Ten out of ten duels that electrified the Formula One championship in the 80’s and 90’s were fueled by the Brazilian Ayrton Senna da Silva and his insistence on winning. Beneath the helmet, there was a shy, sweet boy with a vocation for speed, embracing with great determination the ideal of being a champion in the ruthless F1 competition.
“You will never know how a driver feels when he wins a race. The helmet hides incomprehensible feelings”.
In the memory book of F1, Ayrton has printed the rare trait of the artist who chooses his work to be the first and sole cause of his living. With a ten year career, he was and still is considered one of the greatest prodigies of motorsport, he has always been among the greatest, where he faced the boldness of Nigel Mansell, the class and perfectionism of Alain Prost. He shared world titles with them and was always pulling ahead. The audience raced alongside with Ayrton, overtaking his opponents, making pit stops and climbed the podium with him.
Formula One Myth and Hero
Almost twenty years ago, Brazil seemed to be moving backwards – the economy was stagnant and democracy suffered the inconsistencies of government policies – but an audacious and competitive young who zoomed pushed by the most advanced technology, seemed to embody the determination of a winning Brazilian. At every F1 race that he won, he grabbed and waved the Brazilian flag. During those brief moments millions of Brazilians felt unbeatable. Three time Formula One world champion, Ayrton Senna da Silva – was born in the city of São Paulo at 1:15 a.m. on March 21, 1960 – during his career he has accumulated 41 victories and 65 pole positions in Formula One.
Together with the soccer players Pele and Ronaldo, Ayrton became one of the few heroes unanimously hailed by Brazilians. He broke behavior patterns, showed hidden feelings – and showed that it was possible to win in Brazil or abroad, as long as you have discipline, determination, resilience, courage and motivation. His tragic death interrupted his brilliant career and raised him to the condition of a myth that embodies the ideals of accomplishment, both in Brazil and abroad. Tenacity was one of them. As a display of the affection of the Brazilian people, today twenty-one streets, six highways, five squares, seven roads, three overpasses, two bridges, two bike lanes, a tunnel and four monuments in Brazil are named after Ayrton Senna. The driver is also the subject of at least 83 books translated into Portuguese, English, Italian, French and Japanese.
Ayrton has a legion of fans in fan clubs in Germany, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and, of course, in Brazil His fans are people who not only accompanied the GPs and collected memorabilia, but who also confess having incorporated – in their everyday life or in the major challenges of their lives – the ideal of being the best and of making the most of themselves to get there, just like Ayrton did. The more he excelled on the track, the more the Brazilian racing driver made his fans expand their soul, in the circuit’s stands or in front of the TV screen.
“You may depart this life in a split second, and then realize that you are nobody, you are nothing. Your life can end suddenly. That’s part of life. You either face motor racing as a professional or you quit motor racing. I love what I do enough not to give up”.
Childhood and Kart
Nobody understood what was happening. During a weekend on the beach in 1970, the Senna family’s Chevrolet, went by raising dust from the floor and, apparently … there was no driver at the wheel. “Seu” Milton rubbed his eyes in disbelief. Ayrton, the second of his three children, only ten years old, was sitting at the wheel! Since the boy’s short legs boy did not reach the pedals, he changed gears without stepping on the clutch, listening to the engine to change gears in time. “Ayrton took a scolding and was grounded not to repeat the trick,” recalls Viviane, his sister. Another special image was etched in the memory of the family. When, Neyde, Ayrton’s mother would take him to buy new shoes, he always repeated the same ritual: he would put on the booties for flat feet, run through the store and break sharply. If the booties slipped, he didn’t want them. They had to look for another one!
Those who learned to admire the skill with which Ayrton dominated time and space – in April 1986, he won Nigel Mansell for 14 milliseconds, the second smallest difference so far in the archives of Formula One – cannot imagine the busy child that he was. When he was six, his mother dressed him in a pretty suit to go to a relative’s birthday party. Dressed in a spotless white outfit, Ayrton climbed on the family’s Simca from the driver’s side at full speed. After two somersaults, which made him roll off the seat, Ayrton went straight through the passenger’s door and fell into the curb. The outfit was covered with mud and the party had to wait.
Ayrton was like a lightning bolt wherever he went, whether it was playing marbles, bike racing, flying a kite or wooden kart racing. He was very competitive in everything he did and frequently got into trouble. The family, wishing to teach him discipline, enrolled him in judo classes. Later on, to protect himself from the competitive world o Formula One, Ayrton became introverted and discreet. Another memory that the family keeps fondly from Ayrton’s childhood was his 6th birthday party. It was about 6:30 p.m. when the kids began to arrive… There were all kinds of boys of every age and size. After the thirtieth guest, his father gave up counting. The party was a success. The house was a literal mess. “When everyone had left, I asked him who those friends were. He explained that he didn’t know everyone. He walked down the street where we lived, ringing the bell of the houses and inviting the children who lived there for the party,” recalls “Dona “Neyde, his mother.
At that time, his father had an auto parts factory and it was there, two years before, that he assembled the toy that fascinated his son and would virtually seal his fate: the 007 kart that “Seu” Milton assembled with a lawn mower engine. Ayrton was four years old when he drove the 007 kart for the first time, in a lane at the Anhembi Park, in São Paulo. Ayrton was so excited about the toy that “Seu” Milton installed a fully-equipped repair shop in his garage, where Ayrton, for years, spent hours assembling and disassembling the kart.
“He cleaned, painted and sometimes fumbled with a part for up to three hours, fixing something on the brake to find a better way to make the curve. He insisted on perfection. Ayrton Senna became what he was because he always made a point about what he wanted”, notes Alfredo Popesco, Ayrton’s childhood friend.
He was nine when he raced for the first time. Ayrton raced against 18 to 20-year old drivers on the streets of a housing estate near Campinas in the State of São Paulo. The starting grid was set randomly and Ayrton took the paper with the number 1, which gave him the first pole position in his life. Smaller and much lighter than his competitors, he didn’t have a hard time to lead the race until the third and final lap. An opponent touched the back of his kart. It was Ayrton’s first flip over. He was initiated in karting, where he collected his first victories and established himself with a style that marked an era in the category: to drive sideways.
A passage of Ayrton’s life reveals his extreme dedication. As a teenager he raced his kart in heavy rain. He spun off the track several times and finished the race in one of the last positions. He decided never again to go through such humiliation. It would not be the weather that would prevent him from being a champion! When it started drizzling, Senna would grab his helmet and set off to practice in the go-kart track of Interlagos, in São Paulo. For months he practiced several times in the wet track and came home drenched. Years later, he won several races under fierce storm, which earned him the title of “king of the rain”.
Youth and speed – From Formula Ford to Formula Three
From kart racing to Formula racing in Europe, it was a natural jump. Ayrton was sometimes pushed by other drivers who bet on his potential. At other times, he even picked up the phone and asked for a position on a team. It all began in 1981. Ayrton traveled to England to compete in the Formula Ford 1600 with the Van Diemen team. His family had allowed him to go as long as he came back soon. Car racing – despite all the moral and financial support he received from his father – was not an occupation, it was a hobby. Soon, the talented pilot was hailed as a prodigy by the British and won twelve championships.
Obedient and peaceful off-the tracks, he agreed to his parents request to forget car racing. “Congratulations, you’re a champion, but it’s time to think seriously about your future,” said “Seu” Milton. Ayrton enrolled in a Business Administration university program in São Paulo, but he lost his luster. Realizing that the boy was unhappy, “Seu” Milton relented and gave permission for his son to become the hero on the tracks.
By 1982, the driver returned to England. He dedicated to his career full-time and, like a hurricane, he took another step towards Formula One – F 2000. He won races, pole positions and fastest laps in the first six races in which he competed. Winning titles was becoming a routine. He won twenty of the twenty-eight races of the season. This is still a unique achievement in F2000. His performance at the Silverstone racetrack made the British call it “Silvastone”.
Echoing the exceptional style that he showed at Formula Ford and Formula 2000, Ayrton went to Formula Three, the last pit stop before Formula One. He won in wet tracks, he won with no brakes, he won pole positions and fastest laps in the first nine races of the season, winning another English title. He took the podium in 12 of the 20 races. Harry da Silva – as he was called by the local media that did not get used to Ayrton’s name pronunciation- was unbeatable. In the tracks, his character and style invoked something revealed by nature, left to itself.
Formula One – Maturity
“When I drove my first F1 car in 1984, I had much to learn and conquer. Every good result was considered an advance and until today I keep progressing. So, whenever I have a problem, I try to think about the next race. Maybe I have no chance of winning this race, but the next one or the next five, I will.”
In 1984, Ayrton finally joined the elite of world motor racing. With an astonishing previous record of victories, it was only natural that he was invited to test Toleman, Lotus, McLaren and Williams Formula 1 cars. His first show, driving a Toleman-Hart car – a huge test for his perfectionism, since the car had a less powerful engine – was in the Monaco GP. He started the race in the 13th position, with heavy rain, and before completing the first lap, he was already in the 9th position. In the 7th lap he took the seventh position. In the 30th lap, he was at the second position. He was just about to overtake the leader Alain Prost when the race director ended the race because of bad weather. It was in Monaco that the world discovered Ayrton Senna da Silva, Due to its sharp and winding curves, the circuit required an angular, precise and concentrated driving. Monaco has become one of his favorite circuits. At that circuit, Ayrton defied his physical ability, fighting himself.
He was just about to overtake the leader Alain Prost when the race director ended the race because of bad weather. It was in Monaco that the world discovered Ayrton Senna da Silva, Due to its sharp and winding curves, the circuit required an angular, precise and concentrated driving. Monaco has become one of his favorite circuits. At that circuit, Ayrton defied his physical ability, fighting himself.
“He was younger than the other drivers, but had amazing qualities. He wanted to be the best in his career. When we came to us, we thought he was a good beginner, who needed training. That was not the case. Ayrton was technically superb since the beginning”, recalls Pat Symonds, who at that time was an engineer at Toleman.
His first victory in F1 came only in April 1985, at the Portugal Gran Prix, again in the rain. The storm had made 13 of 26 drivers take spectacular spins off the track. On that day, the restless and mischievous boy, who due to his frequent falls always had a bump on the forehead and bruised ankles, was becoming one of the greatest athletes of the century. A year later, in the Detroit GP, inside the cockpit of a black and gold Lotus, Ayrton looked in the rearview mirror and saw the French drivers Laffite and Prost, in the second and third places respectively, just a few yards before getting the final checkered flag – once again – in the wet track. One day earlier, Brazil had been eliminated by France from the Soccer World Cup in Mexico. Ayrton took the Brazilian flag when he passed the pit lane and drove a victory lap, for the first time displaying the green-and-yellow flag, a gesture he would repeat until the end of his career.
“For each day, for each circumstance, you have a limit. You go for it, touch it. Okay, I’ve reached the limit. And then, something happens inside you that makes you go further with your mental strength, your determination, your instincts and also your experience. And with all this, you can go pretty high” said the driver.
A few months after Estoril, another checkered flag in Belgium, also with plenty of water on the track. The “King of Rain,” as he was known, used his driver’s skills to settle the difference with more powerful engines until he got a place at McLaren team and become a nuisance partner of Prost in 1988. It was with the McLaren in that same year that Ayrton won the much dreamed world title at the Japanese GP in Suzuka, in the famous heavy rain that had become his ally. The engine went dead in the starting grid. From the first place, Ayrton went to the 14th position. In a descent, he bump started the McLaren and went flying, doing what seemed impossible. He jumped to the eighth place at the start of the second lap. On the 19th lap, he reached the third place, and finally took the lead in the 27th lap, leaving Prost behind. The second world championship was also won in Suzuka, in October 1990, in a duel between Senna and Prost, which did not last more than the first 800 meters and finished in the first curve.
“I believe in the power of concentration. You focus on something and you end up being able to get more out of it. I used this ability my whole life. I have always considered it a matter of improvement” Doses of heroism – the result of the driver’s incredible ability to focus, which made him introspective and looking distant in the hours that proceeded each race – were a routine for Ayrton. That’s how he broke the taboo of not winning in Brazil. In March 1991, the gearbox started playing up and the first and second gears did not engage and shortly thereafter he had only the sixth gear. Ayrton was forced to make a superhuman effort not to let the engine go dead on the low speed and wet curves of Interlagos in Sao Paulo. He won, but had muscle spasms in the shoulders and neck and could not even get to the box. The expression of the exhausted hero, but a winner, almost immortal, perhaps is one of the most remarkable expressions of his career.
On those moments of pure adrenaline, Ayrton had a great faith in God – and he was keen to make it public in press conferences – and a lot of dedication. The Brazilian driver was one of the few to walk the circuits before competitions, exhibiting an almost organic involvement with all the details that made up a GP. It was not only the “computer” that he had on his head that made Ayrton be admired by his team. His character, style and good humor lifted the mood in the pit boxes of F1.
“He always showed us a way for developing the perfect car. He had the control over everything that was wrong with the machine. At the same time that he learned, he taught us. Once he took me out of bed at 11 p.m. in a hotel room to work in the car, because he wanted to have a better knowledge of the circuit”, recalls Bruno Malduit, an engineer at Renault.
The third championship, also won in Japan in 1991, revealed to the world of the hero’s most cherished values: friendship. The Austrian Gerhard Berger had taken the pole position as Ayrton team mate. The Brazilian was by his side, ensuring that Nigel Mansell stayed behind in the second row. Mansell lost the brakes and spun off into the gravel trap. Ayrton Senna, leading the score of the season, was already three-time champion. He could have followed Berger, but he passed him smoothly and catlike. On the last lap, the Brazilian slowed down and let Berger win his first race at McLaren. It was a way of rewarding the Austrian for his teamwork. After all, Berger had started ahead. “Berger did a great race and deserved the victory as much as I did,” acknowledged Ayrton.
“The days when you could judge a driver by his speed and his reflexes are gone. Ayrton Senna was a combination of knowledge, concentration and strength. As for his ability to concentrate on racing, he was two to three levels above the rest of us – he was extraordinary”, declared his friend Gerhard Berger.
source: Instituto Ayrton Senna