Whenever the greatest Formula One drivers in history are considered you can be safe in the knowledge that amongst them will be Brazilian legend – Ayrton Senna. Rising to the top of the racing world in the late eighties and early nineties, Senna is still considered by many to have been the fastest driver of them all and quite possibly the best. Asif Kapadia’s documentary tells the story of Senna’s Formula One career entirely through archive footage both of Senna himself and of his contemporaries, including team bosses and his fierce rival – Alain Prost.
The documentary traces Senna’s career beginning in 1984 when he was driving for Toleman. Senna first came to attention at the Monaco Grand Prix where he qualified low down the field in an inferior car but on race day heavy rain came down on the track. Senna was the master in the rain and scythed his way through the field and was seconds behind race leader, Alain Prost, when the race was controversially stopped, the stewards deeming it too dangerous to continue, even though the conditions were no worse than before! Senna would soon switch to Lotus and though the team did not have the best car, Senna secured his first victory with them. This was a time when Formula One was as much about the driver as the car. Today it seems that whoever has the best car already has the main advantage over their rivals. The likes of Senna could be competitive in an average car.
The documentary soon moves on to Senna’s time with McClaren from 1988-93 and his pairing with Alain Prost. The Frenchman was dubbed “the Professor” for his meticulous approach to racing, only securing points he needed rather than pushing himself hard for wins in every race, which Senna always did. Initially good teammates, the relationship between Senna and Prost would soon turn very nasty, to the point where they no longer spoke and resulted in title deciding collisions in 1989 and 1990 respectively, both at the same race in Japan. Senna was deemed to be far too aggressive on the track and had many run-ins with the powers that be over his driving. The documentary traces these conflicts and how Senna was nearly banned from racing in 1990. I’d always assumed that Senna was the main culprit of the rivalry with Prost but the documentary shows that both men were as bad as each other.
The rivalry with Prost forms the bulk of the documentary and Senna’s title wins in 1990 and 1991 are summarised very briefly. It would have been great to see some lengthy footage of Senna’s famous race win at Donnington in 1993 when his rivals struggled on a wet track, while he carved his way through effortlessly to victory. The documentary soon moves onto 1994 and the anticipation begins to build, especially when we reach Imola and we know the end is nigh. One of the darkest weekends in Formula One, you will feel for all the drivers but especially Senna who watched a fellow Brazilian, Rubens Barrichello injured in practice on Friday and Roland Ratzenberger killed in qualifying on Saturday. Finally we reach the day of the race and contemporary accounts suggest Senna did not want to race but his need to win superseded any other concerns. On one of the most infamous days in sporting history, we don’t get extensive footage of Senna’s fatal crash but seeing it once is more than enough! What makes it sad is not only that sheer bad luck killed Senna but that he had expressed concerns about the safety of the track before. Ironically, the Tamburello corner that claimed Senna’s life would be altered after the 1994 race and made much safer! The documentary deals with the aftermath and the mourning that came in Brazil where Senna was worshipped by the proud nation he loved. One of the film’s most moving moments is when Senna, after many failed attempts, finally wins the Brazilian Grand Prix in front of his fans. It may have been his most cherished win.
My only issue with Senna is it should have been a lot longer. Due to the importance of the rivalry with Prost, I felt the early nineties were glossed over too quickly. It would have been better to demonstrate Senna’s dominance in 1991 and his struggles in 1992 and 1993 with an uncompetitive car, but one he could still win races in. The documentary offers a fascinating insight into a man who was from a wealthy family but pursued his passion for racing rather than just be content with the rich life. He was undoubtedly ruthless on the track at times, but Senna clearly had a natural gift for racing. Off the track he comes across as a surprisingly modest man, thanking God for his success and donating millions to help the poor in Brazil. For all his faults, Senna still comes across as good natured and it’s hard not to be moved by his death.
Senna is an excellent documentary from start to finish. My only issue is it could have been a bit longer but what’s there is brilliant. Whether you’re a fan of Formula One or not, this is a fascinating documentary about a truly extraordinary racer whose luck sadly ran out at Imola on 1 May 1994 and he remains the last driver to have been killed in Formula One.
(Film source: TV)