Senna: A true legend – on and off the track

Today was a rainy day in London. It was just the sort of day that would have delighted legendary racing driver Ayrton Senna da Silva (1960-1994) – three times Formula 1 World Champion and arguably one of the greatest ever Champions in the history of motorsport.  As was often said of Senna – no-one was ever better in the rain.

The rain meant I was unable to play tennis today, so I took myself to the cinema. My movie of choice? The biopic of Ayrton Senna – simply called ‘Senna’. If you haven’t seen it yet, I can highly recommend it– even if you’re not an F1 fan.

A true biopic, the movie tells the story of Senna in his own words (and those of his contemporaries) employing film footage that speaks for itself – including private home videos, fascinating behind-the-scenes ‘fly on the wall’ clips from F1’s hierarchical circus and thrilling in-car camera shots. It brings home the dangers of a sport that, since Senna’s death, has improved safety to the extent that Ayrton currently remains the last F1 driver to die on the track. It has moments of great pathos – such as when Ayrton speculates on camera that he has probably lived only half his life and smiles as he looks forward to “becoming whole in the future” (when all the while, we the viewers, know precisely the cruel fate that awaits him). It has great drama – in the races themselves and two of Senna’s most amazing drives (in Japan 1989 – recovering from a poor start and a collision to win against all odds only to be disqualified on a highly dubious technicality and winning the 1991 Brazilian GP – his beloved home GP – with only one functioning gear available for the final laps!). It even has a couple of pantomime villains – although Prost does redeem himself somewhat at the end of the movie (…you’ll have to watch the end credits carefully to see what I mean!)

However, perhaps what stood out most for me was the strong impression the movie gave of Senna the man as much as Senna the racing driver. In a curious synchronicity from my previous blog (in which I suggested that we should all be trying to do something to make this world a better place and acknowledged that the greatest charity is anonymous and seeks no plaudits) I learned through the film of the enormous amount Senna did for the impoverished in his troubled homeland (which is perhaps just one of the reasons why he is, to this day, a Brazilian national treasure whose grave receives more visitors than those of JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley combined – and why Williams GP boss Frank Williams was moved to say of him: “…he was an even greater man outside of the car than he was in it.”

This wikipedia entry on Senna (shown in bold – the underlining being my own addition) says it best:

After Senna’s death it was discovered that he had donated millions of dollars of his personal fortune (estimated at $400 million at the time of his death) to children’s charities, a fact that during his life he had kept secret. Based on a desire to contribute effectively, with the help of his sister Vivianne, a foundation was established in Brazil, Istituto Ayrton Senna, which has invested nearly US$80 million in social programs and actions in partnership with schools, government, charities and the private sector aimed at offering children and teenagers from low-income backgrounds the skills and opportunities they need to develop to their full potential as persons, citizens and future professionals.

Ayrton’s sister, Vivianne continues the work of his charitable foundation to this day.

I left the cinema with three thoughts uppermost in my mind: sorrow at the tragic loss of Senna in his prime; admiration for the positive difference he made to so many in his short life and the realisation that not all rainy days are bad days.

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