A personal account of Ayrton Senna – before F1
Dennis Rushen and Ayrton Senna were lifelong friends. This is the story of the eventful years Ayrton spent in Formula Ford with Dennis’s team Rushen Green Racing – as told by the man himself. Thanks go to Henry Hope-Frost for the interview.
“I remember vividly the day I first saw and met Ayrton Senna, in 1981. My Rushen Green Racing workshop was based at Snetterton and there was a Formula Ford 1600 race going on in the background. It was a dull, grey day and as I walked back to the workshop I saw the pack coming round Coram. There was a black-and-yellow Van Diemen with a good lead. And then it started to rain. Next time round the black-and-yellow car was several hundred yards in lead. I turned round and went back to the pits to find out who it was.
“I introduced myself to a 21-year-old Brazilian kid called Ayrton Senna da Silva. His English wasn’t great, but we got by and I told him the next step on the ladder was Formula Ford 2000, with the two-litre engines and wings, and that my team was doing rather well in the British and European championships that season with Tommy Byrne. He nodded as though he understood.
“However, at the end of the year he went back to Brazil with his young wife – he didn’t even do the end-of-year Festival at Brands Hatch. I thought that was it and I’d have to wait for the next one to come along.
“Soon after, another Brazilian driver Chico Serra, who’d won the Festival a few years before in the works Van Diemen, said to me: ‘I’m OK, aren’t I, Dennis? I mean, I’m a good driver?’
“I told him that he was and he fired back: ‘Well, I’m going to bring over someone seriously good, someone really special’. Turned out he was talking about Ayrton.
“Ayrton had phoned Van Diemen boss Ralph Firman, who’d run him to all that success in 1600 in ’81, and told him he was coming back. Ralph supplied me with the RF82 FF2000 car and we set off on another British and European adventure with Ayrton Senna da Silva. Funnily enough, and not many people know this: the da Silva [his paternal surname] bit was dropped after he saw a guy with the same name in a Brazilian newspaper. We told him that was like Smith in English, so he announced that he didn’t want to be Ayrton Senna Smith, but just Ayrton Senna.The human side
“As I’ve mentioned when I met him on that grey day at Snett, his English was not good. Initially, his conversation with the boys in the team revolved around two words, one beginning with f, the other with c – and the variations on a theme. In fact, he used to sign my Christmas cards ‘To my dear old friend Dennis, you f…… c…!’ The charming thing was he didn’t know the right and/or wrong time to use them.
“We soon bonded with him, and nicknamed him ’arry. We thought that was easier than ‘Eye-Airton’, which was the correct way to pronounce his name, of course. He hated it when people called him ‘Airton’ – even dear old Murray [Walker] changed it at the end, but Ayrton hadn’t minded Murray getting it wrong for years – he thought Murray was a wonderful guy, as we all do.
“He had a good sense of humour – witness all the shenanigans with Gerhard Berger in Formula 1 in the 1990s. People actually don’t know the half of it, I’m sure. People said he was arrogant. He wasn’t – he was shy, yes, but he made good, close friendships. His first friends when he settled here, people like Ralph Firman, fellow racer Mauricio Guglemin and, I’m honoured to say, me, remained his best friends.
“There was a lot of pratting about, and he drove me to distraction quite often, but I was incredibly fond of him and he was so magic in the car that it didn’t matter. We all got a real buzz when he came into the workshop, even when he turned up late because it had been too cold to get out of bed any earlier. He hated the cold!
“When we were in Denmark for the FF2000 race at Jyllandsringen, where we clinched the European championship for ’82, he got pissed and nicked a scooter and did wheelies up and down the street on it. He wasn’t always the sensible, god-fearing, clean-living bloke people imagined. He even spent the night with someone else’s wife that night. Allegedly!
“One of the most telling early examples about his character and all-consuming self-belief – and the way he punished himself over mistakes he’d made – came at Zolder earlier in that ’82 season. He’d got a girlfriend on the go and asked if he could borrow my [hire] car to go and see her if he won the race. I told him that would be fine and I’d make my own way back to England. He was 15 seconds in the lead and inexplicably fell off. No car, no girlfriend. He was utterly furious and had to drive me home instead. He didn’t talk to me for three days after that. We saw a similar thing at Monaco in 1988, didn’t we?
“A lot was made about his religious beliefs, especially when he became world famous, but he never mentioned it to me. He didn’t walk around carrying a bible or anything, but there was definitely a spiritual aura about him, a magic if you like. He had a line to ‘upstairs’, I’m sure.
“When Ayrton drove for me, he was just miles and miles better than everyone else – we won so many races that year. It was such a big deal when he didn’t win, because it was so unusual. He was the only guy I ever worked with who knew exactly what level of grip he had at any given moment and under any given circumstances. It was extraordinary. And his feel for what was going on with the car was incredible. He once came in to the pits during a test to say one of the rear tyres was two pounds down. We asked him how he knew and he said: ‘I can feel it and I can see the shape of the tyre in the mirror’. One of the mechanics checked the tyre pressure and it was precisely two pounds down.
“His racing brain was just tuned differently. I asked him once about the first two corners at Snett: Riches and Sear. I said, ‘what are you thinking about as you approach Riches?’ ‘Sear,’ came the succinct reply. He was one step ahead all the time. The driving fast bit was a piece of cake to him – he had tonnes of spare mental capacity to work at all the other stuff.
“He knew he was good, but he didn’t brag about it. He carried himself in the right way, although of course he did make mistakes that were high-profile because of his status.
“To Ayrton, F1 was never a big deal – it was something that was always going to happen; it was something that had to be done. He hated all the politics and posturing among F1 folk. In fact, I believe that his demeanour in the pictures from his early years with Toleman and Lotus is telling. He doesn’t look happy; it wasn’t his world. The same is probably true of the final year with Williams.
“He once confided in me that ‘one of these days, Dennis, I’m going to drive for Ferrari’. I like to visualise that yellow helmet in the cockpit of a scarlet Ferrari with the tifosi going mad, but wonder how he’d have fared with the politics at Maranello. They’d probably have stopped the day after he got there…
“There had certainly been some bad moments during his 10 years in F1, especially against authority and the powerbrokers and politicians. His relationship with the FIA hadn’t always been good, with all that business with [FIA president] Jean-Marie Balestre at Suzuka.
“He still displayed the fun side to his character, though even as an F1 superstar. I used to go to grands prix to see him and he’d throw his pass round my neck so I could get on the grid to talk to him. Ayrton Senna didn’t really need a pass, did he? Remember what I said about his close friends? We kept in touch for the rest of his life – he phoned, wrote, came to stay and we maintained that relationship throughout. He didn’t really change as a bloke.
“People often wonder what he’d have been like as a retired multiple world champion, aged – what would he be now? – 54. I’ll tell you what he would’ve been like: magic. He’d have been utterly magic. He would have retained that mysterious, moody, latin aura and, like always, been able to silence a room just by walking in. Marilyn Monroe, Eddie Cochran, James Dean, Ayrton Senna – they’re the same in that respect. They just had that something and would never have lost it. In racing, Fangio was the same, right up until he died in his 80s.
The final chapter
“It’s always been something I’ve struggled with. I was watching the Imola race on TV and, like all of us, didn’t see it coming. I turned the telly off and that was that. A friend owned a lovely estate near the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland and I went there on my own and stayed there for two weeks. I just needed to get away. I’ve never watched the accident again, I’ve not seen the Senna film and I haven’t read the Senna books. And that’s how it’s going to stay.
“Many years after we’d worked together and he’d gone off and won all those F1 races and world titles, I asked him: ‘what was the most important thing you’ve done?’ He came straight out with it: ‘winning the European championship in FF2000 with you, Dennis’.
“That’s enough for me.”