Viviane Senna recalls a conversation she had with her brother, motor racing legend Ayrton, in March 1994. He told her how he wanted to contribute to a better future for Brazil by helping to open up opportunities for children. Only weeks later, aged 34, he was dead, killed in a May 1 crash at Imola in Italy which shocked Formula 1 to its core.
Viviane, who now chairs the Ayrton Senna Institute, told AFP that the values her brother transmitted to Brazilians earned him a mythical status she says is deserved. “He turned in incredible performances in this sport, making him one of the all-time best, though I don’t think that suffices to explain his ongoing importance 20 years later.
“What is remarkable is the way he won, performance aside. He did so adhering to values which people still admire – discipline, tenacity, persistence, passion, courage… I think Ayrton rose above the celebrity fray.”
Viviane added of the man who won three F1 Drivers’ titles to impose his mark on the history of the sport while also putting Brazil in the limelight: “He is in a mythical category, transcending time and space, and was very important in terms of the moment he triumphed.
“At that time Brazil was not well-regarded or as fashionable as it is today. People saw Brazil as a country of theft and fraud and not worth much, with myriad problems and one that did not function well economically, socially or politically. In that sense, Ayrton was the first to feel pride in being Brazilian and lifting the Brazilian flag on the podium. He scored victories in the developed world. He won without cheating, with tenacity and determination, that’s what makes him a source of inspiration today.”
Of his continuing legacy, she added that his fame endured even in countries outside F1’s race orbit. “I received a letter from a child in Latvia who told me he had stuck a photo of Ayrton on his cupboard door and that every day when he got up he looked at it and told himself: ‘I’m going to fight as you did, not let go, and overcome the difficulties I am going through.'” Had his life not been so tragically cut short Senna would still have been involved in the sporting world, Viviane says. “I think he would have still devoted himself to sport – though I don’t think he would still be directly involved with F1. Ayrton didn’t like things behind the scenes in F1, which is very political and not too orthodox.”
Viviane’s son Bruno Senna followed Ayrton’s footsteps into the racing world and she admitted that caused her concern. “The first time he told me he wanted to race I was shocked. He had never talked about it since Ayrton’s accident. Despite the fear and risk, I understand him, as my parents understood Ayrton, even though they didn’t want him to race, either.” On the lasting heritage of Ayrton, Viviane said: “There are two heritages – the one of the values I spoke about and his great passion for Brazil. He wanted to contribute to making it a prosperous country, and not just for a few. He really wanted Brazil to work, for everybody to have a chance and from this dream the institute was born.”
And the institute’s role? “It’s an organisation working with the public sector to improve the quality of education in Brazil through the training and management of teachers. We are working with more than two-million children and training 75 000 teachers a year across about 1000 cities around the country.”