In the baking heat of the Brazilian summer sun, rows of gleaming racing helmets line up in a four-storey warehouse. Dozens of workers are putting the finishing touches to model cars, tyres and a petrol station. And upstairs, seamstresses stitch racing suits with a word that all Brazilians recognise: Senna.

As the 20th anniversary of the death of the late Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna approaches, one samba school is preparing to mark the occasion in Brazilian style.  The school, one of the top performing groups in the city, will pay tribute to the legend, whose death on the track at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 devastated Brazil and the racing world.

At the Cidade do Samba – or Samba City – where all samba schools create their floats and follies, preparations for the spectacle to turn the solemn anniversary into a celebration are well under way.From the golden trophies, replicas of the F1 trophies lifted by Senna, to models of the fastest animals on land, everything is inspired by  “velocidade” or speed, the most famous quality of the Brazilian racing driver. “We’re going to use one line, which is velocidade. It’s everything that’s associated with speed, and the king of speed is Ayrton Senna,” explains Bruno Tenorio, marketing manager for Unidos da Tijuca.  “We’re going to use all kinds of categories of things associated with speed: internet, animals, technology, trains.”

Senna, who suffered fatal head injuries in a 305 km/h (190 mph) crash on 1 May 1994, had an impressive record of 161 Grand Prix starts and 41 victories when he died. Feted for his speed and famous for his fastest laps, he started his career in England in Formula Ford in the early 80s before progressing to Formula 1. Senna’s success made him a Brazilian hero at a time of domestic economic hardship. But despite his rise to fame, he remained acutely aware of the social inequality that blighted his country. After his death, his sister Viviane established the Instituto Ayrton Senna to promote educational programmes in his memory. Mr Tenorio says that is what Unidos da Tijuca will be celebrating.

“It’s 20 years of his legacy. During the 80s and 90s, there was a big economic depression. Everything was very bad here but suddenly, we had one guy who was the number one in a very elite sport in rich countries,” he explains. “It was very important for the self-confidence of Brazilians,” Mr Tenorio adds.  The institute and the Senna family have been closely involved in the preparations for the carnival tribute, and have visited Samba City where 300  workers are turning the vision into a reality. Elements of the parade incorporate cartoon characters and allegories, but Senna’s image beams down from one of the floats in the middle of the warehouse, a constant reminder of the inspiration for the performance.