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.
For 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.
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.