Video: Meet the Norfolk man hailed by Ayrton Senna as his greatest ever opponent

Terry Fullerton, of Costessey, is the ex-karting driver Ayrton Senna called the greatest driver he ever faced.
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY
Terry Fullerton, of Costessey, is the ex-karting driver Ayrton Senna called the greatest driver he ever faced. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Friday, May 2, 2014
4:10 PM

It was twenty years ago this week that Formula One legend Ayrton Senna died. But did you know he once hailed a Norfolk man as his greatest opponent? In 2011 upon the release of the film Senna he spoke to Michael Bailey. Here is his story...

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Fullerton and Senna in action

The video is based on the 1980 World Championships, held at Nivelles in Belgium, where Terry Fullerton won his world crown in 1973.

At the time drivers had to wear crash helmets that reflected their country’s national colours, hence Ayrton Senna was wearing his distinctive yellow with blue and green horizontal bands. Fullerton wore British racing green with red, white and blue vertical stripes.

At 3:37 in, Fullerton has his kart up on two wheels in dramatic fashion. At the time, the tyres used at this level of racing had the consistency of chewing gum and would give phenomenal levels of grip – hence Fullerton’s high, wide and handsome...

The answer was supposed to be Alain Prost. It could easily have been Niki Lauder, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell or Michael Schumacher. Instead, he uttered the name of a little known karting champion. Terry Fullerton.

And the question? It is one brought in from the shadows by a Formula One film lighting up cinemas since its general release on Friday: Senna.

Iconic Brazilian and former Team Lotus driver Ayrton Senna was quizzed at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix by Mark Fogerty, with Senna’s fiercest rival Prost soon to announce his retirement.

“Who is or has been the driver you got the most satisfaction of racing against...past or present?” asked Fogerty, clearly angling for a line on Senna’s soon to be departing French rival.

Ayrton Senna infographic by Ollie HoffAyrton Senna infographic by Ollie Hoff

“Fullerton; Terry Fullerton,” returned Senna.

“He was very experienced and I enjoyed very much driving with him because he was fast, he was consistent. He was, for me, a very complete driver. I have that as a very good memory.”

The interview had been hidden away in the Formula One archives until Manish Pandey set about bringing Senna’s life to the big screen. And now Fullerton, who lives in Costessey, can revel in the fact the man widely regarded as the greatest driver of them all rated him as his greatest opponent.

“It was great…I’m really glad he said it, of course,” said Fullerton. “There was a premier in Japan last year and somebody saw it and told me I appeared at the end of this new film.

Terry Fullerton edges ahead of Ayrton Senna during their karting days.Terry Fullerton edges ahead of Ayrton Senna during their karting days.

“I had heard about it at the time. A friend of mine was the editor on the Australian equivalent of Autosport magazine and he was at the press conference when Aryton said it in 1993.

“But it was all word of mouth, then I didn’t hear anything about it until last year when the film was shown.”

Fullerton, 25 in the summer of 1978, was the fitting adversary for a 17-year-old Senna setting out on a path that would lead him to become one of Formula One’s most revered drivers.

The west Londoner had been in the karting game since the 1960s, before Senna joined him at Italian outfit DAP for three years – a period of outstanding combat that ended with Senna quitting to pursue his dream of Formula One, but without taking Fullerton’s number one driver tag.

Terry Fullerton during his karting days.Terry Fullerton during his karting days.

For Senna, he was the rival he never conquered.

For Fullerton, there was no doubt the Brazilian would become a star.

“I was on the top of my game and when Ayrton first turned up, I thought he as nothing special really,” said the 58-year-old.

“You did notice this kid seemed a bit more intense than usual, a little bit introvert. There was a lot of intensity about him.

ayrton sennaayrton senna

“And then when he went testing you saw a kid who was very fast, so you look at him in a different light at that stage and give him a bit more respect.

“He went on to prove he was very fast…a raw talent; that’s exactly what he was.

“He did develop a lot. A 17-year-old is definitely not fully formed as a person and you could tell he was an intelligent kid and he had opinions on things – even at that stage, whether they were right or wrong – so it didn’t surprise me the way he turned out.

“And yes, you thought he was going to be successful if he goes into cars. He had bundles of ability. Too much ability. He was stinking with it.”

It may have been, back in 1993, that Senna had one moment in mind when quoting Fullerton’s name: the dramatic 1979 Champions Cup final, when Fullerton’s final corner overtake on Senna won him the silverware that now sits proudly on his desk.

After that race, Senna said: “I think I am the moral winner. Fullerton played dirty. If he hadn’t caused an accident I would have won. I preferred to let him go even though the way he overtook me was against the rules.”

“Year right,” Fullerton replies today, with a smile.

Their DAP boss Angelo Parrilla summed it up best at the time: “Terry Fullerton and Ayrton Senna de Silva are the two best drivers in the world. All the others are capable of good third places, but nothing more.”

Fullerton added: “It was a great race, a very tough race and we were just in a class of our own, miles ahead of anyone else and I just about came out on top.”

While Senna was prepared to give everything to make it into F1, his team-mate’s story was different. Formula One was a dangerous place and seeing his older brother Alec killed in a motorcycling accident was enough to put Fullerton off.

“My mum and dad would have hated it; they didn’t want me to race cars,” he said.

“At the time it was very dangerous. I heard, between 1968 and 1973 you had a two out of three chance of dying if you raced in Formula One. In a grid of 15, 10 of those are going to be dead in that five year period.

“They were dropping like flies, so I thought ‘sod that’ to be quite honest. I already had a brother who died, so there was a real incentive not to do it.

“I was at the top of my game getting paid as a professional driver to travel around the world, be treated well and win big races.

“I was happy doing exactly what I was doing.”

When the racing did come to an end – not long before Senna was taking up his seat at Team Lotus in 1985 – Fullerton became the boss of his own team, before developing new drivers from his base at Thetford and home in Long Stratton. Indeed, Fullerton has made an impressive reputation helping the likes of two-times Le Mans winner Allan McNish, Indycar star Daniel Wheldon, ex-F1 driver Anthony Davidson and current Force India starlet Paul di Resta on their way in single-seater racing.

Senna had his own Norfolk connections: he was based in Attleborough both before and during his time in Formula One.

But tragically for him, the danger of F1 ripped through a horrific San Marino Grand Prix weekend in 1994. The Brazilian, and Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger, were killed in terrible accidents around Imola.

“Other people had crashed at the Tamburello corner and been fine,” said Fullerton. “Apparently there wasn’t a bruise on Ayrton. It was just an impact to his helmet. He was unlucky, his luck ran out.”

All of which is played out in the new film, winner of World Cinema Audience Award for documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

It is a stirring piece of cinema for a stirring character.

“Even when the credits are rolling you’ll still be watching it, I guarantee,” said Fullerton. “It’s not really building him up, it’s more of an emotional story of his life in motor racing, and then the fights he had with some of the officials and the duel with Prost at McLaren.

“I raced against Prost for a number of years in karting, before Senna, and he wasn’t even in the game. You’d just catch him, pass him and forget about it.

“Mansell was another, he never won a thing in karts either.

“But Senna was the most gifted I ever raced against. It was good to measure myself against him.

“He is a driver that comes along once in a lifetime, that one. People have said to me ‘Keep your eye out for the next Senna’.

“Well, you’ll be keeping your eye out for a long time before your find that, believe me.

“He was just the best driver, head and shoulders above the others.”

SEE TOMORROW’S PAPER FOR A SPECIAL FEATURE ON SENNA’S LINKS TO NORFOLK.

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