Early life and career
Senna was born in the Pro-Matre Maternity Hospital of Santana, a neighbourhood of São Paulo. The middle child of wealthy Brazilian landowner and factory owner Milton da Silva and his wife Neide Senna da Silva, he had an older sister, Viviane and a younger brother, Leonardo. He was left-handed.
The house where Senna spent the first four years of his life belonged to Neide's father, João Senna. It was located on the corner of Avenida Aviador Guilherme with Avenida Gil Santos Dumont, less than 100 meters from Campo de Marte, a large area where they operated the Aeronautics Material park and an airport. Senna was highly athletic, excelling in gymnastics and other sports, and developed an interest in cars and motor racing at the age of four. He also suffered from poor motor coordination and had trouble climbing stairways by the age of three. An electroencephalogram (EEG) found that Senna was not suffering from any problems. His parents gave Senna the nickname "Beco". At the age of seven, Senna first learned to drive a Jeep around his family's farm and gained the advantage of changing gears without the use of a clutch.
Senna attended Colegio Rio Branco in the São Paulo neighbourhood of Higienópolis and graduated in 1977 with a grade 5 in physics along with other grades in mathematics, chemistry, and English. He later enrolled in a college that specialised in business administration, but dropped out after three months. Overall, his grades amounted up to 68%.
Senna began racing go-karts
in Brazil at the age of 13.
Senna's first kart was built by his father using a small 1-HP lawnmower engine. Senna started racing at Interlagos and entered a karting competition at the age of 13. He started his first race on pole position, facing rivals who were some years older than him; despite this, he managed to lead most of the race before retiring after colliding with a rival. His father supported his son and Lucio Pascal Gascon soon managed the developing talent.
Senna went on to win the South American Kart Championship in 1977. He contested the Karting World Championship each year from 1978 to 1982, finishing runner-up in 1979 and 1980. In 1978, he was the teammate of Terry Fullerton, from whom Senna later felt was the rival he got the most satisfaction racing against also because of the lack of money and politics at that level.
In 1981, Senna moved to England to begin single-seater racing, winning the RAC and Townsend-Thoreson Formula Ford 1600 Championships that year with the Van Diemen team.
21-year old Senna in his British Formula Ford 1600 single seater.
Despite this, Senna initially did not believe he would continue in motorsport. At the end of that season, under pressure from his parents to take up a role in the family business, Senna announced his retirement from Formula Ford and returned to Brazil. Before leaving England, however, Senna was offered a drive with a Formula Ford 2000 team for £10,000. Back in Brazil, he decided to take this offer and returned to live in England. As da Silva is the most common Brazilian surname, he instead adopted his mother's maiden name, Senna. Senna went on to win the 1982 British and European Formula Ford 2000 championships. For that season, Senna arrived with sponsorship from Banerj and Pool.
In 1983, Senna drove in the British Formula Three Championship for the West Surrey Racing team. He dominated the first half of the season until Martin Brundle, driving a similar car for Eddie Jordan Racing, closed the gap in the second part of the championship. Senna won the title at the final round after a closely fought and, at times, acrimonious battle with the Briton. In November that year, Senna also triumphed at the inaugural Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix with Teddy Yip's Toyota-powered Theodore Racing Team.