Senna (2011, Asif Kapadia) – Review

If you examine the history books of Formula One, the statistics and tables will tell you that Schumacher, Prost and Fangio are the greatest drivers of all time.  But ask the drivers of the last 25 years who they believe to be the greatest, and the same name will come up time and time again, Ayrton Senna.   As a racer Senna was one of the most talented drivers the sport has ever seen. A three-time world champion it was his super-aggressive driving style, unbelievable qualifying laps, legendary ability in wet weather and perhaps most of all his win at all costs mentality that set him apart.

As a passionate F1 fan i had always hoped that one day Ayrton Senna’s career would be portrayed on the big-screen and after a year of eager anticipation since i first heard that this documentary was being released, here it is.

As documentary subjects go, they don’t come much better than Senna.  A charismatic, engaging and at times controversial character, one of the greatest competitors his sport had ever seen, tragically killed in his prime live on TV watched by an audience of millions.  For director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey the challenge was always going to be to create a documentary that would resonate as much with the general filmgoer as it would with long-time F1 fans, and in this they’ve succeeded.

For F1 fans new and old alike, the opportunity to experience Senna’s greatest and most famous racing moments on the big screen is not be missed.  Highlights of his famous drive through the rain in Monaco during the 1984 season and his first win in Portugal the following year set the scene for the real focus of the film, the rivalry between Senna and Prost during his time with the Mclaren team.  The story is brilliantly pulled together and told with an energy and intensity that befits Senna’s character and his rivalry with Prost perfectly.  This intensity, the result of the films brilliant editing is perhaps the greatest strength of Senna.  There are no interviews staged in grand surroundings with experts and drivers past, and there is no narrator.  Instead the film seamlessly pulls together various interviews, clips and race footage to allow Senna to tell the story himself, in his own words, with his own voice.

ayrtonsennaimola1989504zy6jpgFor those that know about the intense rivalry between Senna and Prost, and are familiar with how shit went down between 1988 and 1991, there’s some fantastic new footage from the FIA archives.  Those less familiar with events and with no particular interest in the sport will be dragged in by the portrayal  of a young, charismatic Senna struggling to overcome the villainous Prost whilst being unjustly punished and seemingly hated by  then FIA president Jean Ballestre.  Some of the most effective scenes in the film are those in which we see the politics of F1 first-hand, with Senna and Bellestre confronting each other during pre-race meetings.   Unfortunately this portrayal was also the biggest problem I had with the film.  To paint Prost as some kind of villain to create a more powerful narrative was unfair.  For the record he was a great champion, a great driver and did nothing wrong during his time racing against Senna.

Another issue with Senna is that it misses an opportunity to highlight one of the most fascinating aspects of Senna’s character.   He was a flawed man and a flawed driver.  How could someone who was deeply religious, who risked his own life stopping and running across a racetrack to help a fellow driver who had just crashed heavily (Belgium 1992), who donated millions of pounds to help underprivileged children and who was so deeply hurt by the death of a fellow driver, also put both his own and Alain Prosts life at risk by deliberately crashing into him at 130mph.  This intriguing paradox between being hugely generous and caring, whilst totally ruthless and reckless in his pursuit of victory was unfortunately overlooked.   To paint Senna as the man taking the high ground was in my opinion totally inaccurate.  Ayrton Senna becomes a far more interesting character when you take into account his failings and insecurities, but by  trying to create a stronger good vs. Bad underdog story style narrative, the film fails to do this.

Film title: Senna

At the heart of the film are the events of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.  The conclusion to Senna is surely one of the most desperately tragic finales ever depicted on film.   The build-up of tension and sense of impending doom as the weekend unfolds, the death of young Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying and the final lap of Sennas life from his viewpoint, the cockpit of his Williams FW16.  For the first time in the film, there is no commentary or clips of Senna talking over the footage, it’s just the roaring Renault engine and his view of the road ahead.  What makes the ending so powerful is the fact that for the previous 90 minutes we’ve been constantly listening to Senna.  He’s been in our faces with his infectious personality, intensity, passion for the sport and charisma winning us over one by one.  Then suddenly, midway through the Tamburello corner, he’s gone.

Exciting, uplifting, inspiring and tragic, Senna is one of the best documentaries I have seen.  This is a film about a person, not a sport and I would urge even those with no interest in F1 to give it a watch.







  1. Nice review. Well done, from perspective of someone who understands F1 a bit more than many of the other reviews I have read. RE: “He was a flawed man and a flawed driver … Prost Crash …” I.M.H.O. the results related to the politics of F1 specific to the era (unfair to make these references to A.S. without also mention to the crap the FIA did and did not do).

  2. Thanks. Yeah that’s a fair point, there’s no doubt he was treated unfairly by the FIA and and Belestre clearly disliked him personally. Suzuka 1989 was a joke. And just for the record i am/was a massive senna fan.

  3. Appreciate your reply filmdriel. I can tell my your initial writing you are a fan.

    Mention – per my original post: Coming from a driver’s perspective; earning pole position by being fastest driver in qualy, to have pole/grid position on the track be on the opposite side of race-line is what created the propensity for the crash (I mean sh_t why even have a qualy then). When you make the faster car/driver combination have to drive a longer distance into the first corner (and over inferior pavement) creates a scenario where the 1st & 2nd drivers will naturally overlap between the start & 1st corner (given both drivers get good starts – unlike Prost jumping the start in previous years ’89 race). Watch ’90 Suzuka start to see A.S. must first drive out to the race line where Prost already is as he is driving directly to the first corner on the racing line where he started in 2nd position. The FiA, in and by themselves, created this situation!! (Race stewards agreed that pole should be changed to race-line side of track, then injunction by Balestre rejected the race stewards decision – and then ’91 following year pole position/grid location is changed to the race-line side)!! Yes, Senna could have backed out of throttle, but I.M.H.O. the “race officiating” (FiA) was by far the flawed component here. Prior to start of race A.S. made a conscious decision to drive his race, and I believe he would do the same again given same circumstances (do not believe the intention was to crash Prost to win championship –He had already effectively won the championship). I do not mean to put Senna on a pedestal here (I did/do appreciate him greatly for what he left on/in the sport), but to call him a “flawed driver” because of this incident is just not fair! He was a great race driver confronted with unfair situations beyond his control (FiA/FiSA and their rulings), and he stayed true to his core to the end.

    “Suzuka 1989 was a joke” Yes, we agree here – Prost crashes out Senna on lap 46 & Senna winds up winning the race to later be disqualified as a result of Prost crash – FiA/FiSA (President Jean Marie Balestre) again the villain in my humble opinion.

    Racing creates passion …

  4. The biggest disgrace this year is the fact that the Oscars do not even nominate this film. They did not nominate this film which is not only the best documentary but its the best film of year. It just had everything, intense racing sequnces, emotional and fascinating main character. I do agree that the film painted a picture of hero vs villian but I let that pass.

    Also, what do you think of the sky deal? My opinion is it is a disgrace.

  5. I absolutely can’t believe it didn’t get a nomination, it’s great. And i don’t think it’s a case of just F1 fans thinking it was great either, everyone seems to have loved it!

    Re Sky: It’s absolutely gutting. I’m 25 and i’ve been watching F1 religiously since i was 4. No chance i can afford sky. I think the sports going to lose a generation of fans, if i hadn’t had the chance to watch Senna as a kid, in that dayglo red and white Mclaren, i would never have got into F1.

    • I was born two years before he died. So, at two years of age, I never got the chance to see him race. Got interested around 1998, lost interest by 2003 due to Schumacher winning all the time and regained interest in 2008. I remember eating roast dinner when Hamilton won the championship on the last corner, of the last lap, of the last race. If that happened in a movie we would complain that was stupid.

      Isn’t there a new f1 film, directed by Ron Howard, telling the story of rivialry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 championship? I heard it was in the pipelines.

      I’m a student. So, how can I afford it? BBC sold out, Sky are greedy. Hardly fair on the consumer. No matter how good Sky coverage is because the BBC’s was almost flawless.

      • Yeah it’s called ‘Rush’ i think. I’m a little dubious about it, not sure how he’s going to get race scenes (if there are any) or make it work. Seems very ambitious.

        The BBC’s coverage is the best there has ever been i think. They do great features and have amazing access to all the teams and drivers. The buildup for qualifying today had some good senna talk and footage on it. Looks like Brundles off to sky though, which is a shame, loved the commentary this year.

        08 was incredible, a proper punching the air moment. Must be one of the 5 greatest sporting moments of all time.

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