An unlikely yet inspiring friendship: Ayrton Senna and Tony Kanaan

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Formula One great Ayrton Senna died 20 years ago on May 4, 1994.

Tony Kanaan is the defending Indianapolis 500 winner.

Other than being two very competitive open-wheel race cars, and both being from Brazil, you’d think there would be very little between the two drivers.

But in a very touching story by Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Lawrence, Senna was one of the most significant influences in Kanaan’s development.

The two first met in 1991, three years before Senna was killed in a crash in the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. The setting was on the Senna family farm near Sao Paulo and the event was an impromptu go-kart race between Senna, then 31, fellow drivers and friends and the then-16 year old Kanaan, who was invited because of his status as an up-and-coming kart racer in their native country.

As fate would have it, Kanaan earned the pole for the race. But Senna invoked “my house, my rules,” much to Kanaan’s dismay.

“Right before the start, (Senna) inverted the grid,” Kanaan told Lawrence. “(Senna) put me dead last and started right beside me. We drove through the field, and I won the race.

“He’s like, ‘Man, you’re really talented.'”

Senna would become both mentor and friend to his young fellow countryman.

“Good luck,” Senna once told Kanaan. “And if you ever need anything from me, apart from money, let me know.”

To which Kanaan recalled to Lawrence, “First of all, it’s the biggest thing in life for any kid, right? Meeting your hero. But for me, it was overwhelming. He not only wants to help me out, he gives me his (phone) number!”

At a race in 1994, just months before Senna’s tragic death, Kanaan was in the midst of a four-race tryout with a team that he was hoping would eventually turn into a full-time ride.

Without prompting and completely unexpectedly, Senna went to visit Kanaan in his trailer. Needless to say, Kanaan’s team was stunned that the F1 god would grace them with his presence.

“Senna introduces himself around, like he needed an introduction,” Kanaan recalled to Lawrence. “Everybody’s really nervous because he’s ‘The Guy.’ Eventually (Senna) turns to the owner and he says, ‘You know this kid?’ and he pointed at me? ‘He’s better than me. He beat me in a go-kart race, at my track.’ And then he left. After that, I got a full time job with the team.”

Senna was at Imola on the day Senna crashed and accompanied the body back to their native Brazil.

“I was really fortunate to have the time that I had with him,” Kanaan said.

Whether or not you’re a Senna or Kanaan fan, you owe it to yourself to read Lawrence’s excellent story.

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Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.