Twenty years after Ayrton Senna’s death, his nephew Bruno is putting his ‘impossible’ F1 experience behind him and picking up the punditry microphone
Amid the dizzying Technicolor mayhem of Rio’s Carnival this week, one tribute has appeared especially stirring. Unidos da Tijuca, a prominent samba troupe in the city, are choosing to mark the 20th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death by encompassing within their act golden replica trophies and models of the fastest animals on land – all intended to signify velocidade, or speed, the quality exemplified by Brazil’s enduring Formula One icon. For nephew Bruno, it is an invigorating rendering of a solemn landmark but also a reminder of how, in his own career, he has found the family heritage both an inspiration and a burden.
“Maybe there was always more expectation of me than of others,” reflects Senna Jnr, whose exposure to motorsport’s top echelon was rudely truncated after only three seasons, and who today becomes a surprise addition to Sky’s F1 punditry team. “And yet of all the people coming up behind me, I would say 80-90 per cent of them had less impressive results than I did during my very short career before joining Formula One.
“People in Brazil expect me to perform even under tough conditions – even when they are near impossible, as in 2012. That has been the case for my whole career. They look at me and think that I should be as comfortable as Ayrton in the car, but they forget that with him, it was about his experience as well as his talent. He knew how to put that together for results.” The younger Senna is this year more likely to be found restored to his former habitat of endurance racing, ready for a fresh tilt at the Le Mans 24-hour race with Aston Martin, a year after his team’s efforts foundered with a crash five hours from the finish while third.His name, though, continues to evoke not only the cumulative weight of his inheritance from the great Ayrton, but a young career at least partially unfulfilled.
For a start, what does he mean by the “near impossible” circumstances of his final campaign at Williams? He is openly critical in claiming that his 16th position in the championship was influenced by the team’s decision to award many of his practice sessions to Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish rookie who would ultimately succeed him.“There were many difficulties throughout my time in F1,” he says. “I hadn’t done half of the age-race championships and so I always had the sense, being up against the best racing drivers in the world, that I was always one step behind them, that I didn’t have the second gear to consolidate everything I had learnt. I kept on pushing, and I have shown in every other championship besides F1 that I can be competitive in any car. It is just a question of having the right equipment.”
Bruno is fated always to be living proof that one’s record in F1 is not preordained by one’s mentors. He had every acquaintance with the genius of Ayrton he could desire, having been taken to São Paulo’s go-kart tracks by his uncle by the age of five. Ayrton even said in 1993: “If you think I’m fast, wait until you see my nephew Bruno.” But after his breakthrough, performances with Renault, Williams and now-defunct HRT never quite bore out that logic – fostering a resentment in his native land that he was failing to honour the heritage of his family, of Fittipaldi and Piquet, and that he was little more than a pay driver buttressed by his sponsors.Given all the barbs, would he ever contemplate a return? “I always keep in touch with the people in F1 and you can never say never to a good drive there,” he admits. “But at the same time I wouldn’t go back unless there was a clear opportunity of being in a competitive car. I found out quickly in the sport that if you don’t have the right chance, then you won’t go very far, and I’m working to make sure that in my motor racing career I can race for many more years – rather than just continuing for another season in F1, only to be dropped again. I’m more into a sense of being wanted now.”
For all this, Senna, now 30, is anxious to ensure his switch back to the endurance format, in which he experimented in 2009, is not equivalent to a career twilight zone. “The racing is very close, very competitive, and we had situations in qualifying last year of doing two flying laps with two drivers before comparing them to another team, and where there were just two hundredths of a second separating the four drivers’ times. Of course, driving an F1 car is the best feeling in the world, there is nothing to compare, but these days going out with the best car in my hands is the main motivation for me.” In his fresh punditry capacity, Senna appears in little doubt as to who possesses the most promising car in 2014, after the maelstrom of pre-season testing with the V6 power plants. “For sure it is Mercedes first, Ferrari second,” he says.
He is contracted to produce feature programming for Sky on the legacy of Ayrton, as we closer to 20 years since Imola, and it becomes clear from his trip to Rio to observe Unidos da Tijuca’s salute that – despite personal disappointments – he is more conscious than ever of the Senna name’s transcendent force.“There were tears on the grandstand at Carnival and you can still see how much people still love Ayrton. However much I achieve, it is always going to be in memory of Ayrton.It is a history I have had to carry, but I do so with lots of pride.”