I am able to do.”

And so to Spa, where Bruno takes the wheel of an Aston Martin at the start of the commemorative weekend. He speculates that, were he with us still, Ayrton might be racing in some series or other, maybe at Spa with his nephew or at Le Mans, the mother of all endurance events.

“I’ll be celebrating the best way possible: I’ll be racing at Spa-Francorchamps, which was one of his favourite circuits. I’m sure he would be proud of that.”

Sky Sports F1 begins Senna Week, a week of programming dedicated to Ayrton Senna, with ‘The Last Team-mate’ tonight at 8pm.

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