Keith Sutton recalls Aryton Senna winning the Formula Ford 2000 championship and the after party.
I met Ayrton when he’d just arrived in England in 1981 and was racing in Formula Ford 1600. I was working for a Brazilian magazine that wanted pictures of Brazilian drivers racing here. I went to Thruxton, and searched through the programme. I saw the name Ayrton Senna da Silva, found him and photographed him all day, in the pits and on the track.
But I didn’t introduce myself because I was a bit shy. I was 21 and he was 20 – it was his second race in England. He finished third. The following weekend at Brands Hatch he asked me in broken English why I had taken all those pictures of him. He needed publicity in Brazil and asked me to be his photographer. I said, yes of course, if you pay me. That day he went out, won the heat and then won the final.
Ayrton won the FF1600 championship that year and in October he shocked us all by saying he was retiring from motorsport. He was going back to Brazil to help his father on the farm. I thought I’d never see him again. Then, in February 1982 I got a call. ‘Keith? I’m back. I’ve got a drive in FF2000.’ He told me he wanted to be a Formula One driver. I said, great, I want to be a Formula One photographer. Let’s do it together.As well as photographing him, I started doing his PR – I designed some headed notepaper with his helmet on, and I sent out race reports. He was winning everything. Near the end of the season he said, I’m competing in Denmark next and I’m going to win the championship and I want you to be there to record it.
It was a really fantastic weekend: he won the race and the Formula Ford 2000 championship – and we had a party afterwards. It was the first time I’d seen him drink alcohol; he had one gin and tonic and he was pissed.In 1983 he won the British Formula Three championship. I was still living at home, and one day my mum said, ‘Some bloke called Bernie Ecclestone rang, and wants to talk to you about Ayrton.’
In Formula One Ayrton wanted me to be his exclusive photographer. It was an honour but I couldn’t do it; by then I had set up a photo agency with my brother. But he paid for me to go to Rio for his first Grand Prix in 1984, which was a dream come true for a 24-year-old. After that he moved on, winning everything, and I moved on. But he was very special. The last time I saw him was at Imola, that horrific weekend when he died.