The charitable work of the Instituto Ayrton Senna is the remarkable legacy of an exceptional racing driver, says Rob Widdows.

When Mateus goes to bed he settles down on the kitchen floor. There are seven people living in two rooms. It is hot and there is no ventilation apart from windows that have no glass. His father is in prison. His mother goes out to work and does her best to persuade Mateus to go to school. He cannot read or write. Next door, it is much the same.

Less than a mile away an armed guard stands outside a pair of steel gates. Beyond, a gardener moves sprinklers around perfect lawns. A silver Mercedes-Benz crunches across a gravel driveway and waits at the gates.

This is Rio de Janeiro in 2008. The pattern is repeated throughout this vast land. Brazil is not so much a country suffering a social divide as two countries on either side of a canyon. This is the nation that shaped and inspired Ayrton Senna. Not the racing driver, but the man.

In an office block in São Paulo, a small team of people dedicate themselves to building bridges across this ever-widening canyon. They are led and passionately motivated by Ayrton’s sister, the remarkable Viviane Senna.

Almost 14 years after his fatal accident in the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the Instituto Ayrton Senna, a charity established with funds from the triple world champion’s legacy, has saved millions of children from sliding into the oblivion of drugs, crime and life on the streets.

The problems that face Brazil, particularly poverty in its major cities, are not getting noticeably better. If anything, they are becoming worse.

It is this tide of division that Viviane Senna and her team are trying to stem. In recent years, the Brazilian government has begun to take notice of the educational schemes created by a charity that has remained independent from mainstream politics.

The story begins in the winter of 1993. Ayrton had decided to leave McLaren after winning three world titles and establishing himself as one of the greatest racing drivers in history.

To Brazilians he was a god, to the rest of the world a mortal with a miraculous talent and a mercurial personality. At once both ruthless racer and gentle soul, he was two men.

But in 1993, and on into 1994, he was worn down by business worries and the weight of his extraordinary success. He had doubts about his decision to move from McLaren to Williams and Michael Schumacher was in the ascendancy.

Viviane remembers this time, aware that her brother was not empowered with his customary zeal.

“He spoke to me two or three weeks before he died and he was thinking about what he could do for his country,” she says. “Despite his wealth, he knew something had to be done to close this gap between rich and poor.” Ayrton had already helped many individuals, privately diverting money to good causes. “We knew he had done this,” says Viviane, “but it was not an organised thing, and he did not draw attention to it.” He drew great strength from his family, but relationships were strained at the start of 1994. The family disapproved of his girlfriend and wanted him to end the affair. His nephew Bruno, Viviane’s son, who had always been close to his uncle, is certain this rift affected Ayrton more than people appreciated.

“The family was always important,” says Bruno, “and maybe the bad feelings about his girlfriend had something to do with his frame of mind. His personal life and his career weren’t going as he wanted; it was a tough time. He knew the Williams wasn’t the quickest car and he had concerns about the new rules for that year. Some people have said he was considering retirement. I think he was as ambitious as ever to win.” Viviane still finds it hard to talk about her brother. Her life is devoted to the institute; she feels strongly that it is what Ayrton would have wanted.

“He asked me to plan some organisation that would help children have a better future. This was two months before Imola. I began to work on a structure – but we did not have the opportunity to talk again.

“One thing Ayrton wanted was to give a percentage of the proceeds of Senninha – his comic book and cartoon character – to the project. When he had the accident, the family decided that we would give 100 per cent of the royalties. We worked quickly – he spoke to me in March, the accident was in May and by July we had established the Senna Foundation.

“He was a determined person and aggressive in his racing. But it was his determination that made him want to achieve something for Brazil. He could not accept that so many people were living in such awful conditions in the same way he was unable to accept not being a winner.” After Imola, Frank Williams observed that, as great a driver as Senna was, he was ultimately an even greater man out of the cockpit. Bruno says of his uncle: “I always wanted to be as successful as him. I know 1993 was a tough year and he was drained by it.

“That’s when he spoke to my mother about the institute. Now we are working to make those dreams come true. He may not be here physically, but he’s here in spirit and he would be proud of what we’ve achieved.” Ayrton Senna won three world championships and 41 grands prix. He took part in 161 races, started from pole in 65 of them and led 2,982 laps. Had it not been for the dreadful events at Imola, he would surely have achieved even greater things.

In some ways he has. Consider this. In 2007, the Instituto Ayrton Senna gave help to 1,350,532 children in 1,360 Brazilian cities. It has spent a staggering £45million, the family donating all the proceeds from the Senninha characters and the licensing of Ayrton’s image to the charity.

This is a remarkable legacy, inspired by a truly exceptional racing driver.

source: ©