January 20th, 2012
11:59 AM ET

Can Senna restore romance to Formula One?

CNN's Don Riddell interviewed F1 driver Bruno Senna, left, in Monaco last year
CNN's Don Riddell interviewed F1 driver Bruno Senna, left, in Monaco last year

The name Senna was already on many people’s lips on Tuesday, when the eponymous documentary picked up three richly-deserved BAFTA nominations. That Williams, the Formula One team so tragically and inextricably linked to Ayrton’s death, should choose the same day to announce the signing of his 28-year-old nephew, Bruno, was remarkably poetic.

So much has been written about Ayrton Senna that his story scarcely needs retelling, even if it remains utterly fascinating. But outside of his family connections, Bruno Senna is less well-known. Ayrton himself once said, “If you think I’m fast, wait until you see my nephew!”

But the 10-year-old’s racing career almost died too on that tragic day at Imola in 1994 when his family, quite understandably, forbade him to continue. However, following a decade’s hiatus from the sport, its lure finally proved too seductive, and Bruno took to the track once more.

Eight years on, perhaps that time away from the wheel has cost him in terms of his development. On a grid that features no fewer than six world champions, Senna faces almost unprecedentedly fierce competition.

Compare him to 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton - a year younger than Bruno, but thanks to his many years in the bosom of McLaren, vastly more experienced – and his performance is actually more notable than it first appears.

Senna follows legendary uncle in joining Williams

I spent an afternoon with Bruno at his home in Monaco last year, shortly after he joined Renault as a test driver. I remember trying to clear my head of thoughts of his uncle before I met him, certain that he must be tired of the comparisons. But enter Bruno’s apartment and Ayrton is an unavoidable presence. Pictures and mementos of the great man’s incredible life adorn the walls and, as many have remarked, Bruno’s likeness to him is quite startling.

Bruno is, however, quite a different character. Open and immensely likeable, he is also relaxed about the inevitable comparisons, and understandably fond of the memories he has of his uncle. He spoke warmly of Ayrton’s affection for his family and the time he gave its youngest members. “He loved kids, so me and my sister, we always had a great time with him,” he told me.

So what exactly does he bring to Williams, a 16-time world champion team that languished equal ninth in the constructors’ standings last season? The younger Senna has apparently impressed his new employers with his technical prowess.

I had a glimpse of his passion for technology when, somewhat hilariously, he accidentally dropped his phone down the toilet. Opening up a briefcase he revealed a galaxy of tools that would grace any engineer’s workbench, and proceeded to tinker patiently with the handset in an attempt to revive it.

He also brings a significant sponsor from his home country, which may attract cynicism from some commentators, but will certainly be welcome at a team that has struggled to match its rivals of late - making its last world title in 1997 seem a very long time ago indeed.

But it is the intangible quality that he brings to Williams, and in this new partnership, to Formula One that is undoubtedly the most compelling element to the story. Ayrton only competed in three races for Williams before disaster struck, and the subsequent trial and acrimony that surrounded the team following his death might lead many to assume the relationship was scarred forever.

But the name “Senna” has adorned every single Williams car that has raced since the accident, and there is a real sense that Bruno is already part of the family. Not only that, he has looked a more accomplished driver by the year and there are signs that, given the right car, he may well be a force on the grid.

Anyone who has seen the film “Senna” will have been struck by the glamor and romance that exuded from the sport in what was an extraordinary period in its history. There is no question that in the intervening years this has waned.

The pre-eminence of the somewhat divisive figure of Michael Schumacher and a lack of competitive racing lost the sport many casual fans for a while. The emergence of technology as the dominant feature of the cars has also made it somewhat opaque and a little cold at times.

But while the technology is clearly here to stay, over recent seasons the grid has given us some of the most competitive racing in years, and the youthful vigor of Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button has injected it with new life.

Perhaps the only ingredient missing was some of the romance evoked so powerfully by Asif Kapadia’s documentary. The combination of Bruno Senna and Williams brings that to the grid in spades. Many will want it to succeed.

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Filed under:  Motorsport
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. John M.

    G Lucky!

    January 20, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  2. jerryberry

    with the money used to place this lad on the tracks it would be possible to recover an entire forest. An absolute shame that more destruction and pollution will entail.
    the billionaires who think the name Senna is associated to winning are actually loosing. We all are. We must return what we take from nature, we must. all of us. Exponents of our societies even more. What is 10 mm for these people who burn 7.000kg to fly one person for a croissant? Poor people with money.

    January 20, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  3. Darth Cynic

    You say compare Bruno to Lewis and suggest that Bruno is in fact more notable and experienced. No McLaren fan me but I do believe that Lewis has actually won a world championship, 2008 title as it happens, whilst Bruno has garnered ahhh two points in all his F1 racing. In fact Bruno's career in F1 is markedly unremarkable, talented sure but still a mid to back field driver, fairly unnoticeable to be honest. I just don't see why, in his third year at F1, he would all of a sudden bring "romance" back to the sport. What makes this year more significant than the other two?

    @jerryberry
    I wonder if you realise how many poor people you could have helped had you spent your money on them or rain-forests rather than a computer or net access? Every last free cent is not going to be spent on altruistic endeavours so criticising sports, corporations, individuals etc. for their budgets, profits and luxuries is pointless and an unrealistic demand.

    January 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  4. Stefan

    But we cannot deny the fact that Ayrton has mentioned that Bruno was extremely fast in a go kart.
    Bruno deserves a chance.

    January 20, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  5. Richard Bonilla

    ummm...doesn't he need to learn to drive and win 1st??

    January 20, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  6. Aure22

    Ayrton got all the talent they had in family and left others near nil...

    January 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  7. Dan

    Save the forests? Watching squierls racing from tree to tree in little helments instead of F1?!?

    =)

    Best of luck to this young Senna!!!

    January 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  8. Eduardo

    His "significant sponsor" is Eike Batista, the richest man in Brazil and 8º in the world with more than U$ 50 billion in assets...

    January 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  9. F1Fan

    What an idiot this jerrybery. Yes, it is important to take care of nature, and we should do all we can to reduce polution, but what in heaven's name does that have to do with Bruno getting the Williams seat? If you want to sound like you are a smart person, at least make a comment that relates to the subject. Anyways... I am excited to see Bruno racing this year. He is not his uncle Ayrton, but he does show some potential, especially when one considers that he did not race for almost 10 years while the likes of Vettel, Hamilton, and Alonso, where on the track every day during that time. I am anxious to see what Bruno can do this year as he gets a chance to continue to develop his skills. I wish him and Williams the best this year!

    January 20, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  10. YorkyRoyal

    He had quite a few good races hehind him last year, very good potential. With the right team to help him polish his F1 racing quality, he could be just like his Uncle. But, that is also not a guarantee, especially in the moment, there are 6 World Champions on the track 2012 season and some other good young drivers on the grid as well. Best teams are all occupied with firce drivers. I will still bet on that, Vetter-Redbull will be the guy-team to beat. I also hope that Kimi would get a better care from Renaut, then his return would make the F1 circuit a real exciting one. Then, the season can begins. HUuu raaayyyy

    January 20, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  11. João Henrique

    Impossible!
    Only a name is not enough!

    January 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  12. Ian

    I'm sure Senna will excel in his driving but the big question is whether Williams can deliver a half decent car!

    January 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  13. Ryan

    @ João Henrique

    Exactly!! Just look at Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Petty for examples.

    January 20, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  14. peter mills johannesburg

    I truly hope that Kimi will get, a,state of the art car,then we will see the MAGIC AND THE ROMANCE,restored to this beautiful sport,in a very short period.I would love to see, Kimi replace Mark Webber,in a Red Bull, with The Great Seb Vettel!!!! as his team mate.The two,SV and KR, would inspire one another to,Electrifying speed.The fans would flock to the sport,in their droves!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 20, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  15. Marco

    This is all game used to make glory for some driver. I think we must to find WHAT determines champion and not WHO. Senna has legacy to all world and we must to find HOW he is become so good so that until now he is know as real chamption. I think that the nephew can become real champion also if he find WHAT makes champion. Also, new F1 rules make new questions and challlenges. Go Senna go!

    January 20, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  16. Nanbawan

    Not only Senna goes to Williams but he does so the year Sir Frank's team reunites with Renault ; Bruno will then indeed drive a Williams-Renault, a car that was fateful to his uncle. And moreover, last year's Williams was sporting a livery quite similar to the 1994 one...That part may change this season though.

    Ayrton's nephew seems to follow his illustrious uncle's destiny but in accelerated motion. Bruno has already driven for Lotus-Renault, the name of the team where the Great Senna obtained his first victories in the mid 80's ; a team that was formerly known as Renault but also Benetton and before that it was initially Toleman, a stable that saw a young promising Brazilian make his first steps in F1 back in 1984...

    So what's next ? Hopefully, the current Senna won't follow his predecessor in every footsteps but who knows, if he settles in the sport he might drive for Mc Laren-Honda one day. Right now, we can just wish him good luck and that the names of Senna and Williams-Renault can fulfil this unfinished job they once had.

    January 21, 2012 at 2:51 am | Reply
  17. John

    This guy shares the absolute magnetic personality coupled to total humility and modesty that made his uncle so charismatic. But one must never forget that he only started racing cars at age 20! After his uncles accident his family did not allow it. The skill he's shown with a 10 year deficit in experience to all other drivers on the grid is amazing. This guy is the real deal.

    January 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  18. m lord

    I just wonder do any of you fools no what the hell your talking about? Think you all need to read a little more before you all comment.

    January 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  19. Ceasar

    Funny ver y funny,that guy never be like your uncle .its BIG mistake last chance to brazilian drive .

    February 3, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  20. BOEINGRULZ

    Romance???? WTF CNN???
    The real question is can Senna be as good as his Late Great Uncle? and why put him in the team that practically killed his uncle? OMG what happened to F1?

    February 12, 2012 at 9:31 am | Reply
  21. herbivore

    F1 is a walrus slipping aimlessly into boredom. Run by a dwarf out of touch with the world. Drivers as boring as can possibly be. Even Schu can't drag this sucker up for air. And a guy who has impressed nobody except himself is going to fire the sleeping sport up?Compared to his Uncle, a thrilling driver, this Senna will do nothing. Maybe Bernie should stick Kim Il Duh into a seat. He'd make it comical.

    April 13, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  22. JustJim

    I was watching live as Ayrton and Prost took each other out in Japan. I was watching live as Ayrton tore up his home GP in the rain and won it for the first time. I was watching live as Ayrton crashed on May 1st.

    Bruno – I wish you the best of luck. I am sure the expectations and the pressures are there, if only in your subconscious. You manage it well, and I have respect.

    I wish you well, and thank you for taking the risk.

    April 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Reply

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