I am no petrolhead: let’s face it, our family cars are a Ford C-Max and a Nissan Note. I’ve never been a big Formula 1 fan either: the engineering is impressive, and I don’t doubt the bravery and skills of the drivers, but, you know, meh…
So it’s within that context that I want to tell you that I Reckon Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna is one of my favourite films of all time. A triumph of storytelling, pacing and editing, it has a brilliant protagonist, and outstanding villains. The stakes are immense throughout, there are aspects of the heroic (almost divine) with moments of unbridled triumph and joy, yet at the same time Death is a constant presence and threat.
The film ostensibly focuses on Ayrton Senna’s life, career and tragically early death at just 34. But it’s not really about Formula 1. In the same way that Anvil! The Story of Anvil! is a love story that happens to take place within a Canadian Heavy Metal band, Senna should appeal far beyond petrolheads and motorsport fans. This is an extraordinary tale about an extraordinary human being.
A triumph of storytelling…
The film is made up entirely of archive footage, with some historical commentary and some more recent recordings, but no ‘talking heads’. Much of the footage reflects the equipment it was filmed on and the context in which it was filmed, which could make for a jarring, inconsistent experience, but instead adds hugely to the authenticity. We are treated to immaculately sunny hand-held home videos of the Senna family on a yacht, or grainy, unbelievably real footage from in-car cameras. The film-makers have raided the F1 archives for astonishing fly-on-the-wall footage from drivers’ briefings and inside the team garages. Even if we thought we knew the story of Senna, this adds new layers we couldn’t possibly have imagined.
Through brilliant editing we hear commentators describing Senna’s style while we see his car flying around a circuit. When he wins an epic race we hear Brazilian commentators exploding with joy. There are countless interviews with Senna in both English and Portuguese. We get a crystal clear picture of the man, what moves him, his goals and aspirations. We also meet the people and things that stand in his way. This sets up an incredible narrative, a story-arc that compels our attention with tension and conflict. Asif Kapadia has used screenwriting techniques and tropes to structure his retelling of a real life, and it is so much richer for that. The true marvel of the story is that, despite everything, Ayrton Senna at the end of his life and career in F1 racing seems utterly true to the ideals of the 18-year-old we meet at the start of the film.
A man, a Superman, or truly touched by the Divine?
Ayrton Senna was a national hero in Brazil, in a way that surpasses almost anyone in any profession in any country. More than 3 million people came out in Sao Paolo to witness his funeral procession: 200,000 filed past his body as it lay in state. Many ordinary people in his funeral crowds talk of Brazil’s joy being lost with his death, and the footage of his family is wonderfully intercut with flashbacks to his life. It’s unbearably sad.
Kapadia illustrates the majesty of Senna’s achievements and driving through episodic sequences that each focus on a single, often pivotal race. At the Brazilian Grand Prix of 1991, Senna is leading by a distance with a few laps to go, his gearbox fails and the car is stuck in 6th gear. It should be nearly impossible to drive, let alone finish and win, but somehow he succeeds. The outpouring of emotion is sensational as he screams across the line, as he collects a flag, as the entire crowd and indeed race stewards celebrate. As he stops the car, the effort of keeping his car on the road overcomes him. He passes out: his entire back and shoulders are in spasm. He is lifted from the car, his gloves & helmet are removed for him. He’s in such pain he cannot bear to be touched, even by his Father. He has truly emptied the tank in a superhuman effort, and he explains later that he knows that God gave him this race. This sequence overwhelmed me: I was in tears.
Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus
The inscription on Senna’s headstone (“Nothing can take me away from God’s love”) says everything we need to know about his faith. It’s remarkable that we never see an interview where he talks about his religion in English, only ever in Portuguese, but it comes back again and again, as though his faith fuels his desire and his abilities to race and win.
In the last race of the 1988 season, in Japan, he stalls on the grid and drops back to 16th place. Fighting his way through the field he ultimately wins the race with a beyond-daring manoeuvre in the dying moments. His recollection is as though he’s had some kind of ecstatic experience, seeing God’s face during the last lap, as though God was guiding Senna to victory.
Two Amazing Villains
But every hero needs a nemesis, and Ayrton Senna had two. They were his team-mate and racing companion Alain Prost, and the man in charge of his sport, responsible for managing the races and things like safety, Jean-Marie Balestre.
Alain Prost was a fantastic F1 driver. He won three world championships (like Senna), but that’s where the resemblance ends. After the film’s opening sequence where a young Senna is karting, reminiscing in voiceover about pure racing without money or politics, we jump to the Monaco Grand Prix in 1984, just Senna’s 6th race in F1. The conditions are appalling, but he shreds the field, moving from 13th to 2nd. He’s charging behind Prost and a remarkable win seems inevitable until Prost, leading the race, waves to officials as if to say “stop the race”. He abandons, the race is called off and Prost declared the victor. Senna leaves the podium quickly, a look of thunder clouding his brows.
Prost is nicknamed “the professor”. He knows the season is a marathon, not a sprint, and he does what he has to do to collect enough points across the season to win. In Japan in 1989 he knows Senna must win to deny him the championship. They’re racing neck-and-neck, and there’s a collision at the entrance to the chicane with just a few laps to go. Prost stops, but Senna restarts, driving through the slip road back onto the circuit. He needs repairs to his car but still wins the race, including an astonishingly brave piece of overtaking at the same chicane, where the other driver (correctly) concedes the corner…
Meanwhile, however, Prost has run back across the circuit to the Race Stewards’ office to protest against his own team-mate. The stewards and Jean-Marie Balestre are seen discussing the affair with Prost present in the room. Almost inevitably, Senna is disqualified and Prost becomes champion. Press conferences are conducted in French, Senna is blamed for causing the crash (despite having nothing to gain and everything to lose from it), and is sanctioned by the fearsome Balestre.
Jean-Marie Balestre looks like a nasty villain. Roald Dahl couldn’t have made him up. He sneers from behind tinted glasses, lectures the drivers in briefings like they are naughty schoolchildren and uses his position of authority as a weapon, telling them to ‘respect the regulations’ and asserting that “the best decision is my decision…”
Prost and Balestre were almost a perfect double-act against Senna’s ideals. A formidable driving talent in the best car would have been a ‘fair’ contest for Senna, but Prost knew how to play the system, and because he did, the system supported him.
“there’s only one word that describes Ayrton’s style, and that is fast…”
Ayrton Senna loved going fast. Much of the home video from family holidays shows him on a jetski, or a speedboat, or waterskiing. He was addicted to racing, and he loved winning. The amazing in-car cameras and F1 footage bring the visceral experience of hurling these cars around at unbelievable speeds to life. In Portugal in 1985 he lapped all but one car in atrocious conditions. In Monaco in 1988, he was leading by almost a minute in the closing stages: his pit team begged him to slow down and preserve the win, but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. He crashed. Alain Prost won the race.
The introduction of computerised traction control by the Williams team in 1992 shattered Senna’s ideal of ‘pure racing’, as it created a car that could clearly go faster than the others. Racing became “an electronic war” rather than a test of driving. Senna had to cede championships to first Nigel Mansell and then Alain Prost, who came out of semi-retirement to join Williams on the proviso that Senna would not be his team-mate: he really did know how to win.
But by the time Senna joined Williams, the FIA authorities had banned the computers to try to level the playing field, which left the Williams cars inherently less stable, as their set-up was predicated on electronic control. The handling was erratic, and from this point on, frustration appears large in Senna’s outlook; the cars simply don’t work the way they should…
The inevitability of Ayrton Senna’s death is a dark shroud hanging over the film as it progresses; at some point we know he is going to die. There are frequent comments alluding to his faith (does God ‘protect’ him? Does he believe he can’t die?), and to the risks inherent in driving very fast, very light metal boxes around a track at 180mph. From 1990 Death enters the film more overtly. Martin Donnelly survives an horrific crash, the drivers’ briefings start referencing safety. Senna crashes in Mexico in 1991, overturning his car but walking away virtually unscathed.
The weekend of the Italian Grand Prix at Imola in 1994 seems almost unreal now. The atmosphere was extraordinarily tense, with Senna ever more frustrated with his car’s performance, or perhaps his inability to go as fast as he wants. He spins the car in practice, then Rubens Barrichello, a young Brazilian driver who hero-worships Senna, literally flies off the track into the barriers that for a second makes his car look more like a missile than a vehicle. He survives, but his car is in pieces.
Then on Saturday, Roland Ratzenberger’s car crashes at almost 200mph. Truly shocking aerial footage shows his car finally coming to rest, but his head rolls sickeningly as the car spins. He dies at the scene. Senna is distraught. Sid Watkins, the legendary medical & safety officer for F1, recalls talking to Ayrton…
…I said to him “you love fishing. Why don’t you just quit, and I’ll quit, and we’ll go fishing.”
He said, “Sid, I can’t quit.”
Despite this tragedy, the race goes ahead. Senna asks God to talk to him and he decides to race, but we get several lingering close-ups of his face before the race, silent, furrowed brows. This doesn’t feel like the same man who won those epic, heroic races. There’s a crash in the opening seconds as a car stalls on the grid. After the safety car leaves the circuit, we’re into Lap 6, and for virtually a whole minute Kapadia shows us in-car footage. No sound except the shriek of the engines, and my rapidly accelerating heartbeat pounding in my chest. We know what’s coming. The car approaches a sweeping curve, and for a split second we realise it’s going straight on.
It cuts away to a long shot as the car shatters into the barriers and quickly comes to rest. There is no movement. Half the car is missing. Aerial shots show the teams doing CPR, track the broken car’s slow journey back to the pits, watch the helicopter take Senna to hospital. Sid Watkins gave his friend what first aid he could, but immediately recognised he had suffered a tremendous brain injury.
he sighed, and his body relaxed. His spirit departed…
Senna isn’t just one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, it’s genuinely one of the best films I can remember in years. I’ve watched in three times in a month, and could easily watch it again right now.