For the love of his country

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He was a hard racer, but Ayrton Senna was also a caring man who was appalled by the poverty in Brazil. We travelled to São Paulo to meet his sister Viviane and talk about the legacy he left behind.
By Rob Widdows

When Mateus goes to bed he settles down on the kitchen floor beside the cooker. There are seven people living in two rooms. It is hot and there is no ventilation apart from windows that have no glass. His father is in prison. His mother goes out to work and does her best to persuade Mateus to go to school. He cannot read or write. Next door, up above and down below, it is much the same.

Less than a mile away an armed guard stands outside a pair of steel gates. Beyond, a gardener moves sprinklers around perfect lawns. Another man washes a sparkling black Audi. On a balcony above, shaded from the sun, a woman tends to beautiful plants in large pots. A silver Mercedes-Benz appears, crunches across a gravel driveway and waits at the gates.

This is Rio de Janeiro in 2008. The pattern is repeated throughout this vast land. Brazil is not so much a country suffering a social divide as two countries, one on either side of a canyon. This is the nation that shaped and inspired Ayrton Senna. Not the racing driver, but the man.

On the top floor of an office block in Santana, the northern district of São Paulo, a small team of people dedicate themselves to building bridges across this ever-widening canyon. They are led and passionately motivated by Ayrton’s sister, the remarkable Viviane Senna.

Fourteen years after his fateful accident at Imola, the Instituto Ayrton Senna, a charity established with funds from the triple World Champion’s legacy, has saved millions of children from falling onto the scrap heap, sliding into the oblivion of drugs, crime and life on the streets.

The problems that face Brazil, particularly poverty in its major cities, are not getting noticeably better. If anything, they are becoming worse. As the rich get richer, so the poor become poorer. The deprivation in some areas of this vast and beautiful land is simply gut-wrenching. If it was not for the sheer spirit, the pure joy in the souls of so many of the people, there might well be meltdown. And it is this tide of division, of deprivation, that Viviane Senna and her team are trying to stem. By chipping away at the edges they are beginning to produce results and get to the heart of the problem. In recent years the Brazilian government, now led by President Lula, has begun to take notice of the educational schemes created, and put in place, by a charity that has remained resolutely independent from mainstream politics.

The story begins in the winter of 1993. Ayrton had finally decided to leave the McLaren team after winning three world championships and establishing himself as one of the greatest racing drivers in history. To Brazilians he was a god, to the rest of the world a mortal with a miraculous talent and a mercurial personality. At once both ruthless racer and gentle man, ferociously ambitious and deeply caring, he was two men.

A committed Christian disciple of his god and a fiercely focused fighter with an overwhelming desire to win. At almost any cost, to himself, and to others.

But, in the winter of 1993 and on into the early days of ’94, he was tired, worn down by business worries and the weight of his extraordinary success. More than that, he had doubts about his decision to move from McLaren to Williams; the car was far from his liking, and Michael Schumacher was in the ascendancy. A man, even a god, can only take so much and Senna was starting to feel the strain.

Viviane remembers this time, aware that her brother was not his usual self, not empowered with his customary energy and zeal.

“Yes, it’s true, absolutely,” she says quietly, bowing her head and searching for the words in English rather than her native Portuguese. “As he was accomplishing his own dreams, he started wanting to see other people have opportunities to fulfil their dreams and potential as well.

“He was these two people, very tough and very hard sometimes, even ruthless as you say, but he could be so caring, so gentle. He spoke to me a couple of months before he died and he was starting to think about what more he could do for his country, for the people who had nothing. He had always been aware and he loved this country deeply, not just because he came from São Paulo, but because – despite his privileges and his wealth – he knew something had to be done to try to close this gap between rich and poor.”

Senna had already helped many individuals, privately diverting money to causes, or families, that had been brought to his attention. But these were single donations, responses to a crisis or cheques written in the desperate hope that a part of his fortune might alleviate the misery of his own people.

“We knew, of course, that he had done this,” says Viviane, “but it was not an organised or planned thing, and he did not draw attention to it. Nothing was ever discussed or recorded in any detail. It was an emotional response to what he saw, what he knew and what he was told or shown.

“But in 1994, just two or three weeks before the race at Imola, he was in some different frame of mind when he asked me to help him set up some kind of organisation, a charity if you like, to tackle the increasing poverty. Children were always uppermost in his mind; he loved children, and he knew that unless something was done to improve their chances of a proper education then they would have no future. He believed that, with the right opportunities and with proper schooling, you could achieve anything.”

The Senna family is extremely close, very tightly knit, with a lot of importance placed upon the family living and working as one and presenting a unified strength in times of both success and difficulty. Ayrton drew great strength from his family and kept in close touch, but relationships were strained at the beginning of ’94. The rest of the family disapproved of his girlfriend Adriane Galisteu and had made it clear to Ayrton that they would prefer he ended the affair. His nephew Bruno, Viviane’s son, who had always been close to his uncle throughout his childhood, is fairly certain that this family rift affected Ayrton more than most people appreciated.

“The family was always important,” says Bruno, back in Brazil for a break before another season of GP2 racing, “and I think maybe the bad feelings about his girlfriend had something to do with his frame of mind in 1994. His personal life wasn’t going great and his career wasn’t going as he wanted; it was a tough time for him and he was trying to work it out. I have a girlfriend, you know, and I will take advice from my family, perhaps because of what I saw with Ayrton at that time. I will be more open to what my family is saying than Ayrton was – he’d always been very close to the family but there were a lot of other things going on, and maybe that’s why he chose not to listen to what they were saying about his relationship.

“And remember, he knew the Williams was not going to be the quickest car and he had serious concerns about the new rules for that year. He felt the cars were going to be hard to drive, that there were dangers, that people would have accidents. Some people have said he had begun to feel exhausted and was considering retirement. I don’t think that was the case at all; he was as ambitious as ever to win, as competitive as he always was. But it is true that he had begun to think about other things in his life and he was somehow a little different in 1994; worried about the Williams, certainly.”

Viviane still finds it hard to talk about her brother, especially on a personal level, even though she spends every working day with his memory. Her whole life is devoted to the institute, to improving the lives of Brazilian children. She feels strongly that it is what Ayrton would have wanted her to do. For him, and for Brazil.

“He told me he wanted to help in a more systematic way, not simply one person here, an institution there, and another person here – it had to be more organised. So he asked me to plan some system that would help children and adolescents to have a better future. This was not long before the race at Imola. So I began to work on a structure – but we did not have the opportunity to talk again.” She speaks quietly, slowly, choosing her words with care. “So we had his wish in our hands, and we wanted to fulfil his dream. Ayrton did not know how to help. He wanted to do something for his people and he asked me to think about how such a scheme could be organised.

“One thing he did know, and that was that he wanted to give a percentage of the proceeds of Senninha – his comic book and cartoon character – to the new project. Then, when he had the accident, my family and I decided that we would give 100 per cent of the royalties earned from the licensing of these characters. And we worked quickly – he spoke to me in March, the accident was in May and by July we had established the Senna Foundation. It was hard; we had to do everything ourselves in the beginning, and we had a lot of research to do to identify the most important areas for our work.”

This was very much the dream of one man, a man who became acutely aware of the horribly divided society in which he had been brought up.

“Ayrton did not want to be an exception in his own country,” says Viviane. “He had seen children begging in the streets, and knew there was something terribly wrong. He knew he was a privileged person and he felt that he owed it to all those Brazilian people who had helped to make his own dreams come true, to put him where he was in the world. He was able to fulfil his own potential and he wanted to give others the same opportunities by improving education and by helping to provide the means to do this.

“Ayrton had learnt a lot from living in the Formula 1 environment – he always said it was a very difficult environment – and he had made changes within himself to cope with that kind of life. Over the years in F1 he was becoming a more closed-up person, someone who kept his feelings inside him, someone who found it increasingly hard to express his innermost emotions, and in that sense he was a different person in 1994 than perhaps he was when he first went into racing. Maybe it was a little to do with his belief in God but you cannot separate his religious beliefs from him as a person or from his relationships with other people. So I’m not sure about that.

“The biggest reason that he wanted to help was because of his passion for his country and his connections with his country. And Brazil had a relationship with him; it was a mutual relationship, and for the people Ayrton represented the light in the eyes of the country.” She smiles and pauses. “You must understand that most Brazilians do not feel good about themselves; they don’t think they are successful, they feel somehow inferior. But Ayrton represented something more exciting, a man who had found success, who seemed to be perfect, somebody they could look up to and try to emulate. There was so much corruption, so many political and economic problems in Brazil, but the people saw Ayrton as someone who had succeeded in an ethical way, in a moral way, and so he was some kind of hero for them. Ayrton was the first man to fly the flag for Brazil, to celebrate his country, at a time when so many of us felt ashamed to be from Brazil. He took our flag to the world and it made us proud.”

Many motor racing ‘insiders’ have expressed some surprise at this other side of such a tough, ruthless and ambitious Grand Prix driver. His thoughtful, caring side was not much discussed in the paddocks and pitlanes, the focus invariably on his aggressive tactics and almost desperate desire to be the best on every lap, at every race.

“Yes, I suppose that’s true, “says Viviane. “He was a very, very determined person and he was certainly very, very aggressive in his racing. But this was the same determination that he used in his personal life and his values cannot only be judged by what he did on the track. Ayrton had very strong links with the Brazilian people and it was his determination, his aggression if you like, that made him want to achieve something for them. He simply could not accept that so many people were living in such awful conditions in the same way that he was unable to accept not being a winner on the track. This was his personality and he used it in a positive way as well as in his desire to win in motor racing. Later in his life he was determined to help other people find a better way of life for themselves, and I guess” – she pauses for a while looking out at the skyline of São Paulo – “you could say he was a hard nut with a softer centre.”

This is a view of Senna that is supported by those who worked with him. Jo Ramirez, team co-ordinator at McLaren through those golden years, was very close to Ayrton, talking to him often about the problems facing Brazil.

“He loved children so much, and they loved him,” remembers Jo, “and he spoke to me often about how much he wanted to help them. He came from a privileged background but he was always aware that so many Brazilian children had no real chance in life, and through no fault of their own. He never refused an autograph or a photo with children; he had this great love for the new generation, and he was very, very fond of Bruno, almost like a child of his own. He was more and more proud of being a Brazilian towards the end of his life, and he always made a point of carrying the flag, wherever we were in the world. I felt he would have become the Minister of Sport in Brazil, or some kind of government minister. He was so methodical, so well organised, and he had this really frightening will to win, whatever it took. But he was more gentle away from the racing and I know he was very upset that his family disapproved of Adriane. They never accepted her but I always felt she was the one for him, that they would have been married.

“By the end of 1993 he was overdoing it, he had too many commercial things going on. You name it, he was putting his name to it, and then Schumacher was starting to push him as well. It was becoming too much. I’m not saying this had anything to do with the accident, but I know he was under a lot of pressure.”

Another man who appreciates the legacy of Senna is Pat Symonds, who was at Toleman when the Brazilian used the little team as his stepping stone into F1. “He was a deep thinker, a religious man, a man of decent morals, and coming from a very wealthy family he saw the appalling divisions in Brazilian society. So I’m not a bit surprised that later in his life he wanted to be charitable, to put something back into his own country.

“When we suspended him at Monza, after he signed for Lotus, he was devastated. It was an utterly ruthless decision but he saw it as a logical step and afterwards I think he respected us for taking action against him. It made him think. He was very young then, of course, but deep down I think there was this caring person, the qualities we came to know about at the end.”

In 1994, after the tragedy of Imola, Frank Williams observed that, as great a driver as Senna undoubtedly was, he was ultimately an even greater man out of the cockpit than he was sitting in it. Something the family had always known. Bruno has some enlightening, and typically thoughtful, things to say about the uncle he loved. This young man, now trying to forge his own racing career, is very much in the mould of the more famous Senna.

“He was my first reference. I always looked up to him, and wanted to be as successful as him. For me, it was very special to have such a hero from inside my family, and even when we raced karts together he was always very competitive,” he smiles.

“Ayrton was not exactly a fragile person, but he had a very open side to him, very naïve sometimes, and motor racing has never been a sport for naïve people. So he hardened himself and this hard side he used in his racing; he was often hard and ruthless in competition. But there were many moments when you could see his softer side coming out, for example when there were accidents, and when he was at home with his family. For those who didn’t know him well, it’s hard to see that side of Ayrton, but he was a very kind person and totally normal, much softer, when he was away from his motor racing.”

Going back to that winter of 1993/94 Bruno remembers Ayrton being in some way troubled, not his usual positive and motivated self: “The only other time I saw him like this was in 1989 at Suzuka, in the war with Prost – he was very low at that point. When he started with Williams he was worried about the handling of the car, the problems they had with the car at the start of 1994, and he spent a lot more time in Europe.

“He was worrying about a lot of things, about his businesses, and he was always on the phone. I think he foresaw some of the problems that would come in the ’94 season and he was disappointed with the car, thinking he might not be in a position to win. He knew it would be hard work and I don’t think he felt as safe as he would like; he said the car was very difficult to handle, and he liked to drive on the limit.

He took more risks than other drivers and he realised he was taking even bigger risks with a car that wasn’t exactly well sorted.

“I know 1993 was a very tough year for him and he was mentally drained by the end of that year, and he was a bit less smiley, a bit more uptight than usual. There were personal problems too, with the family, and it’s true that the family felt that Adriane, his girlfriend at the time, was not right for him. They liked her but they were trying to persuade him to finish the relationship.

“So it was a tough time, the family pushing him in a direction he didn’t want to go, and at the same time not feeling good about his career. There were too many things going on for him, and that’s when he spoke to my mother about getting the institute organised. He had so much good in his life, he wanted to give some back. Now we are working to make those dreams come true. He may not be here physically, but he is here in spirit and he would be proud of what we have achieved in his name.”

Ayrton Senna won three world championships and 41 Grands Prix. He took part in 161 races, started from pole in 65 of them, and led 2982 laps. Had it not been for the freak accident at Imola, he would surely have achieved even greater things.

In some ways he has. Consider this. In 2007 the Instituto Ayrton Senna gave help to 1,350,532 children in 1360 cities in 25 Brazilian states. It has spent a staggering £45 million, the family donating all the proceeds from the Senninha characters and the licensing of Ayrton’s image to the charity. This is a remarkable legacy, inspired by a truly exceptional racing driver.

The Senna Foundation in action
São Paulo school that is taking children away from the streets and a life of crime, and giving them a chance to learn

“Rich men cannot live on an island surrounded by poverty. We all breathe the same air. We must give a chance to everyone, at least a basic chance. If we want to change something, we must start with the children through their education.” Ayrton Senna speaking in São Paulo in 1993.

To understand the scale of the problems facing Brazil you have to see the Senna legacy in action. In the corner of a playing field on the campus of São Paulo University, a tunnel underneath a vast concrete grandstand has been converted into classrooms. Gloomy corridors are brightened by pictures of the man who gave so many children a chance. I am introduced to Carina, whose mother brought her to the charity when she was a small child, fearing that she would drop out of a dilapidated state education system. Now Carina wants to train as an educator with the foundation, taking advantage of a scheme that has produced no fewer than 67,000 teachers throughout the country.

“I love it here,” says Carina. “It’s changed my life and I want to work with children like me who have had this opportunity to make their lives better.”

Outside boys play five-a-side football, learning to live together in teams, away from the hostile streets. Almost every Brazilian boy dreams of football stardom, while the foundation integrates sports education with school support classes, art and healthcare as well as reading and writing.

They come by bus from the poorest suburbs of this sprawling cauldron of a city that struggles to keep a lid on over 18 million souls. Their friends, likely as not, are selling trinkets at traffic lights, getting involved in drugs. These are the lucky ones, scooped up by Viviane Senna and her team.

Their teacher tells me: “Sometimes all they need is a hug. They come from difficult places but they have spirit, they make the best of what they have. And we can give them a chance.”

In the past five years the Senna Foundation’s Youth Superaction programme has been adopted by the government as public policy in São Paulo. As Viviane says: “Our challenge is to bridge the gap between the two Brazils.”

Her brother would be extremely proud.

• For more information on the foundation log on to http://senna.globo.com or e-mail [email protected]

DSJ on…
How joy turned to despair for Senna at Team Lotus

When Senna joined Team Lotus I asked him whether he would not have rather joined Scuderia Ferrari, and his reply was that as a Brazilian the name Lotus meant much more than Ferrari.

When I queried this he simply pointed out that it was Team Lotus that had made Emerson Fittipaldi World Champion. He was so happy that Team Lotus had asked him to drive for them, and he hoped to emulate his fellow countryman and do his best.

Without question he did his best for them, but he found them wanting and during 1985 he lost a lot of certain victories due to Lotus mismanagement, Lotus engineering letting him down or the Renault engine failing. These frustrations were bad enough when they lost him races, but on top of that there were similar occasions during practice and qualifying, which the television viewers never see, or hear about. At all times Senna was totally confident that he could make the fastest lap, but he needed the machinery to do it with, and there were times when mechanical or electrical problems sidelined him for most of the qualifying session, leaving the way open for others to claim the pole position which he rightfully considered could have been his.

He was very patient and philosophical about it all, until about two-thirds of the way through the season when such troubles began to make him a little irritable, but he controlled himself admirably.

Taken from Motor Sport, March 1986

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