Senna is an incredibly powerful, engrossing and informative documentary and is truly one of the outstanding films of the year so far. What’s more, to enjoy the film it really doesn’t matter if you are a fan of Formula 1 or if you are watching with absolutely no prior knowledge of the sport. The story of Brazilian icon and racing legend Ayrton Senna is both incredibly inspiring and also tinged with tragedy.
The documentary is directed by Asif Kapadia and charts the driving career of Ayrton from his roots in amateur go-karting through his glittering career in Formula 1. The director wisely chose not to adopt the tried and tested method of having talking heads discussing their points to camera and instead opts to have them act as voice over to the startling array of footage he collected. Kapadia was granted unprecedented access to F1’s vaults and has not only extensive race footage but also an array of rare behind the scenes snippets from driver’s meetings and team discussions. On top of this, the director was granted access by Senna’s family to a wealth of home videos that give a valuable insight into the man behind the legend.
The artistic decision to not break away to talking heads and instead maintain a continuous stream of archive footage is an inspired one as it not only gives the film a much better flow, but also ensures the viewer is far more immersed in the ongoing story.
At times in fact the film is almost so cinematic you can easily forget you are watching a documentary. The fierce rivalry between Senna and Alain Prost for example would not be out of place in a standard Hollywood blockbuster. You have a tale of two drivers, one the seasoned pro, one the new kid on the block both with contrasting styles but equally determined to win. It’s action cinema at its finest. For those in the know, the hotly contested Championships of 1989 and 1990 are already the stuff of racing legend. For the uninitiated, it’s equally compelling. To briefly summarize, going into the penultimate race of the 1989 season in Japan, Prost new that if he finished ahead of Senna or if Senna did not finish the race, the title was his. Ayrton was desperate to win his first title and his daredevil, gung-ho style was in great contrast to Prost’s calculating and measured one. Inevitably it seemed, during such a hotly clash, their two cars collided and they both spun off the track. There remains some debate over who was at fault for the crash. Nevertheless, Senna corrected himself, rejoined the fray and miraculously went on to win the race.
The film then automatically cuts to Prost making his way to the steward’s office. It then emerges that in rejoining the race; Senna missed out a chicane and was thus disqualified. The title was handed to Prost and Senna was reprimanded for dangerous driving. The two drivers’ roles are thus set in place. The plucky underdog, denied victory by the politics of F1 (the head of the sport’s governing body was a fellow Frenchmen and friend of Prost), and the calculating baddie who wasn’t to be denied. Pure cinema. The next year, with roles reversed, the two men again went into the Japanese Grand Prix knowing one of them would be champion. This time, Senna knew if Prost did not finish, the title was his and this time at the first corner, the two collided again and both spun off the track. Was this revenge on Senna’s part? Was this perhaps a dangerous other side to his character? In both races, it was unclear who was in the wrong, but the great rivalry that emerged between these two drivers reignited the public’s passion for F1 and is truly riveting even for a non aficionado.
One other incredibly cinematic moment was when Ayrton won the Grand Prix for the first time on home soil in Brazil. Streets ahead of the rest of the field he appeared to have the race sown up. Then, with just 4 laps to go, disaster struck as his gear box suffered a major glitch and he was forced to complete the race in sixth gear, which by all accounts is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Yet Ayrton was not to be denied and he somehow clung on and brought the race home. Such was the immense physical and mental toll required to complete the race that the ecstasy on his face at its end quickly turns into a grimace of pain. Senna’s arm muscles went into spasm and he struggled to maintain consciousness. A weakened Senna gingerly made his way onto the podium and he struggled to lift the enormous trophy above his head. Refusing to be denied his golden moment however, he somehow finds the energy to raise the trophy aloft to rapturous applause. It’s truly a joy to behold.
Senna was a true superstar of F1. His charisma and good looks made him a hit with the people but it was also his love of speed and passion for racing which made him such a success. His driving may have been considered reckless by some but his maverick spirit and determination to stand up to racing’s authorities ensured he was much loved by fans and (most) fellow drivers alike. It was that passion for racing that provides a touching epilogue as well. Senna is asked by a reporter which driver he most enjoyed competing against throughout his career. After careful consideration, Senna didn’t choose Prost or any of the other F1 legends he did battle with but an unknown British go-karter called Fullerton who he raced back in the late 70’s. Their rivalry, said Senna was “pure racing”.
That fatal day at Imola where Senna and fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger tragically lost their lives is truly agonizing to watch. The whole weekend was shrouded in tension and a clearly distraught Senna was deeply affected by Ratzenberger’s death as well as by the lucky escape experienced by Rubens Barrichello. The director decides to let us share his final lap with Ayrton courtesy of the onboard camera and these incredibly tense moments are heart-breaking and powerful cinema at its finest.
The DVD extras are also of great interest and include insightful interviews with key McLaren team members regarding issues such as Senna’s arrival with the team and the rivalry with Prost. Prost himself talks openly about the rift between him and Ayrton and you do genuinely get the sense that despite their great rivalry, there was a great deal of mutual respect between the two of them.
Senna is an incredibly moving and poignant movie that sets a new benchmark for documentary film making.
Director: Asif Kapadia
Writer: Manish Pandey
Stars: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams
Runtime: 106 min