Several years ago Julian Jakobi gave an intriguing insight into life as Ayrton Senna’s manager and business advisor during an interview with ESPN.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Brazilian’s death it is worth revisiting the tale of one of the people closest to the Formula 1 legend that were not his direct family.
Inheriting the all-conquering Williams seat from his nemesis Alain Prost, Senna was upbeat ahead of the 1994 F1 World Championship season but after two rounds he realised that the Adrian Newey penned FW16 was a tricky piece of kit.
One race later Senna was dead, on a weekend that also robbed F1 of Roland Ratzenberger on Saturday, while Lady Luck handed Rubens Barrichello a huge dollop good fortune when he escaped from a terrifying shunt on Friday.
Reflecting that weekend, Jakobi recalling what transpired after the Jordan driver’s huge shunt, “I know that [Ayrton] was very upset by what happened. He went to see Frank [Williams] after dinner on Saturday night in Frank’s room and Frank asked him: Are you sure you want to race? If he was not feeling comfortable…”
“And he came up to my room and on his way back from Frank’s room, and he spoke to Frank and said everything is fine. That was it. That was the last I saw him on Saturday night. And I didn’t really notice anything particularly odd.”
The race on Sunday started with an accident which forced a restart. History has it that the race restarted at the end of lap five. Senna tried immediately to pull away from Schumacher, whilst Berger in 3rd was already 2.586 seconds behind and Hill in 4th was 5.535 seconds behind.
At the start of the seventh lap, Senna lost control, for reasons that are still the subject of controversy, and his car went straight on at Tamburello into an unprotected concrete wall
Jakobi recollected, “I remember the accident because I was in the motorhome. And you never quite think, you know, you never think it’s going to happen to a driver and it’s going to be fatal. But it obviously looked pretty serious.”
“He was airlifted to the hospital from the track. I mean nobody pronounced him dead at the scene because they don’t to avoid all sorts of [man]slaughter charges and everything else.”
“I mean that’s kind of like a convention in Formula 1 that if there is a fatal accident, it seems that you aren’t pronounced dead until you get to the hospital, when you’re away from the track. I can’t prove that, but I mean, nobody said that he was dead at the track and he was airlifted to the hospital.”
“I went by car with a Brazilian journalist who knew the way because he had been there on Friday when Barrichello was shifted off there. So, we ended up at the hospital and saw the surgeon who said he was on a life support machine, which was the first we knew that it was fatal.”
The news shocked the world and it would be fair to say a light went out not only for F1 fans, but also all Brazilians and sports lovers.
Jakobi explained, “All drivers know the risks. It’s a dangerous passion, actually. Yeah, because they’re all passionate about racing. They do it because they all love racing. They’re also very good at it, but they never think it’s going to happen to them.”
“Because if you do think it’s going to happen to you, it would take out the edge off of your, you know, the margin. The difference between drivers is so small, it’s just who’s got that little bit extra. And if you have any doubt, you wouldn’t have that extra.”
“For me, personally, it was… was a huge loss for me because he was not only a client, he was also a good friend and he was a person I like enormously. I liked him for his intelligence and his sense of humor. And I just thought he was just a great… he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve met in business in the last 30 years. And as a human being, he was a wonderful human being. Very kind, very caring person.”
“Ruthless to pursue his own goals, but also very caring on the other side. He gave huge amounts to charity, but people never knew about it. And I remember him ringing me up one night, very late at night… because he had seen some television documentary about the war in, I don’t know if it was in Bosnia or Serbia, one of the Balkans at the time; and the children who had been maimed by the bombings and everything else.”
“So he just rang me up and he said: I’ve taken down this number. I want you to transfer some money, but make sure it’s anonymous. Just give the money. And he did that several times.”
“Then I found out, sort of quite a few years later from his cousin, that he would do the same with him from Brazil, but he never told me. And he never told his cousin that he’d done it in Europe. So he gave huge amounts to charity but never wanted it to be public. It was all anonymous.”
Brazil mourned without restraint with a huge outpouring of grief when Senna was buried in Sao Paulo, “I never experienced anything like it. You know, two million people or whatever it was on the streets. It was phenomenal.”
“There was a sort of a loss, but there was also a silence. It was just extraordinary to see so many people silent. I think he was the embodiment of a nation. The spirit of a nation because Brazil was at the time, you’ve got to go back what… 15 years.”
“He was the single greatest sportsman Brazil had ever had other then Pelé. And yet what he represented was effectively trying to make Brazil compete with the industrialized nations on equal footing.”
“So, for Brazil at the time, he was the spirit of Brazil because he was Brazil taking on the rest of the world at their own game. And if you look now, how Brazil’s become a manufacturer of cars and manufacturer of planes, you know Embrea planes, you see all over the place.”
Well, they weren’t there years ago. It was fledgling industries being built up. So what he was… he was what… he was Brazil, really, at the time. To the outside world, once Pelé retired from soccer, Senna was Brazil.”
As for the everlasting legacy, Jakobi proferred, “Whether it was because he was Latin, whether it was because he was single or he was good-looking, I don’t know what it was. But he had something that others didn’t have.”
“You mustn’t forget also that he was in his thirties when he died and you know today’s champions are getting younger and younger. Whether it’s in swimming or in gymnastics or motor racing.”
“I don’t believe that an athlete or sportsman at 21 can have the same charisma of someone who is 31. Because they’ve lived for ten more years. And he lived life. So he had something to say for himself.”
“I think his legacy was probably the most competitive, most naturally talented driver than probably anyone since Jim Clark.”
As for what he misses most, Jakobi said in a heartbeat, “Late night phone calls.”
“We always used to say we had summertime, wintertime, and Senna time. it was always late. He never got up until midday. You could never call him before lunchtime. He’d get up, if he wasn’t racing or testing, he’d get up around midday, half past 12. Go for a run and then have a brunch at two.”
“He wouldn’t eat until ten at night. Go to bed at two. He had his own metabolism. It was extraordinary. It was useless first thing in the morning.”
“He would call you at one o’clock in the morning because he had no idea. And he would say: I’ve just been speaking to my father in Brazil, because it was nine o’clock in the evening there, one o’clock in Europe. And we’ve been discussing this. What do you think of this?”
“And, you know, you’d be kind of half asleep and everything else and he expected you to awake because he couldn’t work out that nobody would be on the same time as he was. It was always known as Senna time.”
If Ayrton had walked from that crash at Imola on that fateful day, Jakobi believes, “He wouldn’t be owning a team, that’s for sure. I think he would have retired. He wanted to retire.”
“He didn’t want to go into politics because he felt that politics was too corrupt and he could do more with the money he made privately, which is really what his sister has done with the foundation.”
“I think he was regarded in awe by them because his talent was always… he was always one of the gifted drivers that there has ever been. A natural talent. And he had a level of intensity about him of wanting to be the World Champion. He was in this business to win.”
“I think that he got a tremendous satisfaction from winning when he was in this, in Formula 1 to win. He felt it was his destiny,” added Jakobi.