Director Asif Kapadia’s Senna is a masterpiece of editing and research, with miles of archive footage (much previously unseen) and interviews (always in voice-over), jumping from one format to another as it maps out the story of the three-times Formula One world champion, going beyond the usual profile of Ayrton Senna as a man possessed; a doomed, God-bothering, win-at-all-costs obsessive.
His rival Alain Prost’s famous quote, that Senna “thinks he can't kill himself, because he believes in God, and I think that's very dangerous”, rather missed the point.
Senna had a keen sense of his own mortality; he cherished life, lived it as a gentle, slightly eccentric, occasionally mischievous soul. He flirted with big-haired television presenters, got on the good foot at Carnival and joked around with teammates and colleagues. His spirituality informed his outlook, his character, but never fully defined it.
The intense competition with Prost helped shape him as a sportsman, giving him a sharper focus, something tangible to kick against. The Frenchman was Borg to the Brazilian’s McEnroe; Liston to his Clay. The film portrays Senna as outsider, rallying against the establishment and grey-haired buffoons of the FIA (who always seemed to side with Prost). Early on in the film he’s decrying his sport as being “all money and politics”, later we see him walk out in frustration at drivers’ meetings.
The mood increasingly darkens as Senna edges towards its inevitable conclusion. The footage at Imola, scene of the fateful 1994 Italian Grand Prix, is unerringly spooky.
Senna’s legacy goes way beyond modern Formula One, with its procession races and overly generous plaudits for drivers who know how to look after their tyres.
A young Rubens Barrichello crashes into a tyre barrier, flipping the car over, but survives relatively unharmed; the Austrian Roland Ratzenberger is heard muttering to himself that he has to calm down, that he has to control his driving, before hitting a concrete wall in qualifying. The 33 year old dies instantly. Senna, watching from the Williams garage, breaks down in tears.
A safety car was brought out right at the beginning of the Grand Prix after Pedro Lamy shunted into the back of JJ Lehto’s stalled Benetton. As the race restarts, you can’t help but shift forward in your seat to enjoy another startling lap of on-board camera footage, watching Senna pull away from Michael Schumacher (a new driver for a new age). And then there’s the vile, gut-wrenching realisation that you’re witnessing the final moments of a man’s life.
He was 34 when he died, the sport’s last fatality. Car and track safety has since improved dramatically, but Senna’s legacy goes way beyond modern Formula One, with its procession races and overly generous plaudits for drivers who know how to look after their tyres. Senna pushed the boundaries of The Zone, working within the tightest constraints of time and space and, in doing so, he laid down a marker for any subsequent athlete looking to home in on greatness.
Thankfully, this beautifully paced documentary doesn’t forget to celebrate the bright humanity that shone behind that magnificently stubborn talent.
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