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Ayrton Senna: Triple champion and one of the best ever in Formula 1

Ayrton Senna was born on 21 March 1960, the second child of Milton da Silva, a successful businessman and landowner. The family lived in Santana, a well-to-do neighborhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Growing up Ayrton was an awkward child and was later diagnosed as having a motor coordination problem. His doting father, who was a motor racing enthusiast, noticed how his serious little son was also attracted to cars.

The senior da Silva had amongst his many holdings a car components company and believed that cars would be the key to reach his son’s potential. At the age of four Ayrton was presented with a 1-hp kart and getting behind the steering wheel he was a different boy, no longer awkward but focused and confident. The key had been found and every weekend the family would go to local parks where Ayrton could drive his kart. He was an indifferent student but facing the loss of his “driving” privileges he would apply himself as best he could while his heart was obviously elsewhere.


At the age of eight he was driving the family car and looked to Europe and the exploits of Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart as his inspiration. During this time the first great Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi was beginning to make a name for himself driving for Colin Chapman’s Lotus. On his tenth birthday his father gave him new full-size 100cc kart.

Since the minimum age for racing karts in Brazil was thirteen, Ayrton had to settle for practicing at Parque Anhembi, the local kart circuit. In 1972 Brazil had its first World Champion in Fittipaldi and the following year it’s first Grand Prix at Interlagos, just outside of Sao Paulo. The race was won by the reigning World Champion and all of Brazil celebrated. In the midst of this excitement was a young boy who dreamed of being not the next Fittipaldi or Jackie Stewart but the best ever.

He was finally thirteen and could race legally. His first race was that same year and held at the karting track, which was part of the Interlagos complex. Arrayed against him were all of the local hot shots including Mauizio Sala. Ayrton displaying all of the pent up energy he had built up to this seminal moment won the race. The adult Senna would later relate that karting was the perfect breeding ground for future racecar drivers. In 1977 Ayrton won the South American Kart Championship and repeated the following year.


The goal for any aspiring karting driver was Europe and the World Championships at Le Mans. Against much stronger competition Ayrton managed to finish sixth overall which was considered sensational for a driver with his experience, but he came away disappointed in not winning any of the three races which constituted the final. In 1979 he returned to Europe for further seasoning and finishes second in the World Championships at Estoril. Nivelles in Belgium the following year saw another second.

He came to England in 1981 to race Formula Ford 1600 for Ralph Firman and his Van Diemen team. Now married to Liliane Vasconcelos and living in a rented bungalow near Snetterton he quickly adapted to the 1600 cc cars. Races were held almost every weekend and at Brands Hatch, Ayrton debuted in eighth place. A week later at Thruxton he was third.

That year there were three series running concurrently, two of which he contested, and he soon found himself back at Brands Hatch. Van Diemen seeing the potential in their young driver assigned him their newest car, which he promptly put on the pole. The race was run under wet conditions and few could match his skill under these conditions. That first year in England saw him win both of the series that he contested. Ayrton was now at a crossroad in his life and to continue his racing career he would need sponsorship. With several other Brazilian drivers ahead of him in higher formulas the sponsorship money required was not available.


Frustrated, Ayrton announced his retirement stating that a bad driver with money could always get the best car but a good driver without the same was left out. He returned to Brazil and worked in his father’s building supplies business. After four months the fire that had not been extinguished continued to burn inside him and he made the decision to return to motor racing, his wife would not.

Having grown up in a life of luxury Liliane knew that life with Ayrton would be difficult and that many sacrifices would be necessary as he struggled to move up the ranks. They mutually decided to separate and his father would provide partial sponsorship in addition to a Brazilian bank for another year of racing. In 1982 he won 22 races and the championship for that year.

Fans of car racing, especially the elite Formula One format, will get a rush from the excellent documentary Senna, a profile of the rock star-handsome Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna. But Senna is a film that all audiences can enjoy–because of its big heart and its engaging portrayal of its star. And the riveting footage of Senna’s Formula One races, and his knife-edge daring behind the wheel, don’t hurt either.


Ayrton Senna grew up in Brazil, where he began his love affair with driving as a competitive go-kart racer at the age of 13. Senna follows young Ayrton’s journey into full-fledged racing, and allows Senna’s gentle personality to shine through as he begins to make his name in racing circles. The viewer learns that Senna loved the Catholic Church almost as much as he loved racing, and his humility and his ongoing love for his fellow Brazilians, especially those in poverty, would be themes that lasted throughout his life.

Senna would go on to become one of Formula One’s best and most accomplished competitors ever–and his steely nerves and willingness to take risks on the track paid off in Grand Prix after Grand Prix. Senna, deftly directed by Asif Kapadia (Far North, The Warrior), lets the singular personality and charisma of Senna–and the spectacular theatrics of F-1 racing–tell his story without any forced drama or fanfare.


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