Senna still a symbol of inspiration two decades after his death

As Brazil marks the 20th anniversary of their national hero's demise in a tragic crash at the San Marino Grand Prix, Gary Meenaghan visits the final resting place of arguably F1's greatest world champion in Sao Paulo and looks at the legacy - and loss - from his passing
Ayrton Senna after winning the Adelaide Australian Grand Prix on November 18, 1988, with Alain Prost on the podium.
Ayrton Senna after winning the Adelaide Australian Grand Prix on November 18, 1988, with Alain Prost on the podium.
In Brazil the finest example of Ayrton Senna's enduring popularity is neither the numerous streets and highways that carry his name nor the intricate murals of him spray-painted on various neighbourhood walls.

It is not the samba school that themed its parade on his career and won this year's Rio Carnival, nor is it the local media's relentless rebroadcasting of old interviews.

The testament to Senna's enduring popularity is a patch of worn down grass in the centre of Sao Paulo's Morumbi Cemetery.

Located between wealthy high-rise apartment blocks and a sprawling favela, a vast circular graveyard that is enveloped in silence and solitude is the burial site of arguably Formula One's greatest driver.

Such is the volume of fans who still visit Senna's final resting place two decades after his untimely death that the surrounding grass needs to be regularly relaid.

"That is his grave over there," said gravedigger Mauricio do Santos Silva as he points towards a lone bare ipe tree adjacent to an area cordoned off by black and yellow tape.

"You can't go too close today because we just planted new grass. We need to do it often. The grave can attract between 50 and 100 people every day, so the grass gets worn."

Inside the cordon, embedded in that new grass, sits a small bronze plaque identical to the countless others throughout the park. Inscribed upon it are the words "Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus" (Nothing can separate me from the love of God).

Four bouquets of flowers sit in plastic pots alongside a small cactus next to the plaque. Attached to one of the bouquets is a letter from a 22-year-old fan that reads: "I'm leaving you these flowers and hope you get them in heaven so you can put them in the garden you keep next to our Lord."

Today is the 20th anniversary of the day Senna, a three-time Formula One world champion and hero in his native country, crashed and died during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, prompting the Brazilian president to declare three days of mourning.

More than a million people took to the streets of Sao Paulo to say goodbye to the 34-year-old driver as his body was transported atop a fire engine from the city's international airport to a public wake at the Legislative Assembly.

In The Death of Ayrton Senna by Richard Williams, the author details a three-mile queue around the exterior of the building and "an avenue of floral tributes piled high between walkways".

When a 21-gun salute was fired at 10am the next morning to announce that the final leg of Senna's journey was about to begin, more than 200,000 people had paid their last respects.

The coffin was then taken to the graveyard at Morumbi where a private ceremony took place.

"My father worked here that day," said Silva as he surveys the flat green cemetery void of headstones. "The police made a ring isolating the area so only friends and family could enter, but my dad told me he remembers looking out and seeing people climbing the surrounding trees and filling the balconies of these apartment towers just to get a view of what was going on."

What those from a certain vantage point would have seen was Viviane Senna, the older sister of Ayrton, standing and briefly addressing the congregation.

"Brazil is going through a very bad time," she had said. "No one feels like helping anyone any more. People just live for themselves. My brother had a mission and our family is in deep emotion today because we did not realise it had made him so greatly loved."

Her words, measured and profound, remain relevant 20 years later. It is six weeks until the start of the 2014 Fifa World Cup where the opening match will take place at a Sao Paulo stadium built by Ayrton's beloved team, Corinthians and the past year has been fraught with mass demonstrations across Brazil.

Protesters rallying against the obscene amounts of money being spent on a month-long football tournament point to Brazil's public education, national health care and transport infrastructure, all of which remain brutally inadequate.

Allegations of corruption are relentless and many World Cup projects, including airports and train lines, have been delayed, scaled down or abandoned.

"I think all Brazilians know that we could have taken more advantage of this opportunity," Viviane Senna told Reuters this week.

"We haven't developed our airports, we haven't built the infrastructure. We've done less than we could and should have. That's not opinion, it's reality."

As Ayrton's casket was being transported to its final resting place 20 years ago, one placard amid a plethora of banners and signs translated to: "You were worth more than 90 per cent of our politicians."

With elected officials in Brazil normally viewed with scepticism, Senna would likely have been a refreshing figure on the political landscape.

Sir Frank Williams, Senna's former racing team owner, said: "He was certainly on his way to becoming a president of Brazil. He had politics in mind and, if he had done so, he would probably have walked it."

The late Professor Sid Watkins, F1's chief medical officer and a close friend of Senna, said: "He had that quality - well, actually, much better quality than your average politician - he was so intent on helping the people of Brazil."

Jo Ramirez, Senna's former team manager at McLaren, said: "There's no doubt that if he was alive now, he would have been president of Brazil or another similarly important role. He always wanted to help people and his country."

When Senna's life was cut short, Brazil not only lost a sporting hero but also a potential geopolitical figure. He left a legacy that is two-fold and must not be ignored.

Firstly, the Ayrton Senna Institute, a non-profit organisation envisaged by Senna and realised by Viviane shortly after her brother's death.

It raises money through merchandise and donations and uses the funds to improve education for poor Brazilians. The institute annually helps two million children and 75,000 teachers and education professionals.

Secondly, Senna's death provided the catalyst for greater safety in F1.

After his crash, wholesale changes were implemented: circuits were rapidly redesigned with chicanes added and barriers strengthened, while cars were made with reduced engine power, larger cockpit walls and smaller front wings. Many of the safety alterations have since been incorporated into road cars.

Senna was the 33rd driver to die in F1 since the Second World War; no driver has died on track in the 20 years since. That fact alone is worth considering on a day when so many thoughts and emotions will be regarding what might have been.

This afternoon at Morumbi Cemetery, as has been the case for the majority of the two decades since his death, it is expected that a large television screen will be set up next to the grave, showing highlights of Senna's races.

Hermes Castro de Andrade, a security guard at the graveyard, said people often arrive first thing in the morning to pay their respects and stay until the sun sets.

"We are expecting a lot of people," Andrade said. "In previous years, they have flown here from all over the world - many people from Japan and France.

"They come to see his grave before anything else. It is, for them, like a pilgrimage."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM

SHARE

Editor's Picks
NEWSLETTERS
Sign up to:

* Please select one