Ayrton Senna's Legacy Extends Far Beyond the Track 20 Years After His Death

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2014


Ayrton Senna is rightly remembered as one of the greatest drivers to ever sit behind the wheel of a Formula One race car. His 41 wins, 65 poles and three world championships are still near the top of the all-time lists—although they could have been so much more.

The safety improvements that followed his and Roland Ratzenberger's deaths at Imola in 1994 are also frequently mentioned as part of his legacy, and they are certainly important, as well.

And yet, those elements do not come close to telling the whole story. 

Yes, Senna's on-track brilliance was inspiring to his legions of Brazilian fans and to millions of others around the world. But away from the circuit, he wanted to use his wealth and influence to empower poor, young Brazilians to improve their lives.

For the last 20 years, through the Instituto Ayrton Senna, that dream has become a reality.

On the 20th anniversary of Senna's death, two people close to him—his sister, Viviane, who is president of the institute, and her son, the ex-HRT, Renault and Williams driver, Bruno—agreed to written interviews to share their memories of him and his desire to assist those less fortunate than him.

* * *

"Ayrton was always ready to help others," Bruno told me. "He would always take some small things to give to kids when he went training in public places. Sometimes bits of sports equipment and sometimes just something he was carrying with him.

Viviane and Bruno Senna
Viviane and Bruno SennaNelson Antoine/Associated Press

"Most of his donations and help towards children before the Instituto were done anonymously and he could really understand just how important his education and family structure had been to his success in life, so he wanted to give a little bit of that to others."

Shortly before he was killed at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, though, Senna had a conversation with Viviane. He told her that he wanted to organise and formalise his efforts to help young, poor Brazilians and to promote education.

That desire was instilled in the Senna children from a young age. Although they came from a privileged family, it was also a family that took their responsibility to help others seriously. Viviane said that her parents, "always emphasized respect for others and compassion for those without favourable living conditions."

After Senna's death, looking for a way to honour his legacy, the family founded the institute. It quickly became apparent, Viviane told me, that to really make a difference, the scale of the project needed to be much larger than individual students, or even schools.

Instead, according to the institute's website, its goal is to develop, "educational programs, replicable in large scale," to improve the quality of public education throughout Brazil.

* * *

While European and North American F1 fans may not have heard of the institute, they may have unknowingly contributed to its mission through their purchases: The profits from all officially licensed Senna merchandise help to fund the Institute's work.

Viviane Senna
Viviane SennaDaniel Vorley/Getty Images

Viviane said that, following her brother's death, she, "realized that the victorious image of Ayrton would serve a great cause. ... One of the legacies that Ayrton left us are the values he demonstrated on and off the track, which serve as fuel for our work: Motivation, determination, resilience and pursuit of perfection."

Those feelings were echoed by the current Brazilian Minister of Sports, Aldo Rebelo, who told me in an email interview that Senna's "professional approach to his job was left behind as heritage for those who manage the Ayrton Senna Institute. In a country like Brazil, where despite the social advances achieved in recent years, there is still a lot of inequality, this organisation's work is very important."

Indeed, Senna's motivation and determination appear to be a family trait. Viviane told me that she regularly puts in 12-hour days, both through her work at the institute and on the boards of other organisations, where she is constantly advocating for the cause of public education.

And all that work has certainly borne fruit. Bruno estimated that the institute has helped more than 12 million Brazilian children and teenagers through its programs, which have led to fewer dropouts, higher passing rates and more students completing more years of study.

* * *

While Senna could be—and often was—ruthless on the track, he was quite different away from the F1 circus.

"It was always fun times at home," Bruno remembers. "He tried as much as possible to disconnect from the stress of motor racing and his public life. Ayrton really enjoyed pulling pranks of all sorts with his friends and family."

Viviane recalls that "Ayrton was very reserved, was not very fond of the spotlight and cherished his privacy. He always came back to Brazil when he had a break from training and between races."

Senna celebrates his victory at the 1992 Italian Grand Prix.
Senna celebrates his victory at the 1992 Italian Grand Prix.John Gichigi/Getty Images

Senna always made sure to demonstrate his fondness for Brazil in public, as well. "When he climbed on the podium with the Brazilian flag," his sister said, "he wanted to let people to know where he came from and the pride that he had in the country, even with so many social problems."

That pride in his country was reciprocated by the people of Brazil—and that reciprocal love remains undiminished 20 years after his death, no doubt in part due to the work of the institute.

"I believe that Ayrton’s greatest legacy in Brazil is definitely the Instituto Ayrton Senna," Bruno told me. "It started from his wish to help people to develop their potentials and have an opportunity in life, just like he did."

So as we approach the anniversary of Senna's death and look back on his remarkable career, let us also remember the incredible impact he had—and continues to have—on the lives of millions of Brazilian children and their families. 

Thanks to William Mattos for his assistance with the translation of Viviane Senna's comments.  Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter: