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Ayrton Senna: A fantastic debut as world-class kart racer (+photos)

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Three-time Formula 1 World Champion, Ayrton Senna first tasted the thrills of speed in a kart. The year was 1978 when the Brazilian took part in his first world championship after wasting little time dominating in his home country.

Auto123.com recently had a chat with French journalist Lionel Froissart, who writes for Paris daily newspaper Liberation, about Senna's karting career.

Back in the late 1970s, Froissart was both a reporter and kart racer. He soon got acquainted with Senna.

Ayrton Senna karting
Ayrton Senna (Original photo: Lionel Froissart)

“Our first meeting took place in September 1978 at the Le Mans karting track during the Inter 100cc world championship,” Froissart remembers.

“I had never heard of him before, but during the carburetor tests on early Thursday morning, I spotted his yellow helmet through the cloud of exhaust smoke. I asked myself: ‘Who the heck is that guy?’ I went to see him at his DAP stand. He was wearing a big red jacket. You know, being from Brazil, he wasn't used to the ‘cold’ late-summer days in France. He introduced himself: Ayrton Senna da Silva. Neither of us spoke English very well, but we managed to understand each other.”

Ayrton Senna finished sixth that year, but was clearly one of the favourites, according to Froissart. “Senna was very much fighting for the lead,” he says. “Later, we crossed paths again on the tracks. I gave Senna pictures of him, and we started to become more familiar with each other. He was an exceptional driver, although not a very accessible one.”

Ayrton Senna karting
Ayrton Senna (Original photo: Lionel Froissart)

How so?

“Well, I could approach other drivers, guys I knew pretty well like Alain Prost, with a gentle pat on the back. However, for some reason, I could not be so friendly with Ayrton. Unconsciously or not, he often erected some sort of psychological wall between himself and the people he talked to. Yet, at the same time, he had that magnetic appeal, and a real aura around him. Race car driver or not, that wouldn't have changed.”

“Senna was phenomenal on the track, whether in a kart or in a car. He showed an interest in engines and mechanics, but his true passion was driving to the absolute limit,” Froissart adds.

“Senna was used to control his entire driving environment during his karting days, so when he moved to auto racing, he had a tough time relying on a crew.”

“I mean, the guy let the team make changes to his car, but he always wanted to know exactly why. He demanded an explanation every time the engineers tweaked a wing angle, the turbo, the gear ratios, and so on. Senna didn't need to be made aware of the changes; he immediately felt them while driving.”

Ayrton Senna karting
Ayrton Senna (Original photo: Lionel Froissart)

Lionel Froissart continued to follow Ayrton Senna throughout his Formula 1 years.

“While Senna had a keen sense of what was right and wrong about his car, he wasn't the best at setting up his machine,” Froissart confesses.

“Unlike Prost, who could not tolerate anything but a perfect car, Senna could live with a few handling issues, because his immense talent made up for the machine's shortcomings. Of course, that led to some incidents during his career, like when Senna and Prost both raced equal cars for McLaren.”

“When Senna debuted in F1, with the Toleman and Lotus, his driving style was very rough and brutal. Over time, he became much smoother and more fluid. He loved the black Lotus and its ultra-powerful turbocharged Renault engine, which delivered around 1,200 hp. The car had flaws, but it fitted him like a glove,” Froissart concludes.