1994 San Marino Grand Prix, it’s a reminder that Senna’s former press officer Betise Assumpcao Head doesn’t need to see, for the impact, which claimed her 34-year-old client’s life, still haunts her two decades on.
She saw the fatal collision live from the trackside media-room monitors and ran down to the garage to prevent what she envisaged would be an enraged Senna fuming to reporters about the car’s “dodgy” handling. But when she arrived, Senna wasn’t there, and the enormity of the situation suddenly hit her when she found his team members huddled around TV screens watching helplessly as medics fought to save his life. She later had to convey news of Senna’s death, resulting from severe brain damage, to his distraught brother Leonardo.
It had been the second tragedy of motorsport’s darkest weekend with Simtek’s Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger having also succumbed to his injuries in a similar incident in qualifying the day before. In 2014, Betise returned to the circuit for the first time since the tragic incidents in search of closure.
“I found it extremely difficult [returning to the Imola circuit],” she told Gulf News in an exclusive interview. “I went back in January to take part in a documentary.
“I couldn’t sleep well the night before. I had a painful stomach on the plane over and a heavy heart when I got to the circuit. I still have very painful memories full of sorrow, regret and anger.
“It was a cathartic experience but so many people are asking me for so many things [in the lead-up to the anniversary], sending me films and photos of him, that it has made it all a lot more difficult. I have had to shut down a few times in the last few weeks.”
Having worked for Senna since 1990, Betise had a rare insight into the legend’s fiery character and recalls an often intense working relationship, where his competitive nature would still consume him off the track. “It was never easy to have him around,” she said. “I would know he was noticing everything, observing, taking mental notes. But I love difficult people, passionate and intense. It was a challenge but a fair, inspiring and instigating one.
“I knew when to ask him, what to ask him and how to ask him. He always listened to me, evaluated a situation and we would discuss the best way to go ahead and fully trust each other. “It was an extremely fulfilling working relationship. We were not close friends and we didn’t exchange confidences. But we did talk about all sorts of things and asked each other for help with various problems. We had some good laughs together, too.”
Senna had risen to the height of greatness as an explosive genius who had transcended his sport due to the risks he would take to outdo his bitter rival and McLaren teammate, Alain Prost. He had prized the 1988, 1990 and 1991 world titles away from the Frenchman’s grasp, losing to him only in 1989 due to a pivotal disqualification in Japan after he had rejoined the track via an escape lane following a collision with Prost.
Former F1 boss Jean-Marie Balestre sided with his fellow Frenchman to deny Senna the title in a move the Brazilian saw as an injustice. As a result of the politics in the sport, Senna often spoke his mind and could be a challenging character to media manage, Betise recalls.
“It was easy in a way. I never had to chase the press, or try and persuade a journalist to interview him or invent and spin anything,” said Betise. “But on the other hand, everything he did was magnified and he did do a few silly things. “The incident with Prost and Ballestre had changed him dramatically and made him a much more political figure in F1.
“No one could manage Ayrton’s tone. I obviously tried to media train him a few times and warn him of the questions a reporter would likely ask. But Ayrton either refused to comment or answered it in his own tone. “I was never disappointed [at his reactions], but maybe annoyed sometimes when he was in a really bad mood.
“The same determination that stood him apart, frequently let him down as stubbornness.”
Senna’s success and disdain for authority captured the imagination of Brazil’s working class, who were in the midst of economic turmoil at a time when their football team also hadn’t won a Fifa World Cup in more than 20 years. Given that many Brazilians had access to televisions for the first time and could watch the races in the 1980s, his stardom had equalled or surpassed that of football legend Pele’s, according to Betise.
“TV makes everything bigger as it [F1] reached more people,” she added. “Ayrton was a winner and every nation needs one. But Brazil was a developing country and, as such, didn’t have a lot of winners. “Ayrton gave the Brazilian people a winning certainty. You sat watching a race knowing it would be very likely that there would be a happy ending. We haven’t had anything similar from one person.
“On top of that, you could see Ayrton was doing his best, working hard and giving 100 per cent concentration, effort and strength. It really was the most terrific example to a nation.”
After finishing second to Nigel Mansell in the 1992 season and an outgoing Prost the season after, Senna’s powers were arguably on the wane by the time he joined Williams in 1994.
“He was in a new team, in a difficult car and with zero points from the first three races [heading into the San Marino Grand Prix],” said Betise. “That was a lot of pressure.
“But personally, he was the happiest I had ever seen him up to that weekend. He had matured a lot, had learned to dosage his personality and had a lot of fun with his girlfriend, 19-year-old Adriane Galisteu.” Has Senna’s passing bestowed any important life lessons upon Betise and inspired her to live her life differently?
She replied: “No. But it did make me more certain that professionalism, respect and passion are the best ingredients to a healthy career. It’s more complicated than that of course.”
But as for longing for a return to the exciting, unpredictable and wheel-to-wheel racing of F1’s heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s, Betise is indifferent.
“I don’t wish [that] to return. F1 has changed a lot, but it does not mean that it’s for the worst. I simply have no interest.”