Flashback: Russell Bulgin, the writer who befriended Senna

For two decades Maurice Hamilton reported from the F1 paddock with pen, notebook and Canon Sure Shot camera. This month we see Lotus’s Ayrton Senna at Detroit in 1985 with friend Russell Bulgin nearby – one of the great racing writers

Ayrton-Senna-with-Russell-Bulgin
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The photo shows Ayrton Senna typically getting down to detail with his engineer, Steve Hallam (soft cap) and the Lotus crew in the Detroit pitlane in 1985. The man I want to draw your attention to, however, is the tall Englishman on the extreme right.

This is Russell Bulgin, a brilliant motor racing writer who had a unique friendship with Senna; one of those warm, unexpected relationships that spring up from time to time between a sports star and a humble journalist. Bulgin was one of the few – arguably, the only – writer outside South America who had Senna’s complete trust. Their bond led to one of the most revealing interviews I’ve ever read about any driver – never mind the cagey Brazilian – which ranged from Ayrton’s driving technique, sense of feel and fundamental love of the sport, to the strong beliefs and values that underpinned his very existence.

A more dramatic and colourful measure of the mutual respect came in 1986 when Bulgin persuaded Senna to drive a rally car. Not just one full-house rally car, but four. And not during a quick spin around a car park somewhere, but during a serious test in a Welsh forest. It should be no surprise by now that the pair stopped off for a cup of tea with Russell’s mum and dad while passing through Shropshire, Mrs Bulgin being very impressed by this polite and charming young friend of her son.

From the archive

Bulgin had cleverly tapped into Senna’s fascination with making cars go quickly, the offer of a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, a Vauxhall Nova Sport, a four-wheel-drive 3.6 V6 Escort and Metro 6R4 proving irresistible. The resulting story, titled Welsh rarebit, is a classic piece of Bulgin prose, not only thanks to Ayrton’s precise analysis (and an instant speed that hugely impressed the rally driver car owners), but also because of the razor-sharp observation and pithy style of writing.

Bulgin would lace his work with a searing wit that would be the envy of any comedy writer. A fly-on-the-wall piece at the Brazilian Grand Prix, rather than being a dry catalogue of events, had as its theme the unlikely vision of the gangling Englishman assuming the role of Ayrton’s ‘minder’.

Russell’s loss to lymphatic cancer, 20 years ago this month at the age of 43, robbed us of an original, creative and phenomenally talented writer. As gifted, you might say, as his mate from São Paulo.