Ayrton Senna became a sporting legend thanks to his exploits on the Formula 1 circuit, winning trophies around the world before his death 20 years ago this month.
Some people chart his road to success back to his time spent racing in Norfolk in the early 1980s. So how did a young Brazilian driver find himself in a rural county known for mustard, bird-watching and The Broads? Nestled on the edge of a seemingly unremarkable housing estate on the edge of Norwich is a small semi-detached bungalow. Rugge Drive, in Eaton, looks like any other in the city’s suburbs, with a mix of 1960s houses and bungalows lining the quiet crescent.But one home, halfway down the street, is a little different from all the rest.
In 1981 three-time world champion Ayrton Senna rented the two-bedroom bungalow during the Formula Ford racing season. No-one was to know about the spectacular feats he would later achieve and it would seem his presence went unnoticed by neighbours. Donald Campbelton bought his house in 1965 opposite the bungalow but did not know he had once lived in the midst of a sporting superstar. “The house didn’t have a big board outside saying he lived there,” he said. “I didn’t have a clue, not that I was much of a racing fan. I was busy working.”
Two doors down, Jason Skyring, 30, was equally surprised that his grandparents had once shared the road address of a racing legend. “It’s mind-blowing,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life and it’s the first I’ve heard of it.” Senna lived at the house while driving for Ralph Firman’s Van Diemen company, according to Tom Rubython’s biography, The Life of Senna.
The company, based 18 miles away at Snetterton circuit, had a reputation for making the best cars in Formula Ford. It was the first step for drivers moving from junior karting events into professional racing. Dennis Rushen, whose Rushen Green Racing team was also at Snetterton, often collaborated with Mr Firman. It was a foreign driver who told the pair about a star coming up the karting ranks.
“Ralph asked me to run this young chap called Chico Serra, and we won all the English championships,” said Mr Rushen. “Chico said to me ‘I’m quite quick, aren’t I?’ And I went ‘Well, yes you are, you win everything.’ “He said ‘Well, one day, I’m going to bring someone over who’s proper quick’.
“That was the first thing I knew about Senna. He didn’t even say his name, but he gave me the nod that there was someone special coming from Brazil.”
“I never had any qualms about whether he was going to be very special,” said Mr Firman.
“It took him two or three races to understand a car is not the same as a kart, but once he got the hang of it there was no stopping him, that was it, just win win.” After his Formula Ford successes, Senna worked his way through the series before reaching Formula 1 where he drove for Team Lotus, based at Hethel in Norfolk. Clive Chapman, the son of Lotus founder Colin Chapman, said Senna’s three years at Norfolk’s top Grand Prix outfit were their final glory days.
“He was the last driver to win a Grand Prix for Team Lotus,” said Mr Chapman. “He really extended the Lotus legend beyond just my father.” In 1988 Senna moved to McLaren, and his association with Norfolk ended as he became a superstar before his death aged 34. But he is still fondly remembered in Norfolk by those who knew him well. “Very straight, very honest, and he said what he meant. He was a gentleman,” said Mr Firman.