Bruno Senna claps his hands together, trying to mimic what it is like to crash head-on into a wall at 180 kmph. No racing car driver gets to Formula 1 level without some mishaps, and Senna is telling me about one that occurred when, driving for the Williams team, he was navigating a series of turns at the Singapore Grand Prix. Suddenly he lost his grip as the vehicle skidded in a puddle and the car’s rear stepped out.
“It was one of those crashes that takes the air out of your lungs because I hit the wall very hard,” says Senna, age 29, whose wavy hair and narrow face bear some family resemblance to his uncle, the late Ayrton Senna. “You only really see how fast you are going when you are out of control.”
Senna’s uncle was one of Formula 1’s greatest champions and one of the most internationally recognised Brazilians ever. The Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning when the three-time Formula 1 championship winner died in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy in 1994. Millions of people lined the streets when his body was repatriated to São Paulo, where a principal highway is named after him.
This legacy could seem a heavy burden to carry for a young man building his own racing career. But sitting in a Starbucks in São Paulo, Senna, 29, seems to bear it lightly as he cheerfully describes what life is like in the driver’s seat of one of the world’s most popular sports, his passion for motor-racing and, above all, what it is like to be a Senna.
His love affair with the accelerator began at the age of five, when his grandfather placed the boy in a go-kart on their family farm in São Paulo state, southern Brazil. “If you think I’m fast, just wait until you see my nephew Bruno,” Ayrton Senna is reputed to have said in 1993.
Senna recalls that Ayrton and his grandfather would race him in a larger go-kart. If the boy tried to overtake on the outside on a curve, they would push him off the track – showing him how to guard the inside of a bend against rivals. Ayrton also taught him mechanics, invaluable for a racing driver when dealing with his engineers. “He used to let me treat the engine, the carburettor, change the spark plugs. I used to tune his jet ski’s engine for him.”
The young Senna was ready to begin racing more formally when the terrible news came about his uncle’s death. Two years later Senna’s father, Flávio Lalli, was killed in a motorbike accident. The tragedies put an end to the boy’s dream of pursuing a professional career in the sport until his late teens, when he convinced his mother to let him do a test drive at São Paulo’s Interlagos racetrack.
With the help of Austrian F1 driver Gerhard Berger, an old teammate of Ayrton’s, he joined the British Formula 3 series, shrugging off scepticism that he was already too old to start a racing career. It was here, in 2006, that he tested the family’s nerve again by writing off his car in a massive, cartwheeling crash. He remembers getting out in one piece and running over to reassure his mother.
“She was really, really nervous and worried about the whole racing thing and the dangerous side of it but she learnt the hard way that it’s much safer than it was before,” he says.
Senna eventually made his Formula 1 debut with Hispania Racing in 2010, moving to Renault in 2011 and then Williams, Ayrton’s old team, last year.
“My first factory visit was crazy, people came with photos and stuff to show that they had worked with Ayrton so it was really interesting,” he says of joining Williams.
But earlier this year, shortly before we met, Williams dropped him in favour of a Finnish driver, Valtteri Bottas. Senna reportedly will leave Formula 1 this year to race for Aston Martin in the FIA World Endurance Championship. Like his uncle before him, Senna is openly critical of the politics of Formula 1. He believes that his performance for Williams – he finished 16th in the overall championship – was hurt by the team’s decision to award many of his practice sessions for qualifying position to Bottas to give the rookie experience.
A quirk of F1 that some fans do not understand is that it is a team sport, affected by a multitude of factors, he says. “People think Formula 1 is a sport like tennis, and it is basically the driver who wins or loses the race, but in Williams it takes 500 people to put two race cars on the track. When you think about it, it is the biggest team sport in the world.”
So what about the pressure of being Ayrton’s nephew? Senna says he knew his name would be both a blessing and a burden when he began his career. “There’s pressure, there’s expectation,” not only from Ayrton’s legacy but from Brazil’s history of other great drivers, including Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet. As in football, which Brazil dominated during its golden years, this has made Brazilians demanding fans, only willing to support winners. People “get frustrated that I’m not Ayrton”, he says.
There was even talk at the beginning of the 2012 season that the substantial sponsorship package he carries with him made him a “pay driver”, someone teams hire for their financial backing. But he showed “flashes of promise” during the year including a strong performance in the Malaysian Grand Prix, according to Andrew Benson, BBC Formula 1 chief writer – not bad for a new driver.
“In terms of racing itself it was a very strong year, I had many strong races and the learning curve was pretty steep,” says Senna.
So how would Ayrton, whose famously aggressive style was immortalised in the 2010 film Senna, fare if he were driving today? Technology has narrowed the gap, says his nephew. Cars are more reliable and every driver can now push his car to the limits with less fear of breakdowns. But Ayrton had qualities that would still stand him in good stead.
“He was able to feel the grip very well … probably better than anyone else ever,” Senna says. And he was willing to run very high stakes for victory. “He would really take risks that sometimes other guys would not be willing to.”