We’ll be covering some inspiring documentary films over the coming weeks as, you know, why the heck not? We’re starting with Senna, the quite unbelievable debut documentary from super talented Asif Kapadia. He didn’t know anything about Formula One heading into the project, a decision which makes the film accessible even to those who don’t care for loud engine noises and men in crash helmets.
Senna is, unsurprisingly, about the legendary Ayrton Senna, a spectacularly talented Brazilian driver who arrived in Formula 1 in 1984. Over the next 10 years he preceded to captivate the world and turn himself into a deity in Brazil and Japan, yet the man was touchingly intelligent and humane. This side of his personality was also mixed with a paradoxical ruthlessness when racing, and mixed with a tragic end we have a story perfect for the cinema.
This isn’t a film about Formula One – it’s a character study of a supremely talented individual with a complex personality. At once humble and gentle out of the car, on the race track a wild animal came out of the man. Blessed with an astonishing turn of speed, he rapidly shot up the F1 ranks in 1984 to become the fastest driver in the world, and by 1991 had wrapped up three titles (ironically we write this today when 18 year old Max Verstappen has won his first Grand Prix – a next star in waiting).
This was not a serene rise to glory. Formula One, a deeply political sport, is brutal and throws all kinds of barriers and complexities at drivers. In the ‘80s it was arguably at its worst with the head of the FIA – Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre. Confrontational and often unfair (he essentially calls all of the assembled drivers morons during a briefing before one race), Senna quickly locks horns with the man and the result is all manner of unpleasantness.
The situation is made worse by Senna’s on track antics which, whilst spectacular and brilliant, often lead to incidents. Thusly, we have the stage set for a spectacular stage in F1 history where danger was ever present, and one genius stunned the world with his dashing antics before, tragically, it all ended abruptly.
The Alain Prost Rivalry
The only misstep in the film is it gets too sycophantic about Senna, a driver whose often contentious and dangerous driving decisions put other peoples’ lives at risk. Whilst the Brazilian also showed great compassion towards his colleagues, this can’t be said for the four times World Champion Alain Prost (or anyone else who got in his way).
The documentary largely paints Prost as the villain. Almost all of the pertinent assessments he makes about Senna are immediately quashed (as is a brief interview section with another racing legend – Jackie Stewart) and the poor Frenchman comes under almighty abuse and stress from Senna’s fans and the Brazilian.
In the late ‘80s, Prost began to consider his rival as dangerous and potentially mentally unstable. He was up against a driver who made the inexcusable decision to ram him out of a race at 150mph to secure a World Championship, simply because he was infuriated by the FIA.
Despite these ructions, the two settled their differences in late 1993 and became friends over the following months. The documentary essentially ignores this and how Prost, when commentating for French TV during Imola 1994 (see below), was in floods of tears. Prost has openly criticised the film for ignoring this.
The documentary inexorably builds to the Imola 1994 weekend. At the time one of the most dangerous and spectacular tracks in the world (we included a clip unrelated to the weekend above – this was Senna’s office view), looking at it now it appears like a death-trap with its sweeping 200mph corners surrounded by 10ft of gravel trap run off areas ended by cement walls.
A series of enormous accidents and two tragedies in Formula One’s nightmare weekend led to three days of official mourning in Brazil and sweeping international road safety initiatives which are still in operation to this day. Senna’s legacy is much more far reaching than this, however, and even if you’re not a Formula One fan this is essential viewing to get an insight on an inspiration, if controversial, man.