Senna’s virtuosity had made him seem indestructible during an era generally free from fatalities. His death would stun a motor sport world that should have known better and devastate a family that had followed their boy’s elevation to superstar with that conflicting mix of pride and parental concern.
It would also appear to spell the end of 10-year-old Bruno Senna’s ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his revered uncle. Senna had spoken with genuine enthusiasm about his nephew’s latent talent after they had regularly raced karts together on the family’s private track near Sao Paulo. But how could Bruno even countenance the thought of entering a sport capable of producing such distress, not only within in his family but throughout an entire nation?
Nothing needed to be said. Senna continued with his studies and did not venture near the wheel of a competition car. But the desire ignited by the adrenalin rush that comes with speed and mastery of machinery was merely dormant. It would be reactivated by the inquisitive demands of maturity in a teenager showing the same competitive instincts that had taken his uncle on the road to greatness. Now Bruno Senna is poised to move into Formula One in 2009. But, predictably, his path thus far has had its fair share of difficulties and emotional obstacles.
‘There was never a point, after the accident, when I didn’t want to go racing,’ says Senna. ‘But, obviously, my family were not happy with it so I didn’t race out of respect for them. For the first two years I was OK and didn’t have much trouble coping with not racing because I just put it to the back of my mind. I had plenty of life ahead of me and I thought that I could find other things, other sports, that I enjoyed.
‘But when I became 15 or 16, I began to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I had tried a few things but realised that nothing really touched me like motor racing. Then it really started to bother me. I saw some of my friends and my opponents from when I was 10 years old and they were doing well. I couldn’t help but think that I used to beat those guys and I thought I could be there, doing well. It was beginning to hurt.’
Approaching his mother would be tricky. Viviane Senna da Silva had not only been extremely close to her brother, Ayrton, but she has devoted herself to the Ayrton Senna Foundation, the charity started without fanfare by her brother and which has raised $80m (£43m) for projects aiding underprivileged children. ‘With the tragedy, we could have just been depressed and showed depression for the rest of our lives,’ Viviane told BusinessF1 magazine. ‘But we chose to transform something bad into something good. This was to give the opportunity to so many children in need in Brazil, to give opportunities through the image of Ayrton.
‘Everything has a good side and a bad side. The important thing is to find the good side and get in line with it and block the bad side. That is what we did with Ayrton’s image.’
While Viviane put in 10-hour days with the foundation, her son was rapidly becoming a man. ‘When I was 18, I was working with my grandfather in one of our car dealerships,’ Bruno, now 24, says. ‘My mum realised that I wasn’t happy: I didn’t want to go out, I didn’t want to do much. She came to me and said, “You are getting a bit older. What do you want to do with your life?” And I was, like, “Y’know mum, I would actually like to go back to racing.” She wasn’t angry but she was surprised because, for eight years, I hadn’t spoken about it. She thought it must be because I had a road car now, and I wanted to be a boy racer. But when she realised I was serious she started to give me a lot of support.’
As if the trauma of Senna’s death had not been enough, the family had suffered further in 1996 when Bruno’s father, Flavio Lalli, was killed in a motorcycle accident. But Viviane’s grasp of the reality associated with her son’s ambition was such that it would be practical for Bruno to use the Senna family name.
‘We realised from the very beginning that there was no point using the other name to avoid attention,’ says Senna. ‘As soon as the first person discovered who I was, they’d be asking, “Why are you not using your name? Are you afraid about it?” So I thought it was best to just go for it and take the pressure head on.’
Senna followed the path blazed by most Brazilians as he raced in junior formulas in Europe. The difference was that basic skills of driving and race craft had not been honed because of his absence from the hotbed of teenage karting.’ There was a lot of expectation,’ says Senna. ‘I had no experience whatsoever and it was very hard to cope because everybody was seeing my mistakes. Any inexperienced driver will learn and then be in the spotlight. I was in the spotlight from the word go. I didn’t know whether I was good enough and I didn’t know what I was capable of doing. But it made me stronger and taught me how to fight with pressure and with people trying to demand too much from me.’
Senna learned a great deal about himself and his talent in the competitive British F3 series. He won four races on his way to third place in the championship in 2006, having contested a limited programme the previous year.
‘In my first year, I had races where I was at the back, races where I was in the middle, and races where I was at the front,’ he says. ‘I really learned when at the front. With the races at the back I learned why I was at the back. It was a good, tough learning year. In the second year of F3, I was much more mature, but I still had difficulty where I had big drops and did not know what to do. I was learning all the time. My lows were less deep, so I was getting closer to the highest point all the time.’
Senna was also getting ready for the move to GP2, the final series before F1 and the championship won by Lewis Hamilton in 2006. The learning curve followed a familiar shape: steep in his first season but flattening out this year with enough competitive performances to have Senna fighting for the title. I made some big mistakes,’ says Senna, ‘like hitting a wet kerb and flying off the road because I didn’t know the kerb was wet. Now I’m more aware of that and expecting more stuff to happen. I’m also a lot fitter than last year so I can cope with being tense throughout the race without draining too much of myself. I always felt quite comfortable, but having confidence makes all the difference.’
Ayrton Senna was not short of confidence when he made his F1 debut in 1984. He turned down impressive offers from top teams, including McLaren, choosing instead to make a low-key debut with Toleman, the small British outfit who were later to become Benetton before being taken over by Renault. Twenty-five years later, Bruno may go through the same experience if he wins the GP2 championship and earns a drive with Toro Rosso, the F1 team run by Gerhard Berger, Ayrton’s former team-mate at McLaren and a close friend of the family.
‘Gerhard has been a key person in my career,’ says Senna. ‘He was the one who put me in the test so that he could see if I had the potential or not. He put me in the deep end and sent me to British F3 and said if you do well there you will be OK. He’s the one who has always pushed me and given me good advice.’
Berger is only too aware of the traps waiting for the uninitiated. Senna would need to show considerable promise; Berger would not recommend an entry into motor racing based solely on the sentiment generated by such a great name. One world champion in the family does not necessarily mean there will be another competent F1 driver, never mind a world champion, as proved by Sir Jackie Stewart and his son, Paul, Juan Manuel Fangio and his nephew of the same name, Sir Jack Brabham and his three sons, and Niki Lauda and his son, Mathias.
‘Viviane wanted me to see Bruno was making the right moves,’ Berger says. ‘So I said, “Send him over to Europe and I’ll organise some tests.” I decided to help him, not as a manager, more as a friend of the family. I liked him a lot. He reminded me of Ayrton – the look and the way he talks. He’s very switched on, very quick-thinking. And I always thought Ayrton would be very happy to see me helping.’
That may have been true, up to a point. Berger’s devilish sense of humour ensured that Ayrton saw the lighter side of life away from the cockpit. This went wrong, though, when Senna was detained when entering Argentina because the picture in his passport had been replaced to show a part of the anatomy other than Senna’s face. Bruno is aware of Berger’s reputation but has seen none of it. ‘Yeah, I heard,’ says Senna, grinning. ‘But I don’t see him saying or doing those sort of things to his drivers. Gerhard came from a very different type of era of motor racing and nowadays everyone is a bit too competitive. If you are partying too much, or just not giving enough attention or giving it enough importance, then you are not going to get the same results. You need to commit 100 per cent.
Gerhard also thinks that the drivers must be super fit as well as being super concentrated on their jobs. So I think that if he was driving today, he would be a different driver altogether. Obviously you can make fun and do all the other stuff away from motor racing, but I think he now realises that you need to be as focused as [Michael] Schumacher was.’
Berger would have to answer to the entire Senna family if he led their boy astray. ‘All my family and friends are involved in this with me,’ Senna says. ‘My sister, Bianca, travels with me and looks after things.
Their support is so important. My grandfather [Milton da Silva, Ayrton’s father] doesn’t like it though. He’s unhappy about it. I have to respect his point of view, and he has to respect mine because he is the one who first put me in a go-kart and taught me racing. To be fair, he is proud of what I have been doing, but he won’t admit it. Whenever I talk to him about my racing, he’s just quiet… he doesn’t want to speak about it. You can understand why.’