One of my earliest memories is of my dad crying in front of the television, right after Ayrton Senna crashed in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. My understanding at the time was minimal as I was only four years old, but later I came to understand that Senna is one of the few Brazilian personalities who made the whole country proud.

Brazil was fresh out of a military dictatorship when Senna got a real chance to win the Formula 1 Championship in 1988. Democracy had only been established for three years and politicians were still trying to find their footing in the new system. The people had been under a repressive government for the last twenty years and misery and poverty were left behind to be dealt with by the new government.

Besides the turbulent economy and the inflation soaring high, the new government was failing to deal with social problems and was settling into a system of corruption we see in the Brazil of today. The people were unhappy and the country’s self-esteem was at an all-time low after the hopes that a democracy would bring better life to the people were completely crushed.

The idea that everything was better abroad quickly settled in. As one of the people showed in the documentary Senna said, most people preferred to hide that they were from Brazil – there was no pride in it.

But then came a man who not only was brilliant at what he did, but was proud of who he was and where he was from. He embraced the Brazilian flag – something that had only ever really been done in the World Cup – at a time when no one wanted to embrace it. He believed in himself when no Brazilians would have dared to do the same.

As most Formula 1 racing drivers, he had come from a privileged background which means he wasn’t under much hardship when he lived in Brazil. But he became someone people could rely on when nothing else in the country was reliable.

It was actually the perfect distraction from hardship. Senna even had a French archenemy Alain Prost for the people to turn their anger against. It might seem like silly competition between countries but it was a lot more than that for Brazilians.

Prost was a first world country racing driver who Senna often overtook on the track – in the midst of political unrest and extreme poverty, the people of Brazil could say they were better at something than a country in Europe, a country in the first world that had it all figured out already! This was massive for a Latin American country that had just come out of a dictatorship and was struggling to find its footing in the world.

And Senna wasn’t one bit unworthy of admiration. Besides giving Brazilian people something to believe in, he was extremely charismatic and generous. He gave back to the community and made donations to charities that tackled one of the country’s biggest problems; education. In the eyes of the Brazilians he wasn’t just a brilliant racing driver; he was a true saviour.

The day he died was a national tragedy, it was one of the few days the whole country was in unison, everyone felt the same and everyone was crying. We had lost the country’s only hope to be grand without relying on football or empty politicians’ promises.

But though his death is a sad mark in Brazil’s history, he left his hope behind. His existence rose people’s spirits to start believing that Brazil could really be a great country despite its many problems. His death will always be a mystery but he will forever be remembered as Brazil’s one and only hero.

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