• Bruno Senna interview

Being Bruno

Laurence Edmondson April 6, 2011
Bruno Senna: "I have improved as a driver, if HRT helped me in my career or not is a different matter" © Sutton Images
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In 1993 Ayrton Senna famously said: "If you think I'm good, just wait until you see my nephew." Well, now we have … although it's fair to say the jury's still out.

Aside from learning that the 2010 HRT was painfully slow, it was hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from Bruno Senna's debut season in Formula One. As a driver he clearly developed, which is more than can be said for his car, but he simply didn't have the tools available to him to prove his talent. And now, at 27 years old, it's far from clear what the future holds.

Asked if he had any regrets about his year with HRT, Senna told ESPNF1: "You progress as a driver because you're driving. For me participating in all these races and doing a championship made me understand Formula One in a different way. On the other hand I've always been competitive throughout my career, I've always been taking podiums every year - apart from last year - and being at the back wasn't ideal. I have improved as a driver, if it has helped me in my career or not is a different matter, but as a driver for sure it has."

But before we look to the future it's worth spending some time analysing Senna's past. Anybody assuming he made F1on the back of his name is wrong, just like Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso his talent was evident from an early age. Under the guidance of his grandfather Milton da Silva (Ayrton's father), he honed his skills in a go-kart on a track at the family farm. During the hot summer months in Sao Paulo his uncle would return between championship campaigns, giving Bruno the opportunity to race against - and on occasion beat - a three time Formula One world champion.

"When I started karting it was exactly what I wanted to do," says Senna. "Of course I wanted to follow in my uncle's footsteps. I think after I first drove a go-kart it became clear that I really liked it and I went every weekend with my grandfather from when I was six or seven years old. Every weekend I went to the farm to drive the go-kart, it wasn't imposed on me in any way, and I'd drive until the tyres were on the canvas. Then I had my break but it was not my choice."

Bruno Senna's first season in F1 did not live up to his childhood dreams © Sutton Images
Senna's family stopped him from racing after 1994 as they struggled to cope, first with Ayrton's death at Imola, and then the loss of Bruno's father, Flavio Lalli, in a motorcycle accident two years later. During his teens it never crossed Senna's mind to question his family's decision, but when he left school it became clear something was missing.

"When you're a kid - I was only ten years old - you're life is constantly changing with school and constant development, so you're kind of busy in your head. And then, when you start growing older and you understand what you want and what you like, then it became much harder and things got a bit difficult."

By the time he reached 20 it was a case of now or never and Senna could no longer resist his urge to get back on track and chase his childhood dream. The only problem was broaching the issue with his family.

"When I started go-karts again and I was breaking my ribs everybody was like: 'You shouldn't be doing this, you're hurting yourself'. But there was also some saying 'You can be quick'. It was always the pros and cons and weighing that. Of course the relationship in the family was a bit difficult, especially with my grandfather who wasn't particularly keen on me going back to racing. It took him quite a few years to get into it, but now he's actually watching me and giving me advice and making fun of me when I make a mistake. But it took six years for him to come round to it and that's a lot of time."

While his home life was complex and difficult at times, the objective on track was simple: rack up as many miles as possible and as quickly as possible. He started out in Formula BMW and by his third race weekend qualified on the front row, but looking back he wished he had pushed even harder and put more faith in his natural talent.

"I started very carefully and gingerly with my motor racing career. In 2004 I went testing and did a few races, in 2005 I went to British Formula 3, but I was always asking can I really do this? Am I really good enough for this? I only got some real indication of what I could do halfway through 2005 when I was always in the top five and I was always scoring points - making mistakes in some races - but qualifying on the front row and qualifying on pole position.

"Then I realised I could be quick but I needed a lot of race craft, and that only comes from experience. 2006 was the year when I kind of proved to myself that I could do it and my confidence level came up, up, up, culminating in 2008 with GP2 when I was fighting for the championship until the last race."

Bruno Senna took a memorable victory on the streets of Monaco © Sutton Images
2008 was impressive. With just four years of racing experience behind him, Senna went wheel-to-wheel with F3000 and GP2 veteran Giorgio Pantano, whose own career is a story of missed opportunity after an all too brief spell in F1 with Jordan in 2004. Both drivers had their ups and downs - Senna was forced to retire from the Turkey sprint race after hitting a stray dog - but in the end Pantano came out on top by 12 points. Nevertheless, wins in Monaco and Great Britain had caught the F1 paddock's attention, and Honda, which had played such a pivotal role in Ayrton's career, started evaluating Senna as a possible team-mate for Jenson Button in 2009.

It was a pivotal moment in Senna's career as Honda, under the guidance of Ross Brawn, was developing a double-decker diffuser that would take the following season by storm. But it wasn't to be and on December 5, 2008 the Japanese car giant announced it was withdrawing from F1. Brawn saved the team but Senna, who lapped the development car within 0.3 seconds of Button at Barcelona just three weeks before Honda's withdrawal, was told he wouldn't be a part of it. By that time his options were slim as the top teams in GP2 had filled their cockpits for 2009 and he faced a choice between the Le Mans Series and DTM.

"I had finished second in GP2 already and there was no point in me going back to finish somewhere further back," he said. "That could have broken the momentum so we had the choice between DTM and Le Mans Series, which was a very tough choice and I ended up choosing Le Mans because there was a car development programme going on there. The cars are faster as well, the type of racing is quite different - I could gain some experience - and it was good for me, I learnt a lot."

But F1 was still the aim and in October 2009 his prayers were answered, or so it seemed, by an offer to drive for Adrian Campos' new team in 2010.

"When I signed for Campos - as it was known at the time - the team seemed to have everything in place. It's hard to predict the future when you're making decisions and you have to go with the best, most informed decision you can - but sometimes it just goes a different way."

Could the sight of Bruno Senna in a black and gold car bring in new sponsors? © Sutton Images
And so we return to his debut season with HRT and all its trials and tribulations. He took part in 18 races with seven retirements, no points and a highest placed finish of 14th in Korea. It was hardly a golden ticket in a driver market overflowing with talent and sponsor money, and it soon became clear he would not be on the 2011 grid. Instead he landed a last-minute third driver role at Renault, which he admits was a relief.

"It was, for sure. First it's a great opportunity to be with a team that has won championships. It's my second year in F1, my first year was with a small team and I wasn't always racing - it was a very difficult year. This year I can learn a lot with these guys' experience and it's good to be inside Formula One in a place where my profile can be raised with the right opportunities.

"I'm here trying to raise my profile, I believe I can do this in this team, if the opportunity is not here for next year to race, maybe there will be an opportunity in the following year or maybe somewhere else next year. It's important to stay in Formula One, and Renault are very clear that they are trying to prepare me for whenever an opportunity arises. They have plans for me but I just want to take it step-by-step at the moment and hopefully when the right time comes I will get the opportunity to be in a good car."

The cynics will point to the marketing benefits of fielding the Senna name alongside the black and gold of Renault's title sponsor Lotus. But, as Senna quite rightly points out, it will be talent that ultimately makes or breaks his F1 career from now on.

"Fortunately or unfortunately, it's not because I'm Ayrton's nephew that I will achieve more or less in my career," he says. "What I achieve will be through my own work and also through a bit of luck by getting the right opportunity. But it's not easy, this is a very difficult business and to get the right opportunities depends on timing, it depends on taking the right steps and sometimes you take one wrong step and it takes a long time to recover."