SENNA: WHAT BERNIE REALLY SAID TO LEONARDO SENNA
In the last couple of months, I have been revisiting that tragic weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix 1994 practically every day. It was a conscious decision to try and, finally, come to terms with what happened there. And I don’t only mean the accidents and the losses. I also include peoples’s reactions and behaviours at the time and few days there after.
There are, inevitably, an immense amount of material written, photos and videos. The internet is inundated with tributes and these last couple of weeks there have been half a dozen Tv programmes in Brazil alone. There are, certainly, a lot of good material, some moving personal memories and tributes. But there are also too many misinformation, self centred stories – those which seemed to be more about the tellers than the told (I hope that makes sense!!)
I find IT difficult to read things like : “Ayrton was quiet that morning, he was thinking about his fellow driver Ratzembergs…” How can anyone know what he was thinking?? “he did not want to race” Again, where did they get that information from? People have obviously read some of the books published and/or articles and put it all together and came to these conclusions. Still, these informations should be treated like “According to his friend so and so ,he was like that”. Or” In His book, so and so writes that…”
The worst of them all for me is: “Bernie told Leonardo on that day that Ayrton was dead……” Some people misplaced the event, others the timing and that made them change the story into something completely different to fit the purpose of their stories.
Through this blog, I have decided to tell some parts of what really happened. I have no intention of pointing fingers or placing blame. I want simply to register what really happened because I was one of the very few people who were there, close to all the events that day, on the preparation to release the body, the journey to Brazil, the memorial and the funeral.
Today , I will tell about that meeting. Inside the FOCA motorhome on 1st of May 1994, there was Bernie, Slavica (his then wife), Leonardo and I.
Leonardo and I left the Williams garage and walked towards the information/FIA tower in Imola to try and get more information. As we approached it, Bernie was coming out. He looked at us and said to Leonardo, grabbing him gently by the arm and directing him to the FOCA motorhome.
“I need to talk to you”.
So I translated it to Leo and walked along with them. Bernie turned to me and said. “Not you”.
So I explained. “Leo does not speak a word of English” . Bernie nodded and had to accept, directing us both into the motorhome.
We stepped in and Slavica was there already, on her own, very shaken and in tears. Bernie sat on the arm of a chair and we both on the sofa in front.
Bernie told us he had some news of Ayrton. Leo was white.
“He’s dead”, Bernie said. I thought for a few seconds, “how can I translate it and tell Leo in a more adequate manner, considering he only spoke two words!!” .
So I turned to Leo and, in the most gentle and caring way I could master at the time, and said: ” I am really sorry to have to translate that to you but Bernie is telling us Ayrton has died.”
Leo was stunned. He stared at me, then at Bernie. He did not say a word. I wanted to hug him. He started to sob.Then Bernie added:
“But we are not announcing it yet so the race won’t be stopped”. And I translated to Leo. Even before I finished it. he was already desperate, sobbing loud and shaking like if in a fit. I really did not know what to do. I had never seen such a raw pain.
Bernie got up, picked up an apple and talked to Slavica who then started to sob as well. It took me a few minutes to sort of get Leo back to himself. He was still very stunned and incapable of saying anything when I said to him, again in the most gentle way I possibly could. Holding his hands on mine.
“Leo, I am truly, truly sorry. I don’t know what else to say to you but one thing is certain. You have to pull yourself together as well as you can and you need to call your parents in Brazil and tell them. They’ll be worried sick and I cannot be the one to do that. They will need to hear it from you. I am sure it will be more comforting for them as well”
I explained it to Bernie and he immediately offered the motorhome phone and Leo made the call.
Then, Martin Whitaker, the FIA Press Officer, came in. Bernie and Martin talked for a few minutes. Then Martin turned to me and told me.
“What I said in the Press Room is that Ayrton had head injuries and has been taken to the hospital”
“Bernie just told us he is dead”, I replied. Leo is on the phone telling his family Ayrton had died, in tears and again very shaken.
“No, what I informed the Press is that he had severe head injuries”, explained Martin.
“Yes, I know that. But we already know he’s dead” , I insisted, obviously implying that he did not need to give us the party line; we knew the truth. Martin wasn’t buying it and kept repeating the same thing,
So I pulled him into the small room at the back of the motorhome. We had worked closely few years back when he was McLaren Press Officer so I thought I could rely on him.
“Martin, I don’t think you understand the importance of the situation. Leo has already told his family in Brazil Ayrton is dead. They are already going through extreme pain.”
“Betise, I understand that. But I have told the press he had head injuries and gone to hospital. I did not tell them he is dead”
“Yes, Martin, But what I am trying to tell you is that, if you insist on this, I will have to leave this room, go and tell Leo that Ayrton is still alive and, consequently, give his mother and father, some hope that might not exist”
Martin was adamant: “Betise, he is not dead. That is the information I’m giving out”.
I left the room, told Leo, who telephoned Brazil again and told his mother Neyde and father Milton. i spent the next five hours translating, organising, conveying messages and handling the hopes and pains of Leo in the hospital and the family in Brazil. It was only when Dr Syd Watkins arrived in the hospital that all was clarified. I had Ayrton sister’s on the phone telling me I should pray, I should have hope, Ayrton was strong. I simply could not make them understand the severity of the situation. I took the phone off my ear and wait to Syd. “it is Viviane. She does not believe when I tell her how grave Ayrton is and I don’t know what else to say. I was wondering whether you could talk to them. I am sure they will listen to you”, I said. Syd looked at me. He was visibly sad and in pain. “Betise, there is no hope He was already dead on the track” (and went on describing some details of his head injuries, which I will not write here in the name of good taste and respect to his family and close friends). I was speechless. I thought of nothing and simply handed him the receiver.