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Watch: Thirty years on, Brazil pays tribute to late F1 hero Senna

Thirty years to the day since his death following a crash that sent shockwaves around the world, Brazilians will pay homage Wednesday to Formula One superstar Ayrton Senna — a beloved symbol of national pride comparable only to compatriot Pele.

Fans of the three-time Formula One world champion are expected to flock to Senna’s grave in a cemetery in his hometown of Sao Paulo, where he was laid to rest after his tragic accident at the Imola circuit on May 1, 1994.

Some will take part in a fun-run staged on the twists and turns of the Interlagos motorsport circuit, where Senna scored two emotional Formula One victories near the end of his career in 1991 and 1993.

A wave of television programs have been aired to mark the anniversary, while an exhibition titled ‘I, Ayrton Senna da Silva –- 30 years’ will open in Rio de Janeiro Wednesday after a nationwide tour.

The exhibition features an artificial intelligence-powered recreation of Senna’s voice recounting the defining moments of his turbulent life and career.

‘Brazil came to a standstill’

On Rio’s famous Copacabana beach, a procession of fans old and young have been stopping to take photos with a bronze sculpture of Senna, arms aloft and waving a Brazilian flag in triumph.

Among them was Joao Paulo Bertoloni, 30 — only a baby when Senna died aged 34.

“I didn’t get to see him live, but everyone was a fan of him in my family,” Bertoloni said. 

“My father, my grandparents… Everyone told me about Senna. Brazil came to a standstill on Sundays when he was racing,” the business manager said.

Marilane Mattos, 66, can still vividly recall the moment she watched on television as Senna’s Williams car hurtled off the Imola track at about 190mph and ploughed into a wall.

“It was horrible, it still makes me sad today,” she told AFP. “But I prefer to remember the good times. He was a simple guy like us.”

‘Sense of pride’

Senna’s legacy in Brazil has extended far beyond the sporting theatre.

The Ayrton Senna Institute was recognized by UNESCO in 2004 for its educational projects which aim to help children from poor neighborhoods.

“Ayrton always said that if you wanted to change things you had to start with education,” Viviane Senna, Ayrton’s sister and president of the institute, said in a recent video posted on social media.

Founded six months after Senna’s death, the institute claims to have benefited some 36 million students in 3,000 Brazilian cities and towns.

For Brazilian writer Ernesto Rodrigues, author of the biography “Ayrton: The Hero Revealed,” Senna remains an important cultural figure because he “restored self-esteem to Brazilians” at a time the country was grappling with political and economic crises.

“His name is on streets throughout the country. Every time his name is mentioned, he gives Brazilians a sense of pride. His legacy has been largely preserved,” Rodrigues said.

The Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning for Senna, who died in an Italian hospital of head injuries after the crash.

A million Brazilians turned out to pay their respects in Sao Paolo, crowding the airport and lining city streets to catch a glimpse of his coffin before a private burial.

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