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.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.