In March of 1981 Keith Sutton, then a young and enthusiastic motorsport photographer trying hard to make his name in the sport, crossed paths with a young Formula Ford driver from Brazil who was also at the beginning of his career and attempting to make his own name in motorsport. That driver was Ayrton Senna da Silva and what was to follow that week was the start of a friendship that would last until the legendary driver was tragically killed one sunny, spring day at Imola during the San Marino Grand Prix.
On March 8th, 1981, Ayrton Senna was competing in Formula Ford 1600 at the fast airfield circuit of Thruxton. This was only the Brazilian’s second car race having moved up from 100cc karts in his native country but already all eyes were on him after finishing an impressive fifth on his debut at Brands Hatch the week before.
Having offered his photographic services to a variety of publications but only receiving indifferent replies in return he was commissioned by Autosport Brazil. Keith takes up the story.
“I was at Thruxton working for a Brazilian motorsport magazine that wanted photographs of Brazilian drivers racing in England. I was shy in those days so I never introduced myself (to Senna) – I just took lots of photographs of him, in the paddock, on the track – he must have wondered why this photographer he had never seen before was taking so may rolls of film of him at only his second event in a racing car.”
The race win that day went to Rick Morris with Senna rounding off the podium in third place after an aggressive challenge for the position from Enrique Mansilla. The next round of the Townsend Thoresen championship was to be held at Brands Hatch on the 15th March.
“For some reason I decided to go down to Brands Hatch the following weekend on the train using a free British Rail promotion ticket that was obtained after saving tokens from boxes of Kellogg’s Cornflakes.”
“I had just arrived at the Brands paddock when Senna approached me after recognising me from Thruxton. He asked me why I had been taking photographs of him. ‘Are you a professional photographer?’ he enquired. ‘Yes of course,’ was my reply. ‘Well I need photographs to send over to Brazil on a regular basis. Can you help me out?’ Naturally I agreed but only under the condition ‘that you pay me!”
Early spring weather in England is unpredictable at best and that week in March would see heavy rain, particularly on race day. Senna and his wife, Liliane, were still new to England and the cold and damp weather came as an unwelcome surprise to them as both were far more at home in the tropical weather of Sao Paolo. Senna’s Formula Ford race went ahead despite the wet conditions and those present at Brands Hatch that day were to witness history in the making that day, albeit unknowingly, as the small cars that were capable of 125mph, were to race around 15 laps of the shorter Indy Circuit.
After winning his qualifying heat Senna would start the final from pole position. At 4:30pm the cars took to their allotted grid positions and when the lights went out Senna was seen to pull away as the cars rushed towards Graham Hill Bend in a wall of spray. Senna was invincible and took victory by 9.4 seconds from Mexican Alfonso Toledano. The emotional Brazilian was met with a kiss from Liliane in parc ferme and joined her husband on the podium to celebrate his first victory in a car.
Keith was also on the podium capturing all the emotions of this historic moment and remembers: “He won his heat, then he won his race and there I was on top of the rostrum doing the shots – fantastic light, him and his wife. Brilliant. From that moment I tried to get to as many Formula Ford races as possible, doing shots for him.”
source: Sutton Motorsport Images