Damon’s mother and two sisters had been present at Silverstone to share and enjoy such a significant day for the Hill family.
That sense of personal pleasure and the privilege of representing the home country is attached to every sports person – none more so than Ayrton Senna. Following in the footsteps of Emerson Fittipaldi (who effectively established Brazil as a major player on the international motor-sport scene), Senna demonstrated his national pride at every opportunity abroad. The emotion attached to possible victory at home was not difficult to imagine. Yet the much-anticipated moment seemed to elude Ayrton at every turn.
His first seven attempts were blighted by unreliability, collisions (not always his fault), disqualifications and sheer bad luck. The first time he made it to the podium, in 1986, Senna found his Brazilian nemesis Nelson Piquet standing on the top step, and in 1990 he was third despite qualifying on pole. Going into the race in 1991, the pressure had grown exponentially with the heart-felt support and belief surging through the packed and voluble grandstands. Being the reigning champion for a second time merely cranked up this sense of national entitlement.
After eight seasons in F1, Senna had set his mind to win at Interlagos in 1991
The start of the season in Arizona had been one of concern translating into relief. McLaren had arrived with its MP4/6, a new and virtually untested car, the uncertainty exacerbated by Honda having switched from a V10 to a V12. Senna’s chassis may have been put together for the first time in the garage in Phoenix but he led every lap to score his 27th F1 victory and equal Jackie Stewart’s record.
Win number 28 at Interlagos seemed certain when he started from pole and withstood pressure from Nigel Mansell until the Williams-Renault stopped with gearbox trouble, leaving Senna to cruise home. Or so it seemed. In the closing laps, the gearbox, in Senna’s words, “went completely crazy”. Third gear would disappear and come back; fifth and sixth doing likewise without warning. For one horrifying moment, he had nothing but neutral. As the Williams of Riccardo Patrese took chunks from Senna’s lead, Ayrton feared this much-cherished win would never come. Going into the last lap, he somehow found sixth – and kept it there, the Honda managing to stutter through the slow corners at 2000rpm rather than the 14,500rpm used during qualifying. A shower had doused the track, the greasy surface making life even more difficult. As Patrese closed in, Senna had just two seconds to spare after an hour and 38 minutes of racing. But the torture was not yet over.
The relief can be seen on Ayrton Senna’s face after the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991
The physical effort required to deal with the manual gearbox had taken a terrible toll. His back and shoulders were locked in spasm, an excessively tight seat harness adding to an agony compounded by the escalating emotion of the moment. Senna had to be helped from the car. He could barely hold aloft the trophy he treasured most while looking down on the family who had supported him through thick and thin, principal among them Viviane, his elder sister.
“Ayrton’s first victory in Brazil is the one we remember most as a family,” said Viviane. “This was the missing victory. He had won many races in different countries, but never in Brazil. It was an intense emotion for him and for all Brazilian people. The fans were in ecstasy. A huge crowd gathered in front of our parents’ house, where he was recovering after the race. They stayed there for hours, until Ayrton finally went to greet them. It was a wonderful moment.”
That moment was all about the driver. McLaren and Honda were perceived locally as mere adjuncts given the privilege of benefiting from exceptional driving talent.
Twenty-four years before, the car had rightfully earned equal billing during a comprehensive home victory in the 1957 British Grand Prix at Aintree.
Stirling Moss in his Vanwall at Aintree, 1957
For years, Stirling Moss had pursued the dream of winning a grand prix in a British car. The Vanwall, funded by English industrialist Tony Vandervell, not only gave Moss a respectable chance of adding to a home win scored with Mercedes in 1955 but also doing it in a car proudly painted in British Racing Green. The Vanwall, with its distinctive tear-drop shape, needed to be driven with precision – a requirement that suited Moss and team-mate Tony Brooks to perfection. More worrying was the Vanwall’s fragility.
Sure enough, Moss lost a nine-second lead when a misfire prompted a pitstop. The bad news accompanying an inability to find a cure was compensated to a degree by the rules allowing Moss to take over the car driven by Brooks – who was still recovering, in any case, from injuries received at Le Mans a few weeks before. Moss rejoined in ninth place, his tigering drive through the field raising adrenaline even further within the enclosures.
Majestic grandstands, permanent facilities for the famous horse racecourse, lined the finishing straight. The crowd erupted as Moss accelerated out of Tatts Corner for the final time, raised his right arm rigid from the high cockpit and swept past the chequered flag. It was a heart-warming moment, not least for the man himself.