In an exclusive interview with ESPN Racing-Live.com, Ayrton Senna’s manager and business advisor Julian Jakobi shares his memories of the great Brazilian Ayrton Senna
During the first part of the discussion Jakobi spoke of the intense rivalry which came to exist at McLaren between Senna and fellow champion Alain Prost, whom he also represented. Prost moved to Ferrari in 1990 while Senna continued four more seasons with McLaren before signing a deal with the Williams team, which by that time had the best car on the grid.
Senna had high hopes as the 1994 championship began, but failed to score points on the first two rounds. Then came the fateful San Marino Grand Prix week-end at Imola for the third race of the season, where Senna had decided that his championship bid was finally about to start.
On Friday, Rubens Barrichello suffered a serious accident which sent him to hospital; on Saturday Roland Ratzenberger died in a crash during qualifying. Shaken, the drivers met to discuss safety matters on Sunday morning, with Senna promising an active role; and then they prepared to race.
“I know that he was very upset by what happened,” Jakobi says. “He went to see Frank (Williams) after dinner on Saturday night in Frank’s room and Frank asked him ‘Are you sure you want to race?’ If he was not feeling comfortable…”
“And he came up to my room and on his way back from Frank’s room, and he spoke to Frank and said everything is fine. That was it. That was the last I saw him on Saturday night. And I didn’t really notice anything particularly odd.”
The San Marino Grand Prix was re-started following an accident at launch, and Senna rapidly set good laps. Coming into the Tamburello corner, his car left the track and crashed into the wall at over 200kph. He sustained at least three major head injuries.
“I remember the accident because I was in the motorhome,” Jakobi recalls. “And you never quite think, you know, you never think it’s going to happen to a driver and it’s going to be fatal. But it obviously looked pretty serious. And, you know, he was airlifted to the hospital from the track. I mean nobody pronounced him dead at the scene because they don’t to avoid all sorts of slaughter charges and everything else. I mean that’s kind of like a convention in Formula 1 that if there is a fatal accident, it seems that you aren’t pronounced dead until you get to the hospital, when you’re away from the track. I can’t prove that, but I mean, nobody said that he was dead at the track and he was airlifted to the hospital.”
“I went by car with a Brazilian journalist who knew the way because he had been there on Friday when Barrichello was shifted off there. So, we ended up at the hospital and saw the surgeon who said he was on a life support machine, which was the first we knew that it was fatal.”
The news came as a shock around the globe as Formula One tragically and suddenly lost one of its greatest. The terrible Imola week-end of 1994 contrasted with the relatively few major accidents that had occurred in F1 over the previous decade.
However, racing is a dangerous sport and will always be so.
“All drivers know the risks,” Jakobi acknowledges. “It’s a dangerous passion, actually. Yeah, because they’re all passionate about racing. They do it because they all love racing. They’re also very good at it, but they never think it’s going to happen to them. Because if you do think it’s going to happen to you, it would take out the edge off of your, you know, the margin. The difference between drivers is so small, it’s just who’s got that little bit extra. And if you have any doubt, you wouldn’t have that extra.”
Having been in such close and friendly contact with Ayrton Senna over the years, Julian Jakobi felt great sadness at the champion’s death.
“For me, personally, it was… was a huge loss for me because he was not only a client, he was also a good friend and he was a person I like enormously. I liked him for his intelligence and his sense of humor, which I know Gerhard’s spoken to you about. And I just thought he was just a great… he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve met in business in the last 30 years. And as a human being, he was a wonderful human being. Very kind, very caring person.”
Senna was an intense racer who never gave an inch but his heart was in the right place, Jakobi remembers.
“Ruthless to pursue his own goals, but also very caring on the other side. He gave huge amounts to charity, but people never knew about it,” he shares. “And I remember him ringing me up one night, very late at night…because he had seen some television documentary about the war in, I don’t know if it was in Bosnia or Serbia, one of the Balkans at the time; and the children who had been maimed by the bombings and everything else. So he just rang me up and he said, ‘I’ve taken down this number. I want you to transfer some money, but make sure it’s anonymous. Just give the money.’ And he did that several times.”
“Then I found out, sort of quite a few years later from his cousin, that he would do the same with him from Brazil, but he never told me. And he never told his cousin that he’d done it in Europe. So he gave huge amounts to charity, but never wanted it to be public. It was all anonymous.”
Senna’s funeral brought together a whole nation in mourning its national pride.
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Jakobi flew to Brazil to attend and was awed by what he saw: “Well, I mean I never experienced anything like it. You know, two million people or whatever it was on the streets. It was phenomenal.”
“There was a sort of a loss, but there was also a silence, you know. It was just extraordinary to see so many people silent,” he continues. “I think he was the embodiment of a nation. The spirit of a nation because Brazil was at the time, you’ve got to go back what… 15 years. He was the single greatest sportsman Brazil had ever had other then Pelé. And yet what he represented was effectively trying to make Brazil compete with the industrialized nations on equal footing.”
“So, for Brazil at the time… going back 15 years, he was the spirit of Brazil because he was Brazil taking on the rest of the world at their own game. And if you look now, how Brazil’s become a manufacturer of cars and manufacturer of planes, you know Embrea planes, you see all over the place. Well, they weren’t there 15 years ago. It was fledgling industries being built up. So what he was… he was what… he was Brazil, really, at the time. To the outside world, once Pelé retired from soccer, Senna was Brazil.”
When asked why Senna’s legacy still seems so strong today, Jakobi puts it down to talent of course, but adds another dimension: the human factor.
“Whether it was because he was Latin, whether it was because he was single or he was good-looking, I don’t know what it was. But he had something that others didn’t have.”
And Jakobi adds another important part to the Senna mix – life experience.
“You mustn’t forget also that he was in his 30’s when he died and you know today’s champions are getting younger and younger,” he points out. “Whether it’s in swimming or in gymnastics or motor racing. I don’t believe that an athlete or sportsman at 21 can have the same charisma of someone who is 31. Because they’ve lived ten more years. And he lived life. So he had something to say for himself.”
“I think his legacy was probably the most competitive, most naturally talented driver than probably anyone since Jim Clark,” Jakobi adds.
Senna’s former advisor mentions that there is one part of the Brazilian’s peculiar character which he misses more than anything else: “Late night phone calls.”
“We always used to say we had summertime, wintertime, and Senna time. it was always late. He never got up until midday. You could never call him before lunch time. He’d get up, if he wasn’t racing or testing, he’d get up around midday, half past 12. Go for a run and then have a brunch at two. He wouldn’t eat until ten at night. Go to bed at two. He had his own metabolism. It was extraordinary. It was useless first thing in the morning.”
“And he would call you at one o’clock in the morning because he had no idea,” Jakobi continues. “And he would say, ‘I’ve just been speaking to my father in Brazil,’ because it was nine o’clock in the evening there, one o’clock in Europe. ‘And we’ve been discussing this. What do you think of this?’ And, you know, you’d be kind of half asleep and everything else and he expected you to awake because he couldn’t work out that nobody would be on the same time as he was. It was always known as Senna time.”
What would have happened if Ayrton Senna had continued racing, winning additional championships, and then retired from Formula One?
“He wouldn’t be owning a team, that’s for sure,” Jakobi states. “I think he would have retired. He wanted to retire. He didn’t want to go into politics because he felt that politics was too corrupt and he could do more with the money he made privately, which is really what his sister has done with the foundation.”
Behind the competitiveness and rivalry that marked his career, there was respect for Senna’s accomplishments, with many drivers wishing to reach his level of instinct.
“I think he was regarded in awe by them because his talent was always… he was always one of the gifted drivers that there has ever been. A natural talent. And he had a level of intensity about him of wanting to be the World Champion. He was in this business to win,” Jakobi affirms.
“I think that he got a tremendous satisfaction from winning when he was in this, in Formula 1 to win. He felt it was his destiny. He felt, you know, he felt he had the ability.”
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