The 34-year-old, three-time Formula One world champion from Sao Paulo wanted to help those less fortunate than him and reduce the gap between rich and poor.
His fatal crash at the San Marino Grand Prix meant he never got to realize those dreams but, 23 years later, his name still carries a lot of weight and, thanks to his sister, it’s being harnessed to make a difference in the country he held so dear.
Six weeks after her brother’s death at Imola, Viviane set up the Ayrton Senna Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO), which has gone on to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Brazilian society, specifically the education of children.
“Ayrton represents a valuable asset to the country, a bright power for Brazil,” Viviane, the Foundation’s CEO, told CNN’s The Circuit.
“I decided to focus on something big and that is education because it’s the basis of any person or country doing well. There’s not a person or a country that does well, if there is no education.
Education is key
It’s not just targeting the traditional subjects though. The Foundation runs computer coding programs for school children and tries to teach them the “soft skills” needed to compete in the modern world.
“There’s other skills to be learned such as leadership, teamwork, respect, collaboration, initiative, flexibility, soft skills that are as important as the classic cognitive skills for the full development of people living in the 21st century,” Viviane says.
“Schools, not only in Brazil, but in the world, haven’t understood that new task. So the institute has the goal to offer knowledge and solutions to help develop this whole group of new skills so we can prepare people for the world that is out there and I think this knowledge could be made available to other countries because this is a task for the world.”
This work doesn’t come cheap and is funded mostly by Senna’s brand, which remains incredibly strong even though he has been dead for more than two decades.
As you’d expect, he’s still a big hit with the Formula One community but his image pops up in all areas of life, including children comic books and even a range of table condiments from ketchup to mustard.
“Time goes by but Ayrton’s strength continues to grow,” says Viviane whose daughter Bianca is the Foundation’s head of branding and her son, Bruno, is a former F1 driver currently competing in the World Endurance Championship.
“We have few heroes that we admire and that represent good values to the country. He was one of the few.
“He went beyond just being someone who was admired, an idol, a cool personality. He was a hero and represented this bright side of Brazil, in a time where Brazil was dark. He had a profound role in Brazil’s psyche. A very important role.”`
Ayrton and Brazil were as one
Senna, who would be 57 if he were alive today, is widely regarded as one of the best Formula One drivers of all time — certainly one of the most exciting — and has become synonymous with overcoming the odds.
He racked up 41 victories during his career, including a record six Monaco Grand Prix and two wins at his home track of Interlagos.
“Ayrton showed up, winning, racing talented drivers from first world countries and winning, it was like Brazil could be a bright, winning country, in an area such as Formula One, even if our background was negative,” says Viviane.
“All the Brazilians would sit in his car, would push his car, we would raise the flag with him in the podium. It was like we were as one. Ayrton and Brazil were as one.”
Such was his standing in Brazil, the government declared three days of national mourning after his death in May 1994 and an estimated three million people went to his hometown of Sao Paulo for his funeral.
Later that year, Brazil’s football team dedicated their World Cup win to Senna and today he continues to have a huge impact on the current generation of Brazilian sports men and women.
Senna continues to inspire
Senna’s story has enjoyed success on more traditional platforms too.
The 2011 British documentary film “Senna” won a BAFTA and took nearly $11 million at box offices worldwide and a there’s even a stage production, “Senna: The Musical,” which opened at a theater in Rio earlier this month.
The Senna juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down soon and Viviane is determined to use it to help children in Brazil achieve their potential and “develop the gift they come with in life.”
“I think people come into this world to be something,” she says. “Being able to be himself. that’s what people really admire [about Ayrton], to be able to be what you were meant to be in this world.
“We want to offer people the chance to do the same, to develop their own nature through a full education.”