Senna in the suburbs: How the F1 great's road to success took a pit stop in Norwich

Future world champion spent an early part of his racing career living in a quiet region of eastern England

The Ayrton Senna memorial at the Miami Grand Prix. The late racing star left his mark around the world, including in Norwich. Getty Images
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Ayrton Senna was killed 30 years ago this month while competing at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola. The incident sent shock waves around the world.

Three days of national mourning were declared in the Formula One great's home country of Brazil and hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Sao Paulo for his state funeral.

Senna, who died aged 34, had become more than just the pre-eminent Grand Prix driver of his generation. His charisma, blinding talent and unyielding desire to win made him a source of fascination even to those with little interest in motor racing. He was as much a global figure as a sportsman.

The fame, adulation and enormous wealth of Senna’s later years contrasted sharply with the circumstances of his early racing career, when the Brazilian lived in obscurity in an anonymous two-bedroom bungalow in Norwich, a leafy city in the county of Norfolk, eastern England.

Senna moved there in 1981 so he could compete in the Formula Ford 1600, a single-seat racing series several rungs below F1, for a team based at the Snetterton circuit about 35km away.

Making of a legend

His spell living in Norwich is easily forgotten, but it represents a period in the racer's life that was crucial to his later success. "It was the most important year of his life. It was make or break," Tom Rubython, author of The Life of Senna, often regarded as Senna’s definitive biography, told The National.

"He had just come out of karts. There was no guarantee he would be able to make it in single-seaters."

Today, there are few indications in the Norwich suburb of Eaton that one of the all-time sporting greats once made his home there. Some properties in the UK have a blue plaque detailing a famous former resident, but Senna’s semi-detached former home in Rugge Drive, a peaceful road, bears no physical reminder of its notable past.

The house’s current occupant, Milan Kesic, 49, knew nothing of the Senna link when he bought the property, now extended to three bedrooms, about six years ago.

"The real estate agent, they didn’t mention it," said Mr Kesic, a programmer from Croatia who lives with his wife and daughter. "I asked them later why they didn’t mention it. They said maybe some people don’t want to live in houses where famous people lived. Neighbours mentioned it. That’s how we found out."

Mr Kesic described the link to Senna as "like a funny thing" and something that he enjoys mentioning to guests. "It’s like entertainment. I don’t take it too seriously," he said. "It’s kind of cool. I like it … when I mentioned this to my friend he said, ‘You will have to open a museum.’"

For the 1981 season, Senna was signed to the Van Diemen Formula Ford 1600 team, run by Ralph Firman.

Firman’s wife, Angela, helped to make arrangements for Senna and his wife, Liliane, to take over the lease of the house in Norwich from another up-and-coming Brazilian racing driver, Raul Boesel, who also would later compete in Formula One.

While Senna, in his first major step into the European single-seat racing scene after much karting success, was helped by his team to settle into life in Norfolk, it was not always an easy experience.

He came from a wealthy family, but his father, Milton da Silva, had been reluctant to bankroll his son’s racing ambitions. So the young driver and his new wife had to adopt a modest existence.

Career at a crossroads

"Senna was under pressure from his family to go back and run the family business," said Mr Rubython, who edits BusinessF1 magazine. "They thought this was a flight of fancy, this racing stuff he did.

"They came from a very pleasant Brazilian climate to a very unpleasant English climate. Their only friends were the other Brazilian drivers.

"It was hard travelling all over the country with very little spare money, although he was the son of a wealthy family. His father kept him very tight for money because he didn’t approve of what his son was doing. It wasn’t a great existence. It was hard, although that that was what he loved doing."

Despite the circumstances, on the track Senna’s winning streak continued. He triumphed in a dozen of the 20 races he entered in the Van Diemen and secured two Formula Ford 1600 championship titles.

Yet at the end of the 1981 season, with his family keen for him to hang up his racing overalls, he declared he was heading back to his home country and would give up his motorsport ambitions.

Eventually, he changed his mind and returned to Europe, albeit this time without his wife, as the couple separated. "She realised racing meant more to him than she did," Mr Rubython said.

The Life of Senna reports that Senna then lodged, again in Eaton, Norwich, with Mauricio Gugelmin, another Brazilian driver destined for Formula One, and Gugelmin’s wife.

The 1982 season was another triumph for Senna and it was followed, in 1983, by championship success in the more powerful Formula 3 series.

On track for superstardom

In 1984, Senna finally became a F1 driver and he showed breathtaking speed driving for the Toleman team. Ever ambitious, he left Toleman after just one season and raced for the following three years with Team Lotus, who were farther up the grid. The move caused Senna to renew his Norfolk links.

Team Lotus, which had won seven Formula One constructors' titles under founder Colin Chapman, was based at Ketteringham Hall, an attractive 15th-century manor house outside Norwich.

The road car manufacturer Lotus, which Chapman also founded, was based near by, in the countryside in Hethel.

While Senna was no longer living in the area, Clive Chapman, son of the Lotus founder, said the Brazilian driver was a regular visitor to Ketteringham Hall.

"My father died in 1982 and that left my mother having to run the team or lead the team, and happily nearly all the team stayed on and tried to make it win again," Mr Chapman told The National. "Peter Warr was the effective team principle. He had worked with my father for many years. He pulled off a great achievement in signing up Ayrton. At the time, all the other teams were trying to sign him."

Senna won his second race with Team Lotus, a famously wet Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril, where he lapped all but one of the other drivers who finished.

"The team knew if they could give Ayrton half a chance, he was going to take it. He was going to go faster than anybody else in that car and get it home somehow to the mechanics. That was the most fantastic inspiration," said Mr Chapman, who leads Classic Team Lotus, which runs vintage Lotus F1 cars.

"He used to visit after every race. He would visit all the time. There would be a big debrief. Certainly, he came to the factory much more frequently than any other driver."

Championship glory

Ultimately, to achieve his ambitions to win the world championship, Senna had to move on again, and he joined McLaren for the 1988 season. In his six years with McLaren, Senna won three world titles, often duelling with his arch rival, French driver Alain Prost, whose unmatched tactical nous was pitched against Senna’s blistering speed.

With McLaren becoming less competitive, Senna joined Williams for that fateful 1994 campaign, when he was killed on May 1 in the third race of the season while being chased by Michael Schumacher.

Three decades on, the public’s continued fascination with Senna is reflected, Mr Rubython said, in the continued brisk sales of his biography of the Brazilian, which the author said has sold more than one million copies in several formats and languages.

"It’s a phenomenal book; it won’t stop selling. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s to do with him," Mr Rubython said. "If you go to races, there are still stalls selling his merchandise. He’s got this appeal, a bit like Princess Diana."

Since Senna died, numerous other drivers have won several world titles, among them Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Does Mr Rubython think any of them is equal to the mercurial Brazilian?

"Max Verstappen has proved he’s the best of all time. He’s vastly superior to anybody who’s gone before," he said. "Senna was very temperamental. Verstappen doesn’t have a temperament like that … Senna was quite emotional, which cost him at times.

What if it was only about speed? "That would be a real contest and perhaps he [Senna] would win, but if you put them together, I think Verstappen would wipe the floor with him," Mr Rubython added.

Even if others have eclipsed Senna’s achievements, at least in statistical terms, memories of the Brazilian endure, including in the quiet corner of eastern England where he once lived.

In recent years, a few hundred metres from Senna’s old home, a tiny gated cul-de-sac in Eaton has been built and named after him – Senna Drive. Set in pleasant suburbia opposite an estate agent and a supermarket, this appropriately named road offers a permanent reminder of the area’s unlikely links to a motorsport great.

Updated: May 16, 2024, 11:35 AM