As Senna the movie opens on August 11, Adelaide author Ruth Starke remembers meeting the young Brazilian as he was starting his meteoric rise.
HE has good skin and a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of his nose. His best features are his mouth, which is generous, and his eyes, which are warm and brown and expressive – useful for a Formula One driver where they are frequently the only part of the face the public sees. Not conventionally handsome, he has the sort of boyish good looks that will improve with age. I’m sitting near Ayrton Senna, and it’s my first opportunity to scrutinise him at close quarters.
It is August 1987 at Budapest’s Hungaroring, the race circuit about 15km east of the city. It is Hungary’s second grand prix and the fourth I’ve covered as a freelance photojournalist; I have almost no expertise in F1 and couldn’t have described a race to save my life. My brief for the newly launched, Adelaide-based magazine Prix Editions is to interview drivers but the one I most want to speak with is Ayrton Senna, the 27-year-old Brazilian who, in the last couple of years, has set the world of F1 alight.
A few months earlier I saw him win his first race at Detroit, and now he is third in the drivers’ championship, behind French champion Alain Prost and British driver Nigel Mansell. Interviewing such a rising star, especially one with Senna’s reputation for aloofness, is a daunting enough prospect, but then the assignment gets a whole lot more important. The news is just out that next season Nelson Piquet will replace Senna as Lotus’s No. 1 driver, and Senna has yet to comment or announce any plans for the future.
My invitation from Lotus promised an “intimate breakfast with Ayrton Senna”, but with this latest news the event has been overrun by a media scrum, with journos and photographers pushing and jostling for one of the dozen or so available places at the outdoor table. Everybody is hoping Senna will break his silence.
He doesn’t. This isn’t the time or place. He makes a brief, polite announcement to that effect and deflects questions from around the table on the subject.
Satoru Nakajima, the No. 2 Lotus driver, sits on my left.
Questions asked in Hungarian have to be translated first into English by a charming, but longwinded, female translator, and then translated into Japanese and related to Nakajima by his manager. When he answers, the whole process is reversed. Even the most fascinating questions lose a lot of their edge this way. But I’m not here to interview Nakajima. I’m here to find out what makes Senna tick, and by some stroke of good fortune I’ve been seated right next to him …
SENNA was too cool and controlled to let much emotion show that day but he was obviously extremely put out at the way the Piquet contract had been announced. As a small protest he was clad in a blue sweatshirt and blue cap instead of the official yellow Camel Lotus Honda gear. He told me later that he was told of the new contract less than 20 minutes before it was made public. It was this lack of consideration that rankled him the most.
“I didn’t want to hear from other people,” he told me. “I think it was only correct to hear from my team manager. A day before, two days before, I don’t know, but at least you learn it from the people you are working with. “I came to Lotus because I believed I could build up a relationship with them over many years and have success.”
Senna was too upset to talk about the situation. It seemed my interview might be derailed. Until I turned to a neutral subject. “Do you enjoy racing in Adelaide?” I asked. His eyes immediately brighten. “It’s the longest trip but it’s a nice one because I have made some friends now and I feel good there,” he said.
“The Grand Prix organisation is very good and I like the people very much. I’ll probably come earlier this year because we come straight from Japan.”
I asked him what he likes most about the city. “Flying model aeroplanes,” he said unexpectedly. “I took it up in England in 1985, then I came to Adelaide and got to know Leo O’Reilly and I became more and more interested and began to devote all my spare time to it.”
Senna told me flying model planes was “very relaxing”. “It takes your mind completely away from driving and racing. It demands a lot of concentration,” he said. “You have to be very precise, you have to be technical and know a little bit about engineering. It’s good.” Later, back home, I got the story from Leo himself, whose company at Forestville, Modelflight, made radio-controlled model planes. “I saw a picture in the newspaper of this driver called Ayrton Senna arriving at Adelaide Airport for the first Australian Grand Prix,” Leo said at the time. “On top of his hand baggage he had a model aeroplane. I rang him at his hotel and they put me straight through.
“I explained who I was and what I did and asked if he’d like to come flying. He said, `How soon can you pick me up?’.” Leo and son Mike took him to the Hallett Cove Conservation Park and taught him the finer points of flying. It was a ritual that was repeated every year Senna came to Adelaide for the Grand Prix, from 1985 to 1993. Leo remembered getting a phone call from Senna in December 1986. “It is 7.30 in the morning and I am in Tokyo,” said a plaintive voice. “I would like to do some flying with you.” About 8000km away in Adelaide, Leo organised it for him.
This week I called Leo’s son, Mike, and he remembers that Senna learnt to fly in five minutes. “It takes the average person at least five hours. Ayrton’s hand and eye co-ordination were fantastic,” he said. “By our last flying session he was a very, very skilled pilot.” Mike, who now runs O’Reilly Model Products at Lonsdale, said Senna was “the ultimate professional” and a “real gentleman”. “He had no arrogance, he wasn’t up himself, and he was always very respectful. He knew exactly what he wanted to do,” he said. That was my impression, too. He was nothing like the stories I’d read and heard.
True, I wasn’t a driver trying to pass on the inside line, but to me Senna seemed approachable, ultra-courteous, and very self-possessed. He didn’t use flippant language or slang, he very rarely swore, and he considered each question carefully before answering. When I told him I thought he was very serious and that he seemed much older than his years, he smiled. “That is because you don’t know what I’m like in my private life,” he said. “Well then,” I countered, “you are two different people.”
He allowed this but said that was a choice he had to make when he entered the demanding, unpredictable and dangerous world of F1. “You have to be strong about dedicating your time to your profession and giving a lot of time to it,” he told me. “I try to do it that way. When I’m away from the track I just try to forget about it all and do other things, especially when I am in Brazil. “I have a really different type of life and a completely different way of living, and it’s good to have this contrast.” APART from the Belgian driver Thierry Boutsen, who also flew model planes with him in Adelaide in 1986 (and who was one of the pallbearers at his funeral), Senna didn’t have many close friends among the F1 fraternity.
“Technically, it’s best to have a good contact with many people, but personally, it’s very important to choose carefully the people you are close to,” he told me. The only time I saw him completely on his own at Budapest was on the race track, behind the wheel of his Lotus. At all other times he was accompanied by his entourage; his younger brother, Leonardo, his father, Milton, his manager, Amando Botelho, and Americo Jacoto Junior, an old school friend and a sort of personal assistant.
His mother, Neyde, was also close by but seldom came to the track. He struck me as the sort of person who liked to be surrounded by the reassurance of family support and strength, who missed his country of birth and so took it around the world with him in the shape of close Brazilian friends and relatives. When I put this to him he was reluctant to agree, perhaps thinking it might be construed as a weakness. “Friends and family are important to me, yes, but they are not with me all the time,” he said.
“This season my parents have only come to one European grand prix.” He omitted to mention that he had been home to Brazil three times already that year. “It’s because they enjoy it and I like having them around. But it’s not something I need, having them here,” Senna confided. I didn’t press the point but I was unconvinced. Five years in Europe hadn’t changed the fact that Senna was happiest in his own country and within the bosom of his extended family. But he had changed personally, as Leo O’Reilly later confirmed.
“He was terribly shy when I first met him, in 1985. He came out to the factory and was almost too shy to talk to anyone,” he said. “Ayrton was much more at ease in 1986, much more self-assured.” Senna agreed. “When you travel around the world you meet different people, you live in different countries and you develop as a professional,” he told me. “You are bound to open up more of your mind. You’ve got to. And so you see things slightly different. You learn about life, you learn how to be a bit more independent and self-confident.” Girlfriends were not much in evidence at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Even when one accompanied him to places where races were being held, as Adriana Yamin did in Adelaide in 1986, they were rarely seen trackside.
I got the feeling that Senna didn’t let much distract him from the business at hand. His early marriage, to Lilian de Vasconcelos in 1981 when he was 21 and she 19, ended in divorce after eight months. He was also later briefly engaged to Yamin, but the couple broke up in late 1988. I asked him if being married and being a racing driver was an impossible combination. “It’s all relative,” he said. “It is hard for the wife all the travel, a lot of hard work, and also she has to put up with many girls always hanging around. In the end, I think what really matters is your own personality and your own ideas about your profession and your private life. It’s different for all of us.”
I teased a grin out of him, and he even blushed, when I tried to elicit something a little more specific on the subject of love and marriage. But in this, as with all such questions, he was circumspect.
“In my personal life now I’m a very happy guy, and very lucky,” was all he would say. “But I don’t particularly want to get married right now. I don’t think it is the time.” More serious and important things were on hand, he implied, and he was right. In 1988 he went to McLaren and joined his adversary, French driver Alain Prost. Between them, they won all but one of the 16 grands prix that year, and Senna won his first World Championship. To end the interview, I asked him if there was anything about his character that he’d like to change.
To my surprise, it drew the first real laugh of the day. “A good question,” he said, and this time didn’t have to think too long. “I have many, many faults that I don’t know which one to change first. I guess I’d just like to be a better person, just to improve every day. That would be my ambition.” Senna’s last win was at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix, in Adelaide. He died on the Imola track in San Marino, in the third race of the 1994 season, when his car hit a concrete wall at more than 210km/h. His great friend and teacher, Leo O’Reilly, died in the same year. I like to remember them as they were when they were last together, flying their model planes in the blue skies over Hallett Cove.
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