Senna remains a Brazilian national treasure
Brazilians may love football but the country that gave the world Pelé reserves a special place in its heart for another sporting hero — former world champion racing driver Ayrton Senna.
Especially here in São Paulo, the city where Senna was born on March 21, 1960 and where, after being killed in an accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, he was laid to rest. His funeral brought Brazil to a standstill and was watched by millions on live television.
For Brazilians, Senna represented more than just a racing driver or sports idol. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Brazil football team were in the doldrums and the country was in political and economic chaos, Senna’s stunning performances on the Formula One circuit where he celebrated by unfurling the Brazilian flag on his victory lap were a much needed source of pride and patriotism.
Senna, still regarded as one of the sport’s all-time greats, won 41 F1 races in his distinctive sun-yellow helmet and was crowned world champion three times — 1988, 1990, 1991 — all with the McLaren team. He appeared on the podium 80 times in all and his record of 65 pole positions stood until 2006.
But on that fateful May 1 at Imola, Senna’s natural talent could not save him as a steering column failure caused him to veer off the track at more than 190mph and hit a concrete retaining wall.
Senna’s death was nothing short of a national tragedy in Brazil. The Government declared three days of national mourning. More than a million people lined the streets of São Paulo as his flag-draped coffin was transported to the city centre after its return from Italy.
Some 200,000 people filed past his body as it lay in state at the Legislative Assembly in Ibirapuera Park before Senna was laid to rest in Morumbi Cemetery after a 21-gun salute. Only Pelé — certainly not any Brazilian leader — is likely to be deemed worthy of such a sendoff. Senna’s grave, though, reflects his modesty in life. A small rectangular brass plaque in the grass reads simply: “Nothing can separate me from the love of God.”
Such was his esteem across all sports that when Brazil’s football team beat Italy two months after his death to win their first World Cup since 1970, they dedicated the victory to Senna, a big football fan, and held up a banner on the field in tribute to him.
On the tenth anniversary of his death in 2004, members of that team, including Dunga, Careca and Tafferel, played a Formula One team that included Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso in a charity match near Imola, with proceeds going to the Instituto Ayrton Senna, a non-profit organisation that he had set up just before his death to improve education for Brazilian children.
It is as much for that lesser-known side as for his prowess on a racetrack that Senna is so beloved by all Brazilians. A devout Catholic, he grew increasingly concerned and publicly critical about the widespread poverty in Brazil. After his death, it was discovered that he had quietly donated about $400?million of his own money to programmes to help the country’s poor children.
Senna was a lifelong fan of São Paulo club Corinthians and to mark the 20th anniversary of his death this year, the entire Corinthians team lined up for a match in yellow-and-green replica Senna helmets. Fans still hang commemorative banners around the stadium and Azul, the Brazilian airline, even repainted the nose of their aircfraft to resemble Senna’s yellow helmet design.
How he would have loved to be here in São Paulo as the Seleção kicked off the World Cup in the brand new arena in the working class suburb of Itaquera that will become Corinthians’ home after the tournament.
It seems fitting that this week I shall be driving up the coast via highway SP-070, renamed the Rodovia Ayrton Senna da Silva in his honour. The temptation to put the pedal to the metal is irresistible. I wonder if Hertz have any yellow helmets for rent?
Chris Gibbons is a former Sports Editor of the Mid-Ocean News and Deputy Sports Editor of The Royal Gazette