As you leave the airport in Sao Paulo, the name of this city’s hero is abundantly clear. The car meanders along Rodovia Ayrton Senna, before taking a turn into a tunnel bearing the same name. His face adorns buildings, bus stops and billboards, a full 27 years after his death. Ayrton Senna was no ordinary driver, and no ordinary man. A three-time Formula One world champion, his is a story that ends in tragedy, a life that was halted early at the Tamburello curve of Imola on May 1, 1994. But his legacy didn’t end there – in fact, his real race was only just beginning.
A few months after his death at the age of 34, the Ayrton Senna Institute was born. Created by his sister Viviane, its goal is to help Brazil’s poor through education. It was Ayrton’s life goal and till today, 26 million Brazilian children and teenagers have gone through their projects across the country. On the weekend of the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2019 at Interlagos, we spoke exclusively to his nephew Bruno, as well as Ayrton’s first great rival Martin Brundle, went for dinner with another three-time world champion in Sir Jackie Stewart and visited the Institute itself to see just how legendary Formula One’s greatest ever driver has become in the two-and-a-half decades since his death.
It seems right to start at the end. May 1, 1994, at the San Marino Grand Prix. The other accidents of that weekend are stories less well told, but they too paint a picture of Senna’s humility and compassion. Rubens Barrichello, a fellow Brazilian, was the first driver of the weekend to crash in Friday practice. Professor Sid Watkins saved his life, and Barrichello recalls how he woke up to find Senna looking over him. A day later, Roland Ratzenberger wasn’t so lucky and he died during qualifying after striking a concrete wall at 314kmph.
In the footage of the aftermath of the crash, again Senna is there… the first driver on the scene. He wasn’t on the track at the time, instead commandeering a course car from the pit lane to get to the Villeneuve curve. It was the way he was hard-wired – he felt he had to get to the scene, be it to help, learn or grieve. Brundle, now Sky Sports’ legendary pundit and commentator, was also driving at Imola, himself in the middle of his own Formula One career. As he recalls his memories of the tragic race weekend to Sportsmail, sitting trackside at Interlagos, the emotion in his eyes and his voice is abundantly clear.
There were just 37 minutes between Senna’s crash and the race re-starting. Thirty-seven minutes until the cars lined back up on the start-line, to go again. Schumacher, Larini, Hakkinen was the podium at the end of the day, but – rightly – nobody remembers that. It shouldn’t have happened. “The thing I remember most straight after the race was the silence… the eerie silence,’ Brundle continues. Tens of thousands of people were making their way out of the circuit, people were crying. Keke Rosberg told me he had died, and then I went and saw Ron Dennis, and he was devastated. They were very close”.
Even now, it is easy to understand how important Senna was to Brazil at that time. This is a country with huge divisions between the wealthy and poor. Alongside gated communities with private pools in each home, there are favelas riddled with poverty, where residents fight for every meal. To have a hero like Senna gave them hope. He lifted his head above the parapet and turned himself into a champion. And he cared about them, too. The money he was earning was astronomical in those final years, but plenty of it was handed out to the poor of Sao Paulo.
Brazil is a huge country, fifth largest in terms of surface area, and sixth by population. It has the eighth largest GDP in terms of wealth… but on the Human Development Index it stands 79th. At the end of their school education, only three in 10 Brazilian children can read or write to the expected standard. Only one in 10 has the required maths level. His sister Viviane, the founder of the charity, explains: ‘Ayrton is considered one of the greatest drivers of all-time, be it for his incredible talent, be it for his impressive determination, be it for the show he used to give on the racing track. It was almost magic. But all this does not define the man Ayrton Senna.
Besides his passion for speed, for the racing tracks and for the cars, he had another passion… a passion for Brazil. We could see all this when he chose the colours of his helmet, for example. It always had green and yellow. When he won a race, he would always raise the Brazilian flag
Now, the Ayrton Senna Institute is present in 15 Brazilian states and in more than 450 municipalities around the country. Each year, they train 60,000 professionals and have 1.5million students come through their programmes. It is incredible to see first-hand. Through his legacy, the family are changing the face of Sao Paulo, and Brazil as a whole. One hundred per cent of Senna’s royalties are pumped into the charity. His mother Neida, now in her 90s, is still an integral part of the team, regularly seen at the Institute. Their drive is as unwavering as Ayrton’s was on the track.
He is changing the landscape of a country through words he uttered so famously a year before his death, in 1993. “If we want to change something, we need to start with the children.” He started it, with his donations both anonymous and otherwise, but his family has continued it. Brazil is still a country with huge problems, but one child at a time, the institute in Ayrton’s name is changing that.
Truly, Obrigado Senna.