From humble beginnings

In 1981, Da Silva wound up in Attleborough with no contract, just the hope of landing a break. Van Diemen founder Ralph Firman gave him a shot, and has just finished restoring Senna’s first title winner

The simplicity is striking, likewise the purity of purpose. There are no frills, no major sponsors, no immediate clues that Van Diemen RF81 chassis 528 has particular significance, just two small, plain signatures either side of the cockpit: A Da Silva. In 1981 the driver had still to adopt his mother’s maiden name as a professional moniker, one that would shortly acquire global resonance: Senna.

This is the car that launched the Brazilian’s senior career and it has just been restored by Ralph Firman, the man who created the Van Diemen marque and later gave Ayrton Da Silva an opportunity in the UK racing mainstream with his factory team. A very great deal of the chassis is original – and it came back to life on the same Norfolk industrial estate that it was originally built, albeit in a different workshop.

“At the end of 1981 it was sold off as just another second-hand car,” Firman says. “I can’t recall the buyer’s name – I think he was an American serviceman, based at Lakenheath, and he did a bit of racing with it – but when he returned home two or three years later he asked whether I’d like to buy it back. Ayrton was in F1 by then so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I subsequently stored it in a workshop, where it stayed until I decided a few years ago that it was probably about time I did something with it.”

That something was a full restoration, returning the car to its former glory. The process has just been completed and Motor Sport visited Firman at his base to witness the result. In so doing we are the first people to see it for decades. It is a piece of genuine racing history and it is hard not to feel the significance of the moment as we peel into a busy industrial estate. The car that set one of the greatest drivers of all time on the road to stardom awaits, immaculate in period livery.

“Like anything that’s left in a tin shed, it had deteriorated,” Firman says, “it needed a total strip-down. It’s the same chassis. There wasn’t too much damage – it just needed to be cleaned and powder-coated. We needed some new wishbones and radius rods and a fresh set of body panels had to be made.

“Gerrit van Kouwen [the 1984 Formula Ford Festival winner, and still an irrepressible FF1600 enthusiast] had some original championship stickers, which he lent us so that we could get them copied. He also found us a correct, period-spec Minister engine – not one that Ayrton would have used, but mechanically identical. Many of the other bits, though – steering wheel, pedals and the fuel tank – are original.

“Unusually, Ayrton’s RF81 was fitted with outboard brakes while all the others were inboard – just an experiment that we later adopted on our 1982 models. It helped to keep the discs a little cooler, but in overall performance terms I’m not sure it made much of a difference. None of the other RF81 drivers seemed to notice, or at least they never mentioned it.”

Firman built many thousand Van Diemens between founding the marque in 1973 and selling it to American Don Panoz 29 years later. Does this one have a particular resonance? He ponders a moment and says, “It does, because of the type of bloke Ayrton was…”

THE TWO WERE introduced late in 1980, by former Van Diemen racer – and future Grand Prix driver – Chico Serra. Firman says: “Chico kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to sign this guy when he makes the move to cars.’ Ayrton was busy karting at the time, so I waited and waited until Chico eventually rang and said, ‘Right. He’s ready. He wants to race in England… but he’s got no money.’ That was nothing new, but he came over and we had an introductory dinner at The Doric restaurant, in Attleborough.

“It was hard to form any initial impressions because he spoke barely any English – Chico was there to interpret. At first I think Ayrton wanted me to pay him, which wasn’t exactly the plan, but we eventually settled on a deal whereby he brought £10,000 to the team – and back then the going rate for a full programme of races plus testing was very significantly more than that. I think it’s fair to say that we gave him a hefty subsidy.

“He was very well known in karting when he came to us, but that doesn’t always translate. I’ve run many drivers who did well in karting because they were small and light, but didn’t look so good in a car. That wasn’t the case with Ayrton.

“It took him a few attempts to score his first win, but after that he never looked back. At that time, many kart graduates wanted their Formula Ford car to do what a kart would do – so they’d hustle into a corner, scrub off speed and then complain that the engine was down on power because they were slow down the following straight! Ayrton quickly worked out that he needed to adapt his technique and, once he’d done that, he was away.”

And then some. He was fifth on his FF1600 debut at Brands Hatch on March 1, third a week later at Thruxton and then notched his maiden victory, back at Brands Hatch, the following Sunday. He finished each of the 20 races he started, taking 12 wins, five seconds, a third, a fourth and a fifth – enough to secure him the RAC and Townsend Thoresen championship titles.

It had been a potentially combustible campaign, with highly rated Argentine Enrique ‘Quique’ Mansilla in a second works Van Diemen and Mexican Alfonso Toledano in a third (these two all but coming to blows after taking each other off at Brands Hatch), but the artist still known as ‘Da Silva’ usually had their measure.

“It was sometimes a bit difficult,” Firman says, “but there were three main championships and we tried to keep the drivers apart when we could. Mansilla and Toledano were both extremely capable, but Alfie in particular couldn’t understand why Ayrton was quicker. One day he turned up with his mother, who I think was a lawyer. They were pressing me about why Alfie wasn’t winning and I said, ‘Look, I can’t explain why you’re not winning but you need to learn from Ayrton – that’s the best thing you can do. There’s nothing wrong with your car.’

“A number of years later I attended the Mexican GP and bumped into Alfie and his mum, who offered to take me out for dinner. They wanted to thank me for the advice I’d given them all those years beforehand, but admitted it had taken them a few years to accept that I’d been right. Ayrton just had an extra edge.

“I always found him very loyal and incredibly straightforward. You might not always like what he said, but you knew what he felt. I remember one Monday morning, after he’d won a race at Mallory Park by about 10 seconds, and he was sitting at my desk by nine the following morning, saying, ‘Yes, Ralph, but the engine was rubbish…’ He was always a pusher and a shover, but that was fine. I liked that. Drivers were supposed to be demanding, if they were hungry enough, and Ayrton was always in our workshop – he turned up most days, totally focused and involved.

“My only regret is that he didn’t do the Formula Ford Festival at the end of the season. He said there was some family matter at home and warned me that he might not be able to take part – but also pointed out that the meeting wasn’t mentioned in his contract! I explained how much I wanted him to do it, but he said he was off to Brazil and would telephone me on a specific date if he could race. So I waited and waited, then started to worry and offered his car to Tommy Byrne – I’ll never know why I didn’t simply build another car for Tommy [who won the event]. And then, on the very day that he said he’d phone, Ayrton was as good as his word. He called and told me, ‘Ralph, I’m heading for the airport now…’ I explained that I no longer had a car, because I hadn’t been sure whether he’d return, which I guess must make me the only bloke who ever refused him a drive.

“When he rang again the following February, said he wanted to race in FF2000 and asked what I could do for him, I told him to get on a plane as quickly as possible…”

SENNA SUBSEQUENTLY CLINCHED the British and European FF2000 titles in a Van Diemen before winning the 1983 British F3 Championship and then graduating to F1 with Toleman, but he never forgot his roots.

“In time my wife Angela and I got to know him very well,” Firman says. “He stayed in touch throughout his career. When he was racing in F1 for Lotus, not far from our base, he’d turn up unannounced on the doorstep, with his bag, and stay with us for a week or two. I think he knew he could come here without anybody else knowing – a refuge where he could find a little peace and quiet.”

Was his time in FF1600 reflective of a golden period in motor racing?

“I think so,” Firman says. “Through the 1970s and into the ’80s I believe we saw the very best of junior racing. Any driver from anywhere in the world wanted to come to England and race in Formula Ford. It was just so competitive, but by the mid-1990s there were more categories and you rarely saw the cream in the same place at the same time.”

And does he have any particular plans for the RF81? “I did wonder about putting Ralph Jr [his son, former Jordan F1 driver] in the car for the historic category at the Festival, but then thought, ‘Hang on, I don’t want to run the risk of having to rebuild it all over again…”