domingo, 5 de outubro de 2008
Bruno Senna: The Man From Uncle
Bruno Senna demands to be known as a racer in his own right, not because of his name according to The Scotsman’s Richard Bath
HIS WAS almost the most meteoric rise and fall in world motorsport. By the age of 10, despite having won just one karting race, the little Brazilian was already being lauded as a future world champion. By the time he celebrated his 11th birthday he had gone into an early, enforced retirement.
Sounds unlikely? Not when your name is Bruno Senna and your uncle Ayrton, arguably the best Formula One driver of all time, had already heaped a world of expectation on your young shoulders by informing the world that: “If you think I’m good, just wait until you see my nephew, Bruno.” That’s almost the exact moment when Bruno’s career abruptly stalled. Just months after lauding his nephew, Senna was dead, crashing at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at the wheel of his Williams.
But it wasn’t his uncle’s death, traumatic though it was for his mother Viviane Senna Lalli, that put paid to his youthful dreams. That moment came the following year when his father Flavio Lalli died in a motorcycle accident. Viviane had already lost her beloved brother, now her husband lay dead: she was not going to allow Bruno to place himself in harm’s way. She made the little boy hang up his crash helmet.
At the time he didn’t mind too much. He had enjoyed five years of almost constant competition and while he loved it, and was outstandingly talented, he could see how much his mother was hurting. He’d try other sports, he thought, find himself a new passion to replace the adrenaline surge he felt every time he roared away from the start line in his little kart.
Yet Bruno never found a replacement for karting, never found a substitute for the thrill he got from racing. Instead, he thought ceaselessly about his famous uncle Ayrton, the man whose off-season visitations brightened up every summer. He remembered their times on the beach and their karting duels.
“Most of the memories I have of him are from when he was doing his training in Brazil after Christmas and at New Year, when we spent a lot of time together in the beach house,” says Bruno. “We’d go water skiing and play ping pong. I wasn’t too bad for a kid but he never let me win.
“Whenever he was in Brazil during his racing career he would come to the farm (in Sao Paulo] and we’d drive the go karts together and have a bit of fun. He was very competitive and would always be trying to see how he could bring out that competitive spirit in me too. Everything he did he had to win, no matter what. If someone put pepper on his food for a joke he had to get this person back; that’s the way it was with him.”
Not that Ayrton had it all his own way. When he and Bruno raced on the family’s private karting track the youngster won: not once, but consistently. Yet although he walked away from the track the day his father died, he was missing in body only. In his mind, he was still a racer. He still yearned to be back behind the wheel. “There was,” he says quietly, “never a point at which I didn’t want to go racing.”
From the age of 15, he kept quiet for the sake of his mother and his grandfather Milton da Silva, who had introduced both Ayrton and Bruno to racing. Ayrton’s father had never got over his death and Bruno knew instinctively that the subject was not open for discussion: he was not to go racing, he was not to discuss racing. His grandfather still refuses to discuss his racing career with him. Meanwhile, his mother busied herself with a foundation started by her brother, raising $80m to help underprivileged children, but Bruno had no outlet for his aspirations.
When he reached 18 the dam burst. He was working with his grandfather, selling cars, and was depressed. He didn’t want to go out; he had no motivation; he was pining for the sport. When his mother asked him what the matter was, what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, it all came out. “She wasn’t angry, but she was very surprised,” he says. “I’d been away from it for eight years and hadn’t mentioned it once, so she had no idea how much I had missed it, how I’d watched all my old friends, guys I used to beat, winning kart races and had wanted to be out there racing against them.”
Staging a comeback at 20, Bruno made up for lost time. He had little choice: many thought the loss of those eight lost years, during which the other drivers would have been honing their reflexes in kart racing and building the instinctive skills they needed for bigger, faster cars, would mean Bruno could never compete. Yet he only competed in four races in 2004, three in British Formula BMW and one in Formula Renault, but he qualified second in his third race and finished second in the Formula Renault.
And, on the 10th anniversary of his uncle’s death at San Marino, an Italian friend presented him with a 1986 Lotus 98T, the car in which Ayrton had won at Interlagos in 1991 and 1993. When Bruno drove the car at the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix it created a sensation: it was a real declaration of intent.
The mercurial Brazilian backed up the bravado, too. In 2005, he was on pole once and the podium three times in British F3; in 2006 he had five wins and nine podiums in British F3 and won three of four races in Australian F3.
“When I first started racing I was desperate to achieve results quickly,” he says. “But without the experience it was very difficult. I expected a lot from myself and would get very upset when I didn’t achieve the results I thought I was capable of. The first step was to put out of my mind other people’s expectations of me, and to stop trying to live up to what other people thought I should be able to do. As I got to know more about racing and about the car, my competitive nature kicked in and I worked harder and harder.”
Yet as Bruno pushed, so he reached the outer limits of his abilities. At Snetterton in 2006, just two laps into the race he was careering down the Revett Straight, the fastest piece of track in Britain, when he and Salvador Duran touched wheels at 150mph. Bruno took off, clipping the underside of the bridge and landing in a mangled wreck hundreds of yards further down the track. “It’s fairly scary when you can see blue sky and know that you’re only going to stop when you hit something,” he says of a crash that is now a “and-they-walked-away” staple on Youtube.
Given the loss of his father and uncle during his formative years, didn’t his proximity to genuine danger prey on his mind? I asked. “I’ve never really thought about Ayrton when I’m racing. I think I’m like all racing drivers in that I don’t think about the dangers. I never stop and contemplate the possibility that I might crash and hurt myself – that thinking just doesn’t come into it with me. And if I have a crash the first thing I think about is the mechanics not being too happy with me, the second is that I’m losing practice time or race position.”
After Snetterton, Bruno’s preoccupation was making sure he showed he wasn’t fazed. Predictably enough, he was straight back and qualified second at Spa. He wasn’t so lucky in Macau, though: this time his car hit the wall at more than 150mph. “I shook myself up a bit. I hurt myself a little, I battered my knee and burnt my hands. There wasn’t much left of the car.”
He was clearly doing something right because by 2007 he had a drive in GP2, the recognised precursor to Formula One. And he didn’t just survive: he thrived, finishing in the top 10 with the Red Bull feeder team. This year, though, he has been outstanding after moving to the iSport International team. Indeed, had he not had a run of desperate bad luck – in Istanbul he hit a stray dog and had to retire, at Spa he was hit with a swingeing stop-and-go penalty for the most minor of infringements – he might have beaten Italian Giorgio Pantano to the title.
As it was he finished second, winning a lot of admirers in the process. “I’ve been pleased with the way things have gone. I’ve achieved a lot, especially changing people’s minds. That’s really important to me: I want people to understand that I do this because I love it and because I want to be successful, not because I’m related to someone famous.”
With 10 days to go to his 25th birthday, a drive in Formula One beckons for the Brazilian. He says he has been approached by five teams. Renault, BMW and Honda all have spaces, although realistically Bruno would be looking at a role as a Test driver at any of that trio. More likely is Red Bull or Toro Rosso, the Ferrari-engined heirs to Minardi’s minnows mantle whose departing driver Sebastian Vettel won the Italian Grand Prix three weeks ago.
The assumption is that he will go to Toro Rosso where his uncle’s former teammate and friend Gerhard Berger, who has also taken on the role of Bruno’s mentor, is the team principal. The driver bridles at the implication. “Toro Rosso is not the only option,” he says, “even if everyone thinks that I will go there because Gerhard is a friend of the family and that he’ll give me an opportunity because of that friendship. But Gerhard would be the first one to say that’s not how things work.”
In fact, while he knows that his name will bring a lot of interest, Bruno is now at the stage where he believes he can expect to be treated on merit. He has, he says, earned that right.
“Of course the name helps me, but my uncle can’t drive the car for me – I have to do that myself. No-one’s going to give me a drive if they don’t think I can handle it. He was a great example to me in many ways and I’m trying to stay true to the way he approached life. But I don’t think about him when I’m racing, I don’t need him to inspire me – I’m a racing driver because I love motor racing, I love competition. Ayrton Senna was my uncle, but I am my own man.”