In a small 16th-floor room in the business area of the megalopolis of São Paulo, the family of Ayrton Senna – the fastest, most committed and greatest of all Formula One drivers – gathered and shed fresh tears over their terrible loss of 20 years ago.
The occasion, at the Ayrton Senna Institute, in a leafy street well away from the infamous favelas, was this week’s unveiling of a stunning new portrait of the three-times world champion by the British artist Ian Berry.
Lewis Hamilton, who was on his way from the previous grand prix in Austin, was not there. But there was no need for him to be. The leader of the current generation of drivers (he has won 10 of this year’s 17 races) carries a mental image of Senna just as vivid as Berry’s finest creation. And a depiction of his hero was there, in the lights of his imagination, as he prepared for Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix, the penultimate race of the season which could take the British driver a step closer to his second world title.
“I come here and I still feel his presence,” he said, with faraway eyes. “It’s amazing. He lives on through his fans and the country. It’s one of the most special things I’ve ever seen anywhere. I met his niece yesterday and got positive feedback. She said his mum [Neide Senna da Silva] is a fan, which is amazing, so I can only take positives from that.”
Hamilton, who has won the past five races to build a lead in the world championship of 24 points, added: “When I was younger I used to put on this one particular video, Racing is in My Blood. I watched that God knows how many times.
“He really inspired me as a kid and he still does today. I’ve always said I’d love to emulate him as a driver. The fact that, every now and then, someone may mention my name in the same sentence as his, I feel really proud and honoured by that.”
It is not just Senna but the city of São Paulo that seems to evoke a special mood in Hamilton, for the place defines his very being. It was here, in 2008, that he won his world title. “It was obviously a really intense weekend, because everyone was supporting Felipe Massa.” It was here, too, that he failed to become champion in his thrilling rookie season of 2007, when he went into the final race with a lead of four points, only to be denied by gearbox problems. He has never won at Interlagos, though he went close in 2012 when he was leading the race only to be shunted by Nico Hülkenberg.
“This is, of course, the most intense part of the year, and this time round I feel much different to how I was in 2007 and 2008. I feel excited, but I feel relaxed. I feel we have a great car and great team.
“I will go into my winter knowing I did everything that I could, and I won’t look back and say if only I’d done that or this. I’ve done everything I can, and at the end of the day that’s all you can do. So I feel comfortable where I am.”
He shares the Mercedes garage with the one man who can deny him in the championship, Nico Rosberg. “It’s a long time ago – I think it was 2000 – when I was fighting Nico in the championship in karting. I would say this year is very similar to that. If you look back at that year it was a really strong year, but this year is a lot more intense, a lot more physical, a lot of stress and strain.
“Back then we were enjoying go-karts, eating pizzas every weekend, fighting all the time, just having fun, whereas now it’s all business so it’s different in that respect.”
Was he having any nightmares about the double-points issue in the last race in Abu Dhabi? “No. Usually my dreams are about ladies … with Nicole. My dreams are pretty good with Nicole. I don’t really dream much about racing, and I’m not at the moment.” And what about Nico? No, he said, he wasn’t dreaming about him. Much laughter.
Back at the Ayrton Senna Institute, the artist Berry, who was born in Huddersfield 30 years ago, said the entire experience was the most emotional of his life. He only signed the picture at the insistence of Senna’s mother.
“At one point, when I spoke, I choked when I quoted Ayrton’s comment: ‘Wherever you come from, whoever you are, be who you want to be.’ Because when I was young and said I wanted to be an artist everybody said I couldn’t be.”
Hamilton has no doubts, he wants to be Ayrton Senna.