Boy racer Senna determined to prove different gear to a legendary relative
The nephew of the late Formula One champion tells Richard Rae about the struggle to take a front seat in motor sport
Friday 26 May 2006
It is probably as well for Bruno Senna that he does not look too much like his uncle.
Not, he points out, that he is not intensely proud of the fact three times Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna is generally regarded as one of the greatest drivers of all time.
"It would make things even more difficult for me. I'm a home type of guy, but when I do go out I prefer not to have people coming up to me. But maybe that will start to be a problem now. In Brazil, because I have won a couple of races the press is already very crazy."
He glances appreciatively around; pits aside, Croft circuit in North Yorkshire appears to be deserted.
"Of course, some people will always compare me to Ayrton. But they don't compare me to him when he was on his second year of racing, only when he was at the top of his career, winning grands prix. It would help if they would give me the opportunity to learn."
It is a statement of fact rather than a complaint. Bruno, the son of Ayrton's sister, Viviane, was 10 when Senna died at the wheel of his car at Imola in 1994. Already a talented go-kart driver - Senna once said that if anyone thought he was special, they ought to see his nephew - the sensitive nephew felt he had no choice other than to stop racing.
"I have to say I did not stop because of my own will, and it doesn't matter if my mother says, 'I never prohibited him from racing'. The truth is there was no more support, no one took me racing any more - but despite my age, I understood why. It felt the same when my father died in a motorbike accident [only two years later]. After that my grandfather said, 'No, you're not to ride'.
"For eight or nine years I tried everything else, all other sports. But when I was 17 I got my first road car, and I could travel to watch racing again. I saw guys I'd beaten when I was eight or nine, so I started working part-time for my grandfather in the family business while I was completing a business course at university, to get some money to race. But then my mother asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
"This was my opportunity. I said, 'Go back to racing'. She was surprised, she thought I'd stopped because I didn't like it. But I explained to her that day, and things were clear. I think maybe I waited too long, but for sure my grandparents wouldn't have understood."
And so, using his name, contacts and, it has to be said, the family fortune, he restarted a driving career. He was too tall now for karting, so family friend Gerhard Berger arranged a half-day test in a Formula Renault. Senna was, he says, "pretty quick" - fast enough for the family to stump up $100,000 (£54,500) to send him to the UK, where Berger organised a Formula BMW test. Again he was quick, paid Carlin Motorsport $80,000 for two weeks of testing and three races, and performed well enough to have stayed with the team for a full year.
Instead he chose to follow former Carlin engineer Anthony "Boyo" Hieatt to a new Formula Three team, Raikkonen Robertson Racing, set up by managers David and Steve Robertson with their Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen. It cost him, or rather the Senna family, $750,000 (£408,000) for a year.
It was, he acknowledges, a huge risk to take on vastly more experienced and, financially speaking, even hungrier young drivers, and a pattern was quickly established; he would be quick in qualifying, and struggle in races. He quickly realised his lack of experience made a big difference. "After a handful of races a driver knows a few situations, when there are five or 10 times that many, so I kept getting caught out, I'd make mistakes. It was a problem. But the guys with hundreds of races, they weren't getting any better, and I was."
Towards the end of the year he recorded three podium finishes in the last seven races. This season, helped by a decision to do some extra Formula Three racing in Australia, he has won the first two races of the British Formula Three season - despite a broken thumb - and has established himself as one of the favourites to win a championship won by his uncle in 1983.
He has not, he says, consciously modelled his style on any other driver, though Ayrton used to give him advice back on the kart circuit at the family farm. "Not much though. What I remember most is how focused he was - always training, training - and how competitive. Because I was so much lighter, I would be much quicker than him on the straights; he would catch me on the corners, but couldn't overtake me. He tried harder and harder, he told me, 'It's OK, you can take that corner flat'. I knew it wasn't. So he said he'd show me, and put his kart straight into the fence. So when we used to race on jet skis, he used to make sure I got the slowest."
Given the marketability of the Senna name, Bruno's early success this year has prompted potential sponsors to take an immediate interest, and already the talk is of an early move into Formula One - especially with Berger heavily involved with Dietrich Mateschitz's Red Bull organisation, which runs two teams in motor sport's top echelon.
Senna shakes his head. "I think I'm proving those who thought I had been too long out of racing wrong, but it is still too early to be sure. You have to be ready, and I need much more racing.
"If you think about it, I have still only completed 31 races in single seaters. Of course I am ambitious, but if I have a good season - and I probably will - the next step would be GP2. If that goes well, maybe the year after I will be ready."
The experienced Hieatt thinks that's about right. "Anybody who can win in British Formula Three, which is a tough championship, probably has the talent to compete in Formula One. Whether they have the talent to actually win grands prix is another matter, but given how far he's come in such a short time, you have to think that it's possible he's the real thing. Sure, he has a great name, but it's a heck of a burden as well. Living up to expectations will be some achievement - but so far, he's right there."
Fathers and sons with the drive to succeed
Graham and Damon Hill
Graham won the Formula One title in 1962 and 1968. Son Damon won in 1996.
Keke and Nico Rosberg
Keke was the 1982 world champion. Son Nico, from Formula Three, is 13th in the Formula One table.
Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve
Gilles died in the 1982 Belgian GP. His son Jacques won the world title in 1997.
Nelson and Nelsinho Piquet
Nelson won the world title in 1981, 1983 and 1987. Son Nelsinho is in British Formula Three.
Alain and Nicolas Prost
Alain won four world titles, in 1985, 1986, 1989 and 1993. His son Nicolas currently races in Spanish Formula Three.
Niki and Mathias Lauda
Niki was Formula One world champion in 1975, 1977 and 1984. His son Mathias has not yet progressed from karting.
Nigel, Leo and Greg Mansell
The 1992 world champion's sons, Leo and Greg, compete in the British Formula BMW Championship. Last week dad bought the team.
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