A few months before his death, Ayrton Senna remarked the now-famous line about his sister Viviane's 10-year-old son: "If you think I'm fast, just wait until you see my nephew Bruno." We've now seen him race. But have we really?
As far as I’m aware, Bruno Senna’s first televised appearance was in the 1991 documentary Ayrton Senna: Racing Is In My Blood, in a scene where Ayrton Senna returns to Brazil after the Formula One season for some idle winter fun, and there’s young Bruno at eight, operating the Senna family powerboat on a lake (at 05:25):
Life would soon deliver him a terrible pair of blows regarding the merits of going fast. Two years after a gruesome cascade of unlikely failures killed Ayrton Senna at Imola, Bruno’s father Flávio died in a motorcycle accident.
Still he found his way to motorsports. In 2004, he drove Ayrton’s old Lotus at Interlagos for show, then a succession of single seaters for real, progressing from Formula BMW through Formula Three to GP2, the latter usually the last step on one’s way to Formula One. He finished the 2008 GP2 season, his second year in the series, in second position. Then came the strange inflection point of late 2008: the test at Honda F1 and the growing thunderheads of the global financial crisis which would tear through F1.
Unknown to all, Honda was on the verge of turning from an embarrassment into a runaway success with the first car designed under the leadership of ex-Ferrari alien brain Ross Brawn. Then, after Senna’s very successful tests, Honda pulled the plug on its F1 program.
Team drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, along with the entire operation, were out of a job until Brawn performed the unlikely shuffle of transferring the team
from Honda into his ownership, scoring a Mercedes customer engine, retaining a significant part of the team and his pair of experienced drivers, and suddenly Jenson Button was on pole in Australia, the BGP 001 was a riot, and Bruno Senna could only watch as the car that could have been his to drive ripped the field apart and claimed both championships, right there at Interlagos where he had gotten into Ayrton’s Lotus five years before.
His return to Formula One came on the contrails of Max Mosley’s last act, the mid-2009 push for new teams. He got a drive with Campos Meta, an apparently solid effort which turned into a total shambles by the time it showed up for the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix as Hispania Racing Team.
Hence the enigma. How can one possibly judge the talents of a driver who happens to be cursed with the tennis equivalent of a rolled-up newspaper for a racket? The Hispania F110 was the very definition of a mobile chicane, and even the
one metric generally useful for judging a driver in a slow car—his performance against his teammate—was of dubious merit, for how can one judge one’s performance in such a randomly terrible car? Senna’s performance against his ever-changing teammates was rhapsodic, but was it him or was it the capriciousness of his car?
Bruno Senna’s 2010 Formula One performance is about as impossible to judge as Michael Schumacher’s. The variables are numerous and confusing, and the future, unlike Schumacher’s at Mercedes, isn’t particularly bright: should Senna get a second year in the sport, it will most likely be in another Hispania and the flag he’ll most often see will be blue instead of checkered.
Is Bruno Senna a majestic racer or just a decent Brazilian driver with a famous name? Unless he meanders his way into a Formula One-class Formula One car, we’re left with nothing but the haunting, ethereal image of his eyes piercing forth from that famous helmet, an apparition of motor racing history, driving at the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed his uncle’s magnificent McLaren MP4/4, the car which had no equal whatsoever in 1988, and which gave Ayrton his first world title.
Photo Credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images, Clive Mason/Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images. Drawings by Paul Vera-Broadbent and Peter Orosz.