• Keith Sutton on Ayrton Senna

The start of something special

Keith Sutton
March 15, 2011
Ayrton Senna on his way to his first victory in cars at Brands Hatch © Sutton Images
Related Links

Since the mid 1980s Formula One photographer Keith Sutton has been at the scene of almost all the sport's momentous events. But when asked to pinpoint his favourite memory over the past three decades, the response is instant: "Thirty years ago. March 1981."

At the time Sutton was a young motorsport photographer trying to make his name in the sport. He was covering the opening rounds of the British Formula Ford championship and by chance crossed paths with a young driver from Brazil, also aiming for F1. The driver was Ayrton Senna da Silva and what followed was a friendship that lasted until a dark weekend at the San Marino Grand Prix 13 years later.

The story starts a week before their first formal meeting at the fast airfield circuit of Thruxton in Hampshire. It was only Senna's second car race after graduating from 100cc karts in his native country, but already all eyes were on him after he finished an impressive fifth on his debut at Brands Hatch the previous week.

Meanwhile Sutton had been offering his photographic services to a variety of publications, but had received indifferent replies in return. Eventually he was commissioned by Autosport Brazil to take pictures of South America's latest rising star and jumped at the chance to put his talent to use earning hard cash.

"I was at Thruxton working for a Brazilian motorsport magazine that wanted photographs of Brazilian drivers racing in England," Sutton recalls. "I was shy in those days so I never introduced myself to Senna - I just took lots of photographs of him, in the paddock, on the track - he must have wondered why this photographer he had never seen before was taking so may rolls of film of him at only his second event in a racing car."

Ayrton Senna on pole position at Brands Hatch © Sutton Images
Rick Morris won the race with Senna rounding off the podium in third place after an aggressive challenge from Enrique Mansilla. It was an impressive performance but there was no time to dwell on the success as the next round of the Townsend Thoresen championship was scheduled for the following weekend at Brands hatch.

"For some reason I decided to go down to Brands Hatch on the train using a free British Rail promotion ticket that was obtained after saving tokens from boxes of Kellogg's Cornflakes." Sutton remembers. "I had just arrived at the Brands paddock when Senna approached me after recognising me from Thruxton. He asked me why I had been taking photographs of him. 'Are you a professional photographer?' he enquired. 'Yes of course,' was my reply. 'Well I need photographs to send over to Brazil on a regular basis. Can you help me out?' Naturally I agreed but only under the condition that he paid me!"

England's spring weather is unpredictable at the best of times and that week in March would see heavy rain, particularly on race day. Senna and his wife, Liliane, were still new to the country and the cold and damp weather was a far cry from the tropical climate they were used to in Sao Paulo.

Despite the miserable conditions, Senna's Formula Ford race went ahead as scheduled with 15 laps on the shorter Indy Circuit. The cars were capable of little more than 125mph, but those present were lucky enough to witness a little bit of motorsport history in the making - even if they didn't know it at the time.

Ayrton Senna looks back at a photo of him on the podium with his wife © Sutton Images
After winning his qualifying heat Senna started the final from pole position. At 4:30pm the drivers took to their grid positions and when the lights went out Senna pulled away as the cars rushed towards Graham Hill Bend in a wall of spray. In the tricky conditions Senna was invincible and took victory by 9.4 seconds from Mexican Alfonso Toledano.

The emotional Brazilian was met with a kiss from Liliane in parc ferme, who joined her husband on the podium to celebrate his first victory in a car. Sutton was also on the rostrum capturing all the emotions of the historic moment.

"He won his heat, then he won his race and there I was on top of the podium doing the shots - fantastic light, him and his wife. Brilliant. From that moment I tried to get to as many Formula Ford races as possible, doing shots for him."

And so began a working relationship and friendship that would see Keith photographing Senna as well as handling his PR on his path to F1.

"I look back to this week thirty years ago with great fondness as it was the start of my friendship with the late, great Ayrton Senna. From the moment I first photographed him in only his second car race, and then taking his first victory a week later, I knew I was witnessing an incredibly charismatic and talented young racing driver who would one day go on to become one of Formula One's legends."