A famous name can be a terrible burden and, in Formula 1, there is no greater name than Senna. When Bruno, Ayrton's nephew, made his grand prix debut with the backmarker HRT team in 2010, he was on a ride to nowhere. The car was woefully underdeveloped and dog slow, and so that iconic name became rooted to the unfashionable end of timing screens and those who ignored Bruno's exploits on the ladder to F1 dismissed him as all name and no ability.
Shorn of the distorting prism of those legendary five letters, the story becomes very different. While Senna didn't catch the eye on his tortuous route to grand prix racing in the manner of Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton, he did impress. Second in GP2 in 2008 and a race winner in Formula 3 in Britain before that, he had a worthy résumé. This was particularly impressive given that he had no karting career to speak of and only started his first car race, in Formula BMW, in 2004. Honda considered him for a seat in '09 before the Japanese manufacturer pulled out of F1. He was deservedly near the front of the line for a shot at a grand prix drive. And he got there on merit because he had to. As Bruno climbed the ladder it became clear that many of Ayrton's old cohorts weren't so interested in helping his nephew take a shortcut, partly because, for all of his brilliance, the three-time World Champion hadn't been the easiest man to get along with.
When the Brawn team, which rose from the ashes of Honda, opted to keep Rubens Barrichello alongside Jenson Button, Senna joined the ORECA team's Le Mans car program. Honda team principal Ross Brawn had cited Senna's lack of development experience as a decisive factor in him not getting the seat and so, rather than continue in one-make GP2, Bruno elected to gain more technical knowledge at ORECA. Experience-wise, it was a shrewd move on the Brazilian's part but, when he returned to F1 circles, most had forgotten his GP2 wins and wrote him off.
“Having a slow car can damage you, and last year didn't do any favors for my image,” admits Senna. “The biggest problem wasn't necessarily being slow – everyone compares you to your teammate. But unfortunately, even our cars were not always the same because of the limitation on parts.”
This explains why there were occasions when Senna was outpaced by pay-driver Sakon Yamamoto. At the end of 2010, Senna was all washed up with most teams only interested in him because of the dollar signs they believed his name could bring. He headed into 2011 with his career momentum having all but dissipated and took the Renault reserve driver role as a way to stay in F1.
Most reserves secretly hope that one of the team's regular drivers picks up some innocuous injury that forces him to skip a few races, but Senna's misfortune was that Kubica injured himself too seriously. Lotus Renault GP team principal Eric Boullier couldn't afford to go into the season without an experienced hand, and so F1 veteran Nick Heidfeld was signed up.
Heidfeld had a couple of strong performances, but the team ditched him after Hungary. This followed Senna's one-off outing during Friday morning practice at the Hungaroring which, if you compensated for the condition of his tires when he set his best lap, saw him outpace regular driver Vitaly Petrov. In at the deep end for the Belgian Grand Prix that followed, Senna excelled. Qualifying was held in wet, but drying, conditions but the Brazilian had the confidence to attack and ended up seventh on the grid, ahead of Petrov. In the race, he overcooked it into the first corner and clattered into the innocent Jaime Alguersuari, but that mistake was excusable for a driver who hadn't started a cut-and-thrust open-wheel race in a competitive car since his GP2 days.
Since then, Senna has continued to qualify strongly, beating Petrov three times in his first five Saturdays in a Renault. But aside from a couple of points at the Italian Grand Prix for ninth place after being delayed in a first corner accident, the races have been harder.
“I have made mistakes in the races,” admits Senna. “There's no way to shortcut racecraft. If you don't do it for long enough – and I haven't really raced for maybe two-and-a-half years – it catches up with you. It feels a little bit like 2005, my first full season in car racing, when I was building confidence.”
It's a reasonable excuse. Senna's inexperience at this level was exposed in the Korean Grand Prix where rain on Friday meant that he was underexperienced in dry conditions and he turned in a very messy qualifying and race performance. But team principal Boullier is certain that Senna is overcoming the doubters despite a mixed bag in his first five outings.
“I was surprised by how strong he was so soon in qualifying,” says Boullier. “At Spa, he had the rain, but then he got into the Q3 session at Monza, and did that again in Suzuka even after a crash on Saturday morning.
“He did very well in GP2 and he is a racing driver called Bruno, not Ayrton. He has shown the whole paddock that he is a racing driver in his own right and he will do better and better.”
In raw performance terms, it's difficult to argue that Senna's two points in five races might have eclipsed what Heidfeld would have done. But you cannot expect an inexperienced driver to be the complete package straight out of the box while there's no testing in modern F1, and his performances suggest he has the potential to operate at a higher level than Petrov.
“When the pressure is on, he seems to be able to deliver,” says the team's track operations director Alan Permane. “If there's one criticism to make – and it's not a big one – it's that he's a little bit too steady. The way he was brought up in F1 [with HRT] was that crashing is something that you absolutely must not do. He could take a few more risks and if he spins every now and then, that's what he needs to do to find the limit. But technically he's very good. He's getting to know the tires and how they react in the race as well.”
So what's the bottom line? Senna is a rapid driver and he's also intelligent, which explains his improving technical skills. Already 28, there are question marks over his ultimate potential, but if he continues progressing, by the start of 2012 he could be established as a very capable F1 driver – provided, of course, he has a drive. With Kubica attempting a comeback, it's far from certain there will be another chance for Senna at Lotus Renault.
There is little to suggest that Bruno will join his uncle in the ranks of the champions, but there's nothing to stop him evolving into a race winner. That said, he is still on a steep part of the learning curve so we've yet to see where it will level off. But one thing is for sure. He's well on the way to shedding the baggage of that surname. Don't think of him as the nephew of Ayrton. Think of him simply as Bruno Senna, F1 driver.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the December 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.