As motorsport fans around the world celebrate the life of Ayrton Senna, the three-time World Champion who was killed 20 years ago (1 May) when he crashed from the lead of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, there is a special resonance for Formula Ford competitors.
This weekend (3 – 4 May) Dunlop MSA Formula Ford Championship of Great Britain contenders will be racing at the Thruxton circuit in Hampshire, which was the scene of Senna’s maiden Formula Ford podium finish.
Ayrton had travelled to Britain in 1981 as a 20-year-old to further his racing career after success in karting in his native Brazil. Like many aspiring drivers before and since, he decided that Formula Ford was the ideal environment in which to learn the art of singleseater racing.
Senna made his debut at the w heel of his works Van Diemen Formula Ford 1600 at Brands Hatch in early March 1981; he impressed with a fifth-place finish. A week later he w as at Thruxton, finishing third, and the week after that Senna stood atop the victory podium for the first time after a dominant maiden w in at Brands Hatch in streaming w et conditions.
Ayrton w nt on to w in 12 out of 19 races that season to take outright victory in the RAC British Formula Ford Championship and also the Townsend Thoreson Formula Ford Championship.
There are a few living links between the early ’80s era of Formula Ford and today’s EcoBoost age, most notably Alan Cornock, who was then running the successful Formula Ford chassis manufacturer Royale and w ho today represents the dominant Formula Ford supplier Mygale.
Senna w as a deadly rival to Royale’s lead driver, Rick Morris, remembers Alan: “Ayrton was driving the works Van Diemen and was very much our number one competition. He was very young w hen he arrived but even then was totally dedicated to w hat he did – winning w as all that he was interested in.
“I remember we beat him several times with Rick, w ho w as a lot older, and it didn’t go down very w ell with Ayrton. Rick was an experienced and talented driver but an amateur and a married man, while Ayrton was the young up-and-coming professional, and he didn’t like being beaten by him. He was that type of character.
“I don’t think anyone at the time ever really thought that Senna would go on to be as remarkable as he was. There w ere a lot of quick young South Americans coming over at that time and he was certainly one of the best, but I don’t think anyone recognised him at the time as being a future World Champion. As time went on and he moved up to race other things it became more obvious that he was exceptional,” said Cornock.
In a further link to the past, the current leader of the Dunlop MSA Formula Ford Championship of Great Britain, South Africa’s Jayde Kruger, last year shared a drive in a Radical sports car with Rick Morris.
Following his initial success, Senna returned to Britain in 1982 and stepped up to the Formula Ford 2000 category. Again he won the two most important championships, the Pace British FF2000 and the European FF2000 Championship, and the following season claimed the British Formula 3 title.
Senna’s Formula 1 career began with the Toleman team just three seasons after his Formula Ford debut and he claimed his first Grand Prix victories with Lotus in 1985. The first of his three World Championship titles followed with McLaren in 1988, and he took his final Grand Prix w ins in 1993, at the wheel of a Ford-engined McLaren.
Gerard Quinn, Head of Ford Racing in Europe, said: “Senna had this extraordinary ability to squeeze every last drop of performance out of a car. I remember watching him win the 1993 European Grand Prix in torrential rain at Donington Park – he was breathtaking in the McLaren-Ford that day. We at Ford Racing are tremendously proud to have had an association with Senna during his early racing career in Formula Ford.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of his debut and the 20th anniversary of his legacy, Proud Galleries is presenting the official Ayrton Senna exhibition, a celebration of the man considered the world’s greatest racing driver. Working in partnership with Sutton Images and the Ayrton Senna Institute, this collection of photographs, taken by Keith Sutton, chart Senna’s titanic career, from his beginnings in Formula Ford to his domination of Formula 1. Further details of the exhibition are available at www .proud.co.uk. All photographs ©Keith Sutton / Sutton Images