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.

Portrait of Bernie Ecclestone on a grid

Bernie Ecclestone

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”

leonardo and Ayrton Senna sitting together

Leonardo and Ayrton

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.

Senna and Syd Watkins - Martin Whitaker

Senna and Syd Watkins – Martin Whitaker

images-3

22 responses to “SENNA: WHAT BERNIE REALLY SAID TO LEONARDO SENNA”

  1. Fernando Paiva says :

    Thank you for sharing this Betise. And please be assured that your comment about “the tellers and the told” makes total sense not only in this context but also in the broader situation we see today of everyone wanting to be the protagonist and not the reporter. It seems like one needs to be at the center of the tale for it to be credible.

    Like

  2. Nick Warner says :

    Thanks for setting the record straight Betise.

    Like

  3. Alfred says :

    Bernie knew he was dead and still the race went on. What a dushb… That rally shows the kind of man he is.

    Like

    • Jeff hutchinson says :

      Does that make everybody else a dushb…. Because they carried on after Roland Ratzenbergers.’s death the day before, or is it because he did not count as much..? Maybe they should put a clause in the driver’ s contracts if they would agree the race should go on if they get killed…… I am sure they would all sign.

      Like

  4. Tanuj Lakhina (@tanujlakhina) says :

    Thanks for sharing the details Betise. Unnerving and unsettling information come to think of it. Be it the clandestine manner in revealing the news or the wish to let the race continue.

    Like

  5. Flavio Gomes says :

    Minha última matéria na Folha, no dia 4, reproduzia exatamente o que a Betise contou. Não sei se mais alguém relatou isso na época. É sempre importante saber das coisas por quem estava realmente envolvido na situação. http://acervo.folha.com.br/fsp/1994/05/04/20/

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  6. silvio nascimento says :

    Nada como quem viveu a realidade

    Like

  7. Tim says :

    The show must go on, money to be made. Roland died on the track also the day before, would the FIA have followed the rules and let the italian justice seal of the track and suspend the race, Ayrton would have lived today.
    They even had the nerve to lie once again after Ayrton’s crash so the race could continue, and the sponsors would get their money’s worth which to them was more important than people’s live and doing the right thing. Who cared about that damn race anyway after all what happened….

    We all suspected it, but now we have confirmation thank you for this Betise.

    Like

    • Betise Assumpcao Head says :

      But you are forgetting one thing: Ayrton also continued and raced.

      Like

      • Tim says :

        Hi Betise,

        He did but seeing there was so much pressure for him to deliver in the championship + everyone expected it from him there wasn’t much room to throw the towel even if he wanted to. As you know there are many stories around that he actually didn’t want to race the next day. How did you see Ayrton’s mood after Roland’s accident if i may ask?

        What i mean is circumstantial, IMO they deliberately mislead the public and the italian justice system by lying Roland was still alive at the scene, just so the track would not be closed down. If they would have done this the race would probably have been suspended, but it wasn’t to be…
        When Ayrton died they did the same again. Just goes to show how the mighty dollar prevails above human life if needed.

        KR,
        Tim

        Like

    • Nat Lockwood- Red Cyan ex BMW Sauber/ freelance F1 photographer says :

      I want to thank you very much for clarifying the conversations and what really happened at that moment in time, it’s very sad to relive but also a relief to hear the truth. I feel for all affected. As for people disrespecting Bernie anybody dealing with Ayrton and his injuries trackside quite clearly knew that he was technically dead, brain-dead to be precise and at the hospital I know he was visited by Gerhard Berger that even he said the colour of his feet were not the colour of a living man’s feet he was only being kept alive mechanically and would be quite clear that it would be ‘switched off’ at some point Or left as a ‘vegetable’ on a ventilator. I’m sure most wouldn’t want that and would wish to pass away with dignity. After Ratzenberger’s death the Italian authorities would have closed up and sealed the circuit and cancelled the F1 event if they wanted to do so but they didn’t and only Ayrton’s death went to trial because his car was altered in an irregular manner before the Grand Prix; Rolland’s was not. The angle of the crash was more simple and clear to see how it caused Roland’s death and he was basically if were honest internally decapitated. Ayrton, his head injuries were more complex and at an angle more peculiar. I also don’t believe it wrong of Bernie to continue the race because the mass hysteria would’ve been horrible to see but not only that, he had respect for the hospital to let them continue their work, although blunt with Leo as the news and his injuries it was pretty much inevitable he would die very soon if not technically already (using machinery to keep him alone for the time being, he didn’t want confusion in translation and prepare him) he did perhaps have a glimmer of hope and also wanted the doctors to be able to do their work or work on his body being removed by undertakers for the return to Brazil quietly and let the family deal with what they had to deal at the hospital in privacy and peace, without press and the public running up to the hospital in hope, despair, grief and invading privacy. Whether a fan or not he was an asset to Formula One, lived a great life and achieve many things, he was generous and kind and a hard worker, he was adored by millions if not billions any need to be remembered for the good things that you did underachieved arguing about it now no sense and I’m sure if we could speak to him heaven he wouldn’t want you to feel sorry for him, but be remembers for the good he did and that’s what we should do! He wouldn’t want to be judged for racing or considering taking the Proffs advice, no matter if only’s it happened, I’m sure if you dig there would be if only’s to Roland’s death and if it could’ve been avoided too, but sadly not enough seem to care. Senna would want you to care about Roland and not keep going over the consequences of his own death or put any blame on anybody for Racing after Roland’s death, the cause of Roland or his, but just be pleased that it made a difference to make F1 safer. I’m glad now in the UK that sky are proud of his achievements and talk about him and Roland because sadly they became a dirty set of names which is so wrong when ITV and BBC showed the sport, any slight mention of them would be quickly passed over and the subjects changed and I think that’s wrong so much respect to sky TV there. I think he’d be happy in heaven watching over the family that are still living, Bruno racing, with his family and friends now passed away and joined him, enjoying eternity with God, as of course we all know he was a very, very religious man.

      Like

  8. Abel Cruz says :

    Betisse,

    Many thanks for sharing this, which I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for you being so close to Ayrton as you were. And I share your introduction and your anger about how some informers just want to do things their own way. And I share it as I’m also a sort of informer/pseudo journalist (para aquelas pessoas que chamamos touros vermelhos).

    I made one tribute to Ayrton but just spoke about the reasons why we (must) remember him. And the images were paintings, not actual photos. I don’t understand why people would just dig and imagine and invent stuff just for the sake of being the first or the exclusive…

    Again, thank you!!

    Like

  9. Greg says :

    Betisse,

    I was very young when this happened and have often heard his name as the best ever driver, once I started watching F1 in 2006. I became captivated with his life and accomplishments, since watching the film “Senna” and I can see why now that he was so revered.

    I appreciate your taking the time to share.

    Like

  10. Renzo says :

    I clearly remember every moment of that infamous day. In particular, I remember the fact that the feelings I had about what was happening were that the media was waiting the end of the race to announce the truth about Ayrton’s conditions. Initially, I remember the facial expression of the doctors: they were saying that Ayrton arrived at the hospital in critical conditions and was fighting for his life, but they were looking like someone that is just “telling a story” with no real faith.
    After, when the news came, I wasn’t surprised because I really had no more hope.

    Thank you for sharing this information.
    I understand even the fact that you waited so much time before revealing what really happened, it must not have been easy

    Like

    • Betise Assumpcao Head says :

      Thank you Renzo. The press at the track were being informed by Martin Whitaker so they really did not know. But, obviously, we all knew it had been extremely serious. You only had to watch the medical team behaviour at the track.

      Like

  11. Joe Papp says :

    So it’s true that Ecclestone and his coterie lied and broke Italian law in order to avoid having the race stopped?

    My god, those people are shameless in their greed.

    Like

    • Betise Assumpcao Head says :

      I am not sure that’s true. Ayrton had a pulse and was breathing by himself according to the Dr Maria Fiandra who attended him at the hospital. She has said many tines that they had a lots of tests done including brain scan and they would not have done that in a corpse. Ayrton was beyond recovery when he left the track which is different

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      • Nick Warner says :

        Absolutely. Having read Sid Watkins’s book ‘Life at the Limit’, where he describes with sensitivity the moments he was with Ayrton in the aftermath of the accident, all that you say in this post Betise is what ‘ve understood to be correct. However, rather than dwell on the accident, I take comfort from the images that I have of Ayrton on lap 6 of the Imola race (the lap prior to the accident). In that single lap, we saw what made him the champion that he was; he was driving a car that was not yet at its best, yet he had that car on the absolute limit – on a knife edge – with huge blasts of sparks pouring from the rear of the car which, I suspect, was being run very close to the tarmac, much closer than many would have dared. The tyres would probably have not been up to full racing temperature either. The image as he went round round the bumpy surface of Tamburello at full racing speed, and with a full fuel load, on lap 6 was simply awesome. He was absolutely determined to win that race and nothing was going to stop him, not even being followed by a car that, shall we say, was commonly believed to be technically ‘different’ to the rest! Anybody that suspects that Ayrton wasn’t ready for delivering his best during that race I would say absolute nonsense – take a look at him lap 6. He was out in front, where he belonged. It was greatness at work – pure genius.

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  12. Mike Davies says :

    I think it is great that you were prepared to reveal the truth. There has been so much speculation and misinformation regarding the whole tragic weekend.
    So many people from friends and family to fans took so much pain from it that the realities and the truth were camouflaged and disguised .
    The truth got blurred and a lot of people cashed in on the event … the media in particular …even now 20 years later it is still a money generating event… and I dont have a problem with that as long as its true and tastefully and respectfully managed.
    Senna was no where near perfect and was never shy to gain maximum financial benefit from anything….good for him.
    Ayrton knew and understood the high risks involved and often caused the risk level to be greatly raised.
    I was a huge fan of him as a racer and admired his selfish and totally greedy attitude to racing as he was being totally true to himself and his incredible need to be the winner at all cost and basically “f%”…k everybody else and the consequences”. That was the racer that Senna was.
    There was of course other sides to him and a lot of people today have benefited greatly from his exploits and generosity.
    Motor racing is dangerous… thats good . People get killed… not just drivers but also marshalls and spectators… and thats sad but it should never stop the sport/show going on.
    Obesity, smoking drinking and drugs are bigger killers than our sport so when bad days happen like 30th April 1994 and 1st May 1994 we cry we lament we are distraught and families suffer but the show goes on because we love it, we love the noise and action and the danger… its what makes it the greatest show on earth and for that I personally thank mainly one man…. Bernie Eccelstone… the sconiving bloody little crook that he is is is greater than all the drivers past and present for what he has created for the millions of people around the world who would not even know of the sport without the little impresario and his star actors like Ayrton was and whoever the next badboy topgun racer is…Michael or Lewis or whoever.

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