Ayrton Senna is undoubtedly among the greatest drivers in Formula 1 history. The impact on the paddock following his tragic death at Imola on May 1 1994 was cataclysmic – not only were the events on that fateful weekend the catalyst for safety revolution within the sport, but Senna has also left a lasting legacy on fans and drivers alike.
In Brazil, the response to Senna’s death was unparalleled. The government declared three days of national mourning in honour of the three-time champion with his coffin flown back as a passenger on a commercial airline, not as cargo as is policy. His funeral on May 5th was broadcast live on national TV but three million Brazilians would line the streets of Sao Paulo for the procession.
Brazil had just ended over twenty years of military rule during Senna’s prime following a 1964 coup d’état. It was an era where the country lost ground versus other international powers, enough for the Brazil to refer to the ‘80s as the lost decade as inflation hit a dazzling 764% and to add insult to injury, the national football team had its worst run since 1966. So, when Ayrton broke onto the F1 scene, the country took him on as its new national hero, idolising and adoring its Senna as a symbol of hope through difficult times. And when news of Senna’s death broke, Brazil was paralysed.
Ayrton’s sister Viviane has become held as something of a Brazilian Mother Theresa since his death – her life entirely dedicated to those less fortunate in the name of Senna. The Senna family founded the Instituto Ayrton Senna in November ‘94 with Viviane as president of the charity the siblings had dreamed of before Ayrton left for his fateful ’94 season.
Before Ayrton died, we had a brief conversation in Sao Paulo about setting up a foundation, He wanted to put his fortune to good use, so he could give others a chance to make something of their lives – the people who do not get a chance
The plan was to create opportunities for human development in Brazil, especially for children in need. The institute has invested over $80m USD in social programmes — Tom Rubython’s biography, ‘The Life of Senna’ published as long ago as 2004, reported that the foundation raised $6m through licensing of the Senna name and an additional $46m from affiliated products back then. Shortly before he died, Ayrton also launched Senninha, a character quite familiar to his creator in both name and looks. Senninha comic book were made available free of charge to every school in Brazil with the intention of both entertaining and educating its young audience while also reflecting how a simple, honest work ethic can bring success. Brazil loves Senninha – he is even used to deliver pre-flight safety instruction on Brazilian airliners.
The Senna Foundation also established Acelera Brasil, a project to tackle the quality of the country’s education where 40% of kids fail at school. Acelera aims at keeping kids off the streets and focussed on their education and the foundation has worked with local government in 240 cities to equip over 100 000 young people with the skill sets required for their lives ahead and to the benefit of the country as a whole. No matter who you speak to, the name Ayrton Senna will ring a bell.
Even more staggering is the impact Ayrton Senna has had on the world as a whole – how he has left such a mesmerising impression on literally hundreds of thousands of fans in a phenomenon that is sure to remain intact for many a generation to come…