Profile – Bruno Senna

The expectations of being a Formula One driver are not easily met. You have the press constantly asking you questions on your form and future, and you have the fans constantly wanting you to put up a good performance on the racetrack.

Sometimes, that pressure is doubled by carrying on your shoulders the weight of a name that is synonymous with motorsport: a Piquet, a Schumacher, a Hill, an Andretti – to name a few of the famous names whose sons of Formula One legends reached Formula One. Perhaps though, no other driver showed up in Formula One carrying more pressure with his famous surname than Bruno Senna Lalli.

Nationality Brazilian
Date of Birth October 24th 1983
Teams Hispania (2010), Lotus-Renault (2011), Williams (2012)
Races Entered 46
Races Started 46
Best Result 6th (Malaysia 2012)

A Late Bloomer

A summary of Bruno Senna cannot be done without first discussing his last name. Ayrton Senna was Bruno’s maternal uncle, and any driver with family as prestigious as the three-time world champion has the youthful pressure of a famous name to contend with. If you read almost any article about him, it is guaranteed to side-track heavily with the information regarding his relationship with Ayrton and the latter’s untimely demise in 1994. Most interviews often start off with the obvious questions, of how he coped building his career as a professional sports driver in the “shadow” of Ayrton.

"If you think I'm fast, just wait until you see my nephew" – Ayrton Senna. Photo: Ayrton Senna Archive

“If you think I’m fast, just wait until you see my nephew” – Ayrton Senna. Photo: Ayrton Senna Archive

It was not just a name-link, either, for Bruno and Ayrton were very close: at their home in Brazil, Ayrton would construct karting tracks of his own design for Bruno to train on. The link was personal, and all the more tragic after Ayrton’s death at that tragic weekend at Imola. When Ayrton died, his brother-in-law and Bruno’s father Flávio Lalli would inherit his motorbike, and die in a fatal accident while riding it two years later. With two auto-related deaths in the family, Bruno did not take up professional racing for another decade. Deciding at the age of 20 to resume professional racing, he quit his business degree and moved to Europe, where he quickly found backing off of his name and some help from his uncle’s former teammate Gerhard Berger.

Bear in mind that Fernando Alonso – only two years older than Bruno – was 11 when winning his first karting championships; for Bruno to re-enter professional racing at the age of 20 was sort of… late, putting it mildly. He is relatively humble about his beginnings, explaining that his path to F1 was very streamlined between 2004 and 2008, participating in Formula BMW, British Formula 3, and finally finishing runner-up in GP2 (to acclaimed 2004 Reject of the Year Giorgio Pantano no less!).

Depending on how I go [in GP2], I want to be in F1 within two years.
Bruno Senna’s predictions at the end of 2006. If not for Honda’s withdrawal, he would have been almost spot-on.

His first professional podium came at a non-championship Formula Renault round at Macau, where he finished 2nd. In British F3 he joined Räikkönen-Robertson Racing (yes, that Räikkönen), and his results were solid: three podiums and a pole in his first season. In 2006 Bruno finished 3rd overall, taking his first ever professional wins during that campaign. That year’s annual Masters of Formula 3 race saw him finish only one place off of 2006’s junior superstar Sebastian Vettel, whilst Bruno was already about to turn 23.

Bruno’s experience was similar in GP2. He achieved a feature win in his second weekend, but a dreadful mid-season saw him drop down the rankings to finish 8th overall with Arden International. In 2008 – and now with iSport International – he was again quick to improve, earning another feature win and a sprint victory, comfortably defeating his teammate Karun Chandhok by 64 points to 31 to finish 2nd in the standings. With three poles in ten races, he won at no less than Monaco, the track where his uncle won six times. Taking it up a notch, Bruno went further and spent the off-season racing in GP2 Asia Series to bring in further results and to keep up his race-craft.

Outside of racing, Bruno got himself a tidy little cameo on the British TV series Vroom Vroom, whereby he would race various cars to the top of a multi-storey carpark as a segment. Footage of this series is unfortunately very hard to come by, though at the time it proved a worthwhile method for the Brazilian to reach the public eye.

Bruno Senna, Hungaroring 2008

Bruno takes a double-podium at the Hungaroring on the way to a runner-up finish in the 2008 GP2 Series. Photo: Alastair Staley/Formula Motorsport Ltd.

2009 – A Brush with Greatness

Whilst giving off vague insinuations that he was considered for a 2008 seat, Bruno’s first shot in a real Formula 1 car was over the 2008-9 winter testing with Honda, with the intention to have the Brazilian signed for the 2009 season. This particular off-season was spectacular in that the Honda backers pulled out, thanks to the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, only for Ross Brawn to buy the team famously for £1, and then go on to win the championship with Brawn GP. In the end, Senna beat Barrichello’s time, but – and despite the Brazilian press revealing he had already signed a contract for 2009 –  ended up not getting the second Brawn seat.

Senna tests the interim 2009 Honda looking for a raceseat for next season. Photography: Honda F1

Senna tests the interim 2009 Honda, looking for a race seat for next season. Photography: Honda F1

So why in the end did Bruno miss out on the Brawn seat? According to some, it was Honda’s decision to promote Senna, whilst upon the formalised takeover by Ross himself, the new principal opted for Rubens Barrichello, who was more experienced, and whom Ross was more familiar with. A smart move, all things considered: Rubens maintained a fantastic level of consistency even late into his career, and was in every way except age and surname a better candidate for the Brawn than his compatriot.

Bruno took to various sportscar events to keep himself in a car. He partook in his first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2009 alongside (in-)famous F1 podium-sitter Tiago Monteiro, and it by no means would be his last. Force India team principal Vijay Mallya publicly considered Senna to replace Giancarlo Fisichella at Force India after the latter left for Ferrari, but these rumours did not materialise. His visibility had worked in his favour, however, as in October of that year, Bruno announced his signing to Campos Meta 1, the team that would become Hispania Racing Team Formula 1 TeamHRT Formula 1 Team, for short. There was finally a Senna on the F1 grid after 16 years.

2010 – Hispania Racing Team Formula 1 Team

Making a name for yourself at the slowest, least funded team on the grid is hard enough for even the best of drivers. The 2010 HRT Formula 1 Team challenger, the F110, was slow and never properly developed or funded. The promised budget cap for the new 2010 entries never materialized, and HRT, Virgin and Lotus found themselves astronomically behind in the spending race.

The Best 2010 Team

Bruno, unhappy with team management, emailed some unkind words about team principal Colin Kolles to his sister, only he somehow emailed it straight to Colin Kolles himself! Suddenly, citing “a lack of sponsorship payments”, Senna found himself out of the seat for Silverstone in place of Sakon Yamamoto, long a partner of team owner Kolles, and with a large and reliable bank account. However, Senna was able to sit in for the rest of the season whilst he enjoyed a merry-go-round of teammates alongside Karun Chandhok again, Yamamoto, and former Red Bull driver driver Christian Klien.

Having damaged his car at Catalunya, Senna went into the Monaco Grand Prix, where his uncle won six times, with a still-damaged chassis after the team was unable to locate the problem. In spite of this, he was still able to outqualify Chandhok by a full second before mechanical failure took him out of 15th – and after retirements, 14th – place and among the best results HRT would see in its three-year existence. Life is tough at the back, where great performances go unnoticed, though Bruno was given the most chances of the 2010 drivers to succeed, and the Hispania would have needed the strangest of races to score points.

On pace, Senna seemed equal with Chandhok, and superior to the replacement drivers. However, with an off-the-pace car that never saw development and retired regularly, for Senna it was simply a year to add to his racing CV whilst he looked for something better. By the end of the season, team and driver were unhappy with one another, and Senna was dropped. In fact, Kolles was adamant that his inexperienced drivers were the reason Hispania finished further behind their rivals:

I think the only reason why we did not finish tenth is that teams like Lotus and Virgin had more experienced drivers during the whole season.
Collin Kolles on the inexperience of Hispania’s 2010 lineup.

Bruno Senna, Malaysia 2010

Wearing the iconic yellow helmet of his uncle, Bruno was the de facto team leader during Hispania’s debut season on account of doing the most races. Photo: Joost Rooijmans/Creative Commons

2011 – A Second Brush with Greatness

The moment he was out of a drive with HRT, Senna took whatever chance he could get at staying at the top level of the sport. He eventually ended up as reserve driver to Lotus-Renault (that’s the black/gold one, not the dark green one), and very quickly was on the edge of greatness for the second time in his career.

Of course, this came on the back of the tragedy that befell Robert Kubica in rallying, which severed his arm and halted the Pole’s progress in Formula 1 and the best years of his career. Senna had been announced as team reserve only six days prior to the accident, and was now first in line for promotion to main driver. Kubica’s accident left Lotus-Renault with a choice, and like Ross Brawn two years prior, the team chose a more reliable, older, and more experienced option. Nick Heidfeld instead got the seat.

Bruno got a second chance in the sport in 2011, replacing Nick Heidfeld at Renault. Photography: Wikipedia Commons

Bruno got a second chance in the sport in 2011, replacing Nick Heidfeld at Renault. Photography: Wikipedia Commons

Despite the initial snubbing, Senna eventually did find himself in Heidfeld’s shoes, replacing the German driver after his firing mid-season. Lotus-Renault had been expecting performances of Kubica’s calibre, whilst at the same time switching all development from February to the 2012 chassis. Expectations too high, perhaps, but by the time Senna made it into a race seat for the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix, the team had gone backwards and were depending on some extra sponsorship payment following Renault’s withdrawal.

As the team had slowed progress, Senna found it very difficult to gain points on merit. After Vitantonio Liuzzi’s famous crash at Monza that year, Bruno inherited two points in ninth, but they were to be his only points that season. Of the awful seven points scored by Lotus-Renault after the summer break, Senna earned two of them. He was almost always behind his teammate Vitaly Petrov, though in fairness that was hardly a surprise.

Bruno Senna Vitaly Petrov
Average lap difference in Q1 +0.279 0.000
Average finishing position 14 12
… when both finished 15 12

Qualifying performance comparison between Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov during the 2011 season. Note: Senna outqualified Petrov 3/7 times (Japan doesn’t count due to the rejectful nature of Q3 at the time).

One person who did notice Senna’s efforts was Frank Williams, who was happy with how the Brazilian had performed after being thrown into a car mid-season, and signed the Brazilian for 2012.

2012 – Third Time’s a Charm?

The most discussed and meaningful part of Senna’s career was what would become his final F1 season, driving for Williams. It was his only full season in the sport and it was also the one where he found himself in the most competitive machinery. However, it appeared that the Brazilian was facing yet another uphill struggle right from the start.

Upon signing his contract at Williams for 2012, Senna’s contract included the responsibility of giving up his car in Free Practice no less than 15 times to his team’s new test driver, Finnish rising star Valtteri Bottas. He had also been informed that in all likelihood Bottas would be getting his seat once 2013 arrived. Regardless, Bruno took the offer, but not after consulting his own family for permission, and complaining of his situation to the press. In many ways the Brazilian was lucky, however: it was a sign of the times that the former champion team were running two South American pay-drivers (that’s Pastor Maldonado, not Rubens Barrichello!).

On Saturdays, it did not go well. Senna only made Q3 once in a car which, in the hands of his teammate Maldonado, won a race from pole position at Catalunya. He only outqualified Pastor twice in 20 races. In fact, his qualifying was so poor, that by Silverstone, Bruno admitted that his regular strategy involved going long on the first stint, simply because he kept qualifying so poorly every weekend.

Rounded to the nearest number Bruno Senna Pastor Maldonado
Average qualifying position 14 9
Actual grid position after grid penalties applied 14 11
Average lap difference in Q1 +0.357  +0.000

Qualifying performance comparison between Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado during the 2012 season.

On a race-by-race basis, there were endless incidents: two at Melbourne, then more at Monza, Singapore (crashing in both Q1 and Q2), Suzuka, and Valencia. Spain, where Maldonado won from pole, saw Bruno out in Q1. Whilst the Venezuelan won in a mighty performance, Senna was hit by Michael Schumacher in a clumsy move by the German. To add insult and injury, the fire that engulfed the Williams garage post-race came from Senna’s car, after fuel being extracted exploded, injuring team personnel and members of the Maldonado family.

Maldonado was not perfect either. In fact, the Williams duo seemed to be in direct competition with Romain Grosjean in throwing away great points possibilities. All of the team’s efforts seemed redundant at the number of points lost to careless driving. When Maldonado had a late-race collision in Valencia, Senna lost his chance at picking up good points by colliding with Kamui Kobayashi. Further matters didn’t help the Brazilian when his compatriot Rubens Barrichello weighed in against him publicly. Rubens, bitter after being dropped by the team he had worked hard to develop for, claimed he would have scored double Bruno’s points in the same season.

This is the result of [Williams] having inexperienced pilots, who are certainly fast but do not know how to use the equipment they have in their hands.
A not so happy Rubens Barrichello on the performance of the Williams drivers during the 2012 season.

But it wasn’t all negative for Bruno. Despite damaging his front wing at Turn 1, he made great use of an alternative strategy to grab a 7th place at Shanghai. Another long stint at the Hungaroring saw him form a Trulli-Train and hold up the front-runners long enough to bag another 7th place. Abu Dhabi’s race saw him, with yet another alternative strategy, earn an 8th place in spite of two collisions and two safety cars that shuffled up the order.

At Malaysia, where Alonso and Sergio Pérez famously battled for the lead, Bruno was able to master the wet conditions to comfortably outperform his teammate and most of the grid, finishing 6th in what was to be his best result in F1, and the closest he came to escape from being profiled on Grand Prix Rejects. In retrospect, it is clear that the FW34 was a really good chassis. It worked well with the Pirelli rubber, and if it wasn’t for the inconsistency and sometimes (more often than not) clumsiness of both drivers, the Grove squad could have finished much higher in the standings than they eventually did.

Was the Williams FW34 potential wasted by its drivers? Photography: Wikipedia Commons

Was the Williams FW34 potential wasted by its drivers? Photography: Wikipedia Commons

At season’s end, there was the usual silly season: rumours reported Senna jumping into Nico Hülkenberg’s seat after the German switched to Sauber for 2013, or to Caterham partnering Charles Pic. Whatever racing drivers may say (and they shouldn’t be trusted), the silly season came and went, and Bruno was without a drive for 2013. His last race in the sport was at home, in Interlagos, where he collided with championship leader (and, two hours later, champion) Sebastian Vettel and retired without finishing a lap. In his final season in the sport, Bruno Senna racked up 31 points of the team’s 76 tally. As a fun fact: Senna took fastest lap at the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix – his only in the sport!

2013–present: To WEC and Beyond!

I’m trying to make my racing like the time in the 1960s and 1970s when people raced in a few championships at the same time.
Bruno looks to his post-F1 future.

There has hardly been a time when Bruno Senna has been out of work. Following his ejection from Formula 1, Senna immediately signed with Aston Martin Racing for his first full season with the WEC. In the GT class he had a successful, if inconsistent début: three class podiums and two class wins, though finishing the season penultimate of the full-time drivers.

He still partook in multiple series for the following two seasons before briefly settling on the new Formula E series with the Mahindra Racing team (driving alongside his perennial teammate Karun Chandhok) until the 2015-16 season. During that time he outperformed Chandhok as a reliable midfielder, before then being outpaced by his second teammate Nick Heidfeld. In early 2016, Bruno restarted his endurance career by joining Morand Racing  in the LMP2 category in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), and upon losing his Mahindra contract, he left single-seaters for good.

Bruno Senna, 2015 London ePrix

Bruno takes 4th place at the 2015 London ePrix the finale of Formula E’s inaugural season. Photo: Richard August/Creative Commons

It was in endurance racing where Senna found his home and success. Eight participations at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, of which the most recent in 2020 saw him finish 2nd in class and overall. In his four (mostly) full seasons in the WEC, he has moved from LMP2 class to LMP1 together with the Rebellion squad, winning the former in 2017 and finishing 3rd in the latter in 2020. Combining this with his intermission year in 2013 driving for the GTE class, this makes Bruno Senna the only driver to have wins in every class in the new series.

Until around 2018 he kept a full schedule, shuffling between his main duties and endurance racing, both in Europe and America, where has made some appearances in the IMSA and Brazilian Stock Cars. Between 2014 and 2015, he did earn a few connections with teams his uncle had a legacy with, namely McLaren, doing the occasional test and public display on anniversaries. There were rumours of a switch to NASCAR as far back as 2011, but these never materialised.

Bruno eventually found a home in prototype racing, taking the title in LMP2 class in the World Endurance Championship in 2017. Photography: Florent Gooden / DPPI

Bruno eventually found a home in prototype racing, taking the title in LMP2 class in the World Endurance Championship in 2017. Photography: Florent Gooden / DPPI

Looking back

Like most modern drivers, Bruno grew up in the gaming generation, saying that his early racing experience was playing games such as Stunts for DOS, and then later rFactor and GP4, which he said made the switch to Formula 1 simulators all the easier.

Bruno found it easier being out of F1, away from the criticism and the “politics”. His success in junior formulae and endurance racing is testament to his ability to fight amongst the very best. He always said that he only had one true season in Formula 1, that being his final season with Williams. He spent his whole career trying to shake off the “stigma” that was his last name – the doors it opened, the expectations it gave the public, the sponsors it brought.

It is without doubt that he was of Formula 1 ability, and outside of his disastrous Saturdays for Williams, never embarrassed himself on a grand scale. At the same time, compliments damn him with faint praise: he was almost on his teammate’s points tally by the end of the 2012 season, but that was due to Maldonado’s mistakes more than Bruno’s own raw pace.

One way or another, the Senna name lives on in the racing folklore. Photography: Flickr

One way or another, the Senna legacy lives on in the racing folklore. Photography: Flickr

Some (including Bruno) argue that he never got a real shot at an F1 stint, but he is lucky to get as far as he had. His initial testing with Honda was the closest he got to greatness, whilst if not for Kubica’s crash, he may have disappeared off the grid after his sole season at Hispania. He took advantage of every opportunity he found himself within range of, and with it came relative success in more than one type of racing and category.

In an interview in 2019, Bruno said that he missed the old Bridgestone tyres of GP2, where he could push all race, as opposed to the Pirelli tyres of Formula 1 where he had to nurse and manage all Sunday. Even while in WEC, he calls the 24 Hours of Le Mans a “24 hour sprint race”, where a driver can and should push the whole time – within his limits, of course. He comes across as having a genuine enthusiasm for endurance racing, and is still good friends with Karun Chandhok. He seems bitter but pragmatic, saying “Motor racing is like a mafia”. Then again, if he didn’t complain about Formula 1 governance and have constant contractual issues, would his surname really be Senna?

Sources: Motorsinside, Eurosport, Lastwordonsports, Formula1, Independent, FT, Guardian, BBC, rmcsport, Auto123, Foxsports, Auto-Moto