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Ayrton Senna

(1960—1994) Brazilian motor-racing driver


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(1960–94)

A Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix motor-racing champion, son of a wealthy businessman and rancher. Born in a suburb of São Paulo, he began driving motorized go-karts on the family farm or grounds from the age of 4, in part to help him with what were thought to be physical disabilities. Leaving university (business school) at the age of 19, he went on to become three-times world champion. His greatness as a racing driver in a Europe-dominated sport was important to his nation's self-image, complementing as it did the traditional style and image of its all-conquering yet recently underachieving football side. Senna represented glamour as well as discipline, technology not tradition. After his death in an accident at the Imola track in north-central Italy, three-mile-long queues formed to file past his coffin in his home city, and three days of national mourning were declared. Richard Williams notes that most of those in the queues were under 25:Senna was young and beautiful in a country where those assets have often seemed to represent the only stable currency, and the naked distress of the young mourners—university students and McDonald's workers alike—showed very starkly what he meant to them. ‘He was our hero,’ said eighteen-year-old Silvia Barros, ‘our only one.’ (The Death of Ayrton Senna, 1995).At all of its matches at the men's soccer World Cup in the USA several months after Senna's death, Brazilian football fans carried banners saluting the driver; Brazil's goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel said that the team dedicated its ‘victory to our friend Ayrton Senna. He too was heading for his fourth title.’ Senna gave large sums to charity—$100 million to a children's hospital, $75 million for the health care of rubber plantation workers and Indians—personifying his claim that ‘the wealthy can no longer continue to live on an island in a sea of poverty’. His glamour, skill, and daring (seen as a kind of dodgem attacking style), and his philanthropy, transcended his competitive egotism and arrogance in a powerful blend that—further enhanced by his tragic early death—constituted a case of the sporting heroic on national and international levels alike.

Senna was young and beautiful in a country where those assets have often seemed to represent the only stable currency, and the naked distress of the young mourners—university students and McDonald's workers alike—showed very starkly what he meant to them. ‘He was our hero,’ said eighteen-year-old Silvia Barros, ‘our only one.’ (The Death of Ayrton Senna, 1995).

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.


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