Review: Senna

‘Senna’ is a documentary about the life and career of Formula 1’s (F1) most legendary driver of all time: Ayrton Senna. The  film starts with him graduating from karting (“the purest racing”) into the more business-like world of F1 in his mid-twenties, and covers his career through the highs, lows and three World Championships.

At this stage I’ll point out that this documentary might be about a Formula 1 driver, but you really don’t need to know an awful lot about the sport to engage with the subject. Because the subject is Senna and his personal battles with the political goings on within the business that is F1, and also highlights his humanity, religious and charitable nature off the track.

The amazing thing about this documentary is the in-car footage; there is one particular race in Monaco where Senna is driving so much faster than anyone else on the circuit that he passes them as though they are standing still. And this was his style – fast! Faster than anyone else, ever before. Another is his win at his home Grand Prix, Brazil, after driving the last few laps stuck in 6th gear; a supposedly impossible feat and the pain he is in lifting the trophy on the podium is harrowingly visible.

As the narrative unfolds and he starts to show up the current world champion, Alain Prost, the sport’s politics start to kick in and he finds himself being treated like an outsider. He didn’t play by the rules of the governing body; his career was based on talent rather than diplomacy or being born into the sport. This Senna/Prost/Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) rivalry plays out for Senna’s entire career and is one of the most enduring rivalries in any sport.

Certain executive decisions were made that hampered his chances of winning the championship in 1989 (amongst other examples of the FIA attempting to keep him from being successful leading to some very tense and eye-opening scenes in drivers’ briefings and other meetings which have never been seen before. With one in particular that shows him taking on the president of the FIA about the safety barriers at the side of the track being too dangerous if a car were to crash into them. His point is initially rejected by the president, Jean-Marie Balestre, but when put to a democratic vote all the other drivers are in agreement with Senna.

All of the footage in the whole film is from the time, so there is lots of race and interview footage, but also home video footage from his family holidays. There is one touching scene just after he wins his first world title in 1991; he appears on Brazilian television for the New Year special programme and meets his future girlfriend, Adrienne Galisteu, in a very public display of flirtation. Only a couple of the voice-over interviews are recent too, as the point of the film was to focus on his career.

Obviously anyone who knows about Ayrton Senna knows that the documentary can only end in tragedy. Unfortunately it is not just Senna’s end that was tragic; in fact the whole race weekend was fraught with disaster. Friday April 29’s practice session saw fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello have a horrible accident from which he just about walked away. During qualifying on Saturday April 30 Austria’s Roland Ratzenberger smashed into a concrete barrier at high-speed which killed him instantly. The footage of this crash is haunting as the drivers in the 1990s didn’t sit as low in the car as they do now; their head, neck and shoulders are above the top of the cockpit meaning they were more susceptible to neck injury on high impact collision.

Even on the race day itself, JJ Letho stalled on the grid and Pedro Lamy smashed into the back of him, sending a loose wheel hurtling into the crowd. Both drivers were fine, but the wheel killed eight spectators and a police officer. On the fifth lap of the race Senna’s car careered off the track at a corner which needed to be taken take flat-out but shouldn’t cause a challenge to the drivers.

The race was stopped immediately as the FIA’s chief medical officer, Sid Watkins, inspected his injuries. Sid had, earlier in the weekend, tried to convince Senna to quit F1 and take up fishing with him instead of racing. He said that as he was working on keeping Senna alive “he let out a sigh. I’m not a religious man, but I believe that’s when his spirit left his body”.

The final scenes are of the state funeral he was given and just shows that he was adored by the people of Brazil after quietly donating millions to charity and setting up his own Instituto Ayrton Senna, which raised money to help the underprivileged children in Brazil.

What you are left feeling is deep sadness, the kind that is only reserved for people who die in the prime of their life but also respect for a man who had a deep faith in God and lived life, literally, in the fast lane. Alain Prost takes a bit of a beating in the reputation stakes, but comes out a lot better than the FIA who are depicted as politically motivated backstabbers who are just interested in the business side of F1, not the sport.

I think you can assume from the length of this essay(!) that it has struck a deep chord with me, and I’ve really tried not to get too bogged down in the F1 side of things, like the documentary does. Perhaps you should see it for yourself and see what you take from it…

Here is an example of the caring nature of a man willing to stop in the middle of qualifying to help another driver in danger.

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One Response to “Review: Senna”

  1. f1 forum…

    […]Review: Senna « that's entertainment[…]…

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