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Time to Change assert that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year, and half of those people will feel the isolation or perceived shame of their condition is worse than the condition itself.

I was diagnosed with depression on 9th October 2017, but my shame started some time earlier. I know now that my depression built up over many months during which I gradually lost confidence in myself across almost every aspect of my life and I felt certain that others had lost confidence in me.

 

Much more than just a bad day…

I’ve worked long hours in rapidly-changing environments for 25 years. Last year’s professional challenges were no worse than I’d experienced before, except that I responded differently.

  • I felt ground down, chronically exhausted. My mind felt like treacle: I struggled to concentrate, to finish even simple tasks.
  • I could see colleagues working long hours. They seemed to be coping, so what was wrong with me? Was I inefficient, or just not up to it anymore?
  • Some days I was snappy, others I felt like I was moving in slow motion. I was convinced people would notice, but when no one said anything it was merely more ‘proof’ that they couldn’t rely on me and were managing without me.

 

Flight, not fight

No two depressions are alike. It’s an intensely intimate condition, to which our reactions are entirely personal and often irrational.

My feelings of low mood, inadequacy and guilt had little basis in fact, but I believed them. This in turn affected my behaviour in ways that became increasingly self-fulfilling.

I was sure I wasn’t good enough; at my job, as a Dad, as a son. I started avoiding social situations where I might feel vulnerable, even going to the pub or cycling with friends. But while not doing things reduced the immediate anxiety, it only exacerbated my low mood and isolation.

 

Getting there…

My colleagues and the directors at Indicia have been outstanding in their support towards my recovery. I could highlight four key areas:

  • Communication: it really is good to talk. I was consulted about who would be told and what was said to colleagues and clients about my absence. I’ve always known I can speak to colleagues and bosses who will listen and hear me without judgement.
  • Sensitivity: when I returned to the office after 2 weeks away, I was amazed and moved to find my email inbox virtually empty. Someone had thought to remove the hundreds of client project messages, internal announcements and other emails. I was kept away from client emails until we all agreed I could handle it. This made a huge difference.
  • Patience: it took me 3 months since returning to be ‘back’, during which time I was on reduced responsibilities and hours with limited client contact.
  • Flexibility: the variability in how I feel day-to-day has been significant and unpredictable. They have taken this in their stride without me feeling any more guilt than I piled on myself.

 

Ladders and Snakes

Over these last months I’ve often felt that I’m ‘not depressed enough’ or in the ‘right way’. I still sometimes experience huge variability in Good Days and Bad Days, or even volatility in the same morning that it makes me afraid people will lose faith, or that I’ll never be ‘right’ again. It’s as though I have a very full glass, into which something even quite small can make it overflow.

Fortunately, I have learned many things about myself and my depression since October. I know that it’s a selfish disease that can isolate you, often without you realising. So, in my recovery I’ve started to work and live far more consciously in many ways:

  • Setting clearer work priorities: on a daily basis, being aware of what has to be done, and what might be distractions: just getting things done
  • In tandem with that, clearer boundaries between work and home
  • More awareness of, and conscious efforts to have better sleep, exercise, diet
  • A mix of counselling and self-help exploring CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and other techniques
  • Daily Mindfulness, usually 15-30 minutes at lunchtime to (re)focus and understand how I’m feeling. This can be both proactive (training for my brain) or remedial (to give myself some space, reduce anxiety). I recommend it to everyone.
  • Medication

 

Looking Forward

I’m also setting myself a longer-term goal for the months ahead. The Sue Ryder Hospice in Cheltenham cared for my Dad during his last weeks in 2017. It’s the only full-time residential palliative care facility in Gloucestershire and its staff are fantastic.

2018 is the 30th anniversary of their Cycling Sportive, so on Sunday 24th June I will be riding 80 miles from Cheltenham around the Northern Cotswolds to raise money for the hospice. A month later, on Dad’s Birthday, I will complete my first ever 100-mile ride, starting from home in Tetbury. Having had 5 months off the bike over the winter I’m now back in training, which is also helping my recovery.

I’m setting myself a target of raising at least £500, but with your help I could raise much more. Your donations would support me on the roads in training and on the day. If you want to join me in person on either ride, please let me know. Please visit my JustGiving page, and give whatever you can.

Thank you.

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There might not be too many sportsmen who can unite Piers Morgan, Brian Lara, Gary Lineker and Jeremy Corbyn, but it appears Cyrille Regis can. His tragically early death on Sunday, aged just 59, has led to tributes from all around the globe.

Cyrille Regis Goal Celebration West Bronwich Albion

Big Cyrille was one of my childhood heroes. In an era when most children I knew liked Liverpool (because they won everything), I was a contrarian, a West Brom fan. I loved Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, Bryan Robson and Derek Statham, Brendan Batson and John Wile and Ally Brown. West Brom played great football, had a great kit and scored blinding goals, and Cyrille was their centre-forward.

At the time, I didn’t really understand about the racism and abuse he and other black players suffered, I just loved the way he played. He was young (barely 20 years old when he joined West Brom), and he seemed to love playing football and scoring goals. Why wouldn’t he be a kid’s idol?

What a player, what a man.

It says something about his calibre as a person that he could play for West Brom, and their arch-rivals in the Midlands – Wolves, Aston Villa and Coventry – and have each club regard him as a superstar, and each club rise to salute him if he ever returned to play against them. Journalist Pat Murphy knows more about sport in the Midlands than most; I commend his tweets and comments unreservedly.

Regis trained as an electrician while playing non-league football as a teenager in the 1970s, but only a few years later he became only the third non-white player to be capped for England (out of more than 950 players at that time). He’s been described as an ‘icon’ in countless tributes today. This NME cover is from the week after Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. The article isn’t about him, but about the general state of football, and they chose Regis, still just 21, in full flight to represent the sport.

That’s an icon.

Cyrille Regis NME cover

How many musicians get on Match of the Day?

Two years ago this week the world was mourning David Bowie and Alan Rickman but I am more sad tonight, because I loved Cyrille Regis, perhaps at a time when not that many people did. I re-enacted his goals with my Subbuteo teams. I created new ones, but they were always absolute belters. And I am sad tonight because we’ve lost one of the Good Guys.

RIP Cyrille.

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You have glaucoma in your left eye.

A few months ago I had a routine eye test at our local opticians in Tetbury, part of which was the normal visual field test. I stared into the eyepiece, waiting for the machine to whirr and flash a series of tiny pinpricks of light, to which I would respond by clicking a button whenever they appeared. All-so-normal, until it seemed my left eye wasn’t quite so good at noticing the dots. This was unexpected, and very different from just 12 months earlier, so the optician asked me to repeat the tests. The results were the same.

I can still sense the whirring of the machine as it flashes lights that I ought to be able to see. There’s a rhythm to it that I can recognise. With my right eye there’s a regularity to the button clicks as the lights register in my brain. For my left eye there are gaping silences where clicks should be. I’m staring, squinting, aching to see something that means I can click. I’m tempted to cheat. The test takes longer as the machine gives me more chances, makes the lights brighter, trying to understand what’s there and what’s not there for me. And while I know it’s only minutes it feels much longer. I sense the nurse knows what the silences mean: this isn’t normal.

Visual Field Tests Glaucoma

This isn’t mine… but it’s sort of similar

 

And so last week, after further tests, a precautionary MRI scan and a couple of months of eye drops, I sat with the consultant as he confirmed the inevitable, and talked about my glaucoma.

There are fairly significant differences in the visual field tests in your left eye, notable damage to and thinning of the optic nerve…

…but your IOP (intra-ocular pressure) is normal, much lower than often is the case with glaucoma…

…you’re really quite a lot younger than the typical progression, a bit of an outlier on that graph…

…nothing on the MRI scan, so we can definitely rule out anything like a tumour pressing on the nerve…

…there’s no increase in your pressures since taking the drops, no real progression since the last tests (3 months ago), so that’s pleasing…

…you probably won’t notice anything different, until you do bump into something (joke)…

…playing a wind instrument like an oboe or French Horn can cause spikes in IOP, although I’m loathed to tell someone who loves playing music to stop…

So the long and the short of it is that I’m now taking daily eye drops (painless, no hassle at all), and will have repeated tests every 6 months. And that’s it.

Except…

The following day, at my regular orchestra rehearsal, I was acutely conscious of sensations of ‘pressure’ when playing, especially loud and high notes. We’re playing Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, which has plenty of loud and plenty of high, especially for 1st/3rd horn. In fact there’s mostly a lot of notes that are both loud and high, in rapid succession, in violently percussive chords and fanfares. In exercise terms it’s high impact, like running up and down stairs. I could feel the impact inside my head, around my eyes, behind my eyes, in ways I’ve never actively noticed before. And all the time I was thinking

Should I be doing this? Am I risking my sight?

There were moments when I wanted to play quieter, or stop. There were moments when I didn’t want to play my Horn any more, at all, ever again.

Apparently the mean time for progression from early diagnosis to loss of vision is more than 20 years: for normal tension glaucoma and for younger (under 60) patients it’s even slower than that. So I’m probably being over-sensitive. But if the visual field loss starts in my right eye, I’ll have to tell the DVLA. And then I’ll have to be reassessed for driving.

So.

I’ll take the drops every morning, and play 4th horn instead.

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For years I’ve been an armchair cycling fan, following the Grand Tours on ITV’s excellent coverage, and everything else through a terrific range of podcasts including The Cycling Podcast (hosted by proper journalists) and Velovoices (run amazingly by passionate amateurs).  But for the last 6 weeks I have been the proud, obsessed, small-boy-excited owner of a spiffy new road bike. I have become a MAMIL.

Cannondale Caad8

My new favourite thing. No, not the chair.

Where’s the Harley?

Perhaps this is the third phase of my ongoing midlife crisis, which started with this blog just as I turned 40. I try not to think of this blog as a slightly crosser version of my teenage diaries, but with a name like What I Reckon and my built-in tendency to rant, I realise I’m not fooling anyone. The middle phase perhaps started with my fitness/weight loss drive a couple of years later, which then morphed into occasionally taking part in Obstacle Course Races. That has now become a more esoteric and possibly fair-weather pursuit along the gorgeous lanes of the Cotswolds.

As a brilliant spoof article exclaimed, midlife crises ain’t what they used to be. Instead of a boozy trip to Vegas or the guttural roar of a sports car or motorbike, I’ve instead opted for losing 2 stone (and keeping it off), sessions of circuit training and paying for the privilege of getting filthy and knackered, and now Sunday morning outings on a very expensive, but beautiful piece of engineering and design.

Just set up a separate bank account…

Perhaps in an earlier century, middle-aged middle-class men would have sought outlets for their angst in the arms of younger women (OK, I’m thinking of Roger Sterling from Mad Men). Nowadays we’re still finding ways to spend our money, just in more family-friendly ways. There’s a lot of kit involved. Having not really cared too much for my gym/obstacle course appearance (we all look the same when we emerge from a filthy swamp), I now find myself getting very choosy about colour-coordinated tops and bib shorts, even socks and sunglasses… there’s always new tyres, gears, brakes, shoes to consider, not to mention the branding.

It appeals to my inner statto

While I’m less obsessed about the telemetry of my bike (give it time, I’m still a newbie), the whole process of planning routes and measuring my ‘performance’ really brings out my geek tendencies, and there’s no shortage of technology to help me. Apps like Strava are heavenly, measuring segments of rides where I can compete against myself or others. It’s like I’m 16 again, doing the scoring for the school cricket team, looking at patterns in bowling performances or great batting statistics (have you read my posts about cricket!?) .

A bit of self-awareness

Just a few weeks of being a MAMIL has made me more self-aware and aware of others on the roads. I’m understanding how I enjoy climbing hills for the challenge, but also regaining my exhilaration at speeding downhill (just not so much on the steeper, twisty, narrow, sandy lanes…).

When I’m driving I find myself much more aware of potholes and the state of the road surface. I’m more considerate of cyclists, but also more frustrated when they occasionally ride poorly (3 abreast on a busy road, really?).

It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster…

These words of wisdom were offered to me recently, after I had remarked that I could already feel I was improving after just a few rides on my new bike. I’m smoother in my pedalling and gear changes, maintained momentum better on rolling roads, and I haven’t got my shoes stuck in the pedal clips and fallen over while stationary for at least a couple of rides now…

…but last Friday my growing confidence was truly put to the test in the Tour de Creston, an annual event organised by my company’s ‘parent’ group. About 60 of us set out from our offices in Bristol to ride 57 miles to Amesbury (near Salisbury). This was easily the longest ride I’d attempted, and it also included the longest and steepest climb I’d ever encountered.

For the first 2/3 of the ride I was doing just fine. I took it easy to start with, I felt great on the long climb, I enjoyed flying downhill at every opportunity. As we climbed up onto Salisbury Plain, the terrain got lumpier and more exposed, and in 80º sunshine we also faced a breezy headwind that really made me understand what is meant by “leg-sapping”. It was harder to maintain 13mph in the afternoon than it had been to ride at 18mph in the morning. I rode with four colleagues who were both patient and brilliant at pacing This Old Man up the hills. I was broken as we rode into the finish, but my memories of the day are hugely positive. I want, I need to get better at this…

Tired. Happy.

Tired. Happy.

And now the 2015 Tour de France has started. There goes my productivity for the next 3 weeks. I’d better get route planning for their rest days…

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Almost exactly 3 years ago I stayed up late to listen to the live commentary from Sydney as England won the Ashes in dominant fashion. This morning every England cricket fan was finally put out of their misery, in that we will no longer have to dread the moment when we wake up and learn what calamities have happened overnight.

Australia have completed perhaps the most one-sided 5-0 thrashing I can remember. 5-0 doesn’t even come close to describing the debacle of England’s performances and the sheer exuberance and confidence of Australia. If it had been boxing, this would have been stopped after the 2nd test.

3 years ago I wrote a piece in response to Will Swanton, an Australian journalist who, before that series started in November 2010, wrote a great article headed 10 Reasons the Poms won’t Win. I took him to task (with hindsight and stats) as to why he was proved wrong. Well, in deference to Mr Swanton, I Reckon he wasn’t wrong, just 3 years early.

1. Overrated (or perhaps Australia underrated?)
England won 3-1 at home last summer, with largely the same teams on both sides. But that scorecard didn’t begin to tell the story. 3-1 in Australia in 2010/11 was a rout, offset only by a freakish Mitchell Johnson performance in Perth. 3-1 last summer was a hugely flattering scoreline. Australia won more sessions than England across the series, but crumbled at key moments. Most pundits thought it would be closer Down Under, but Michael Clarke’s team have worked wonders.

2. KP
Last time KP was fantastic, averaging 60 with a top score of 227. This time he has been England’s 2nd best batsman, but that only goes to show how poor the whole team has been. Averaging under 30 with a top score of 72. Frequently he got in and got out. It’s not his fault that his wicket seemed to precipitate a collapse, but…

3. Speedsters
3 years ago the English supporters in Australia mocked Mitchell Johnson’s wayward performances:

He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson – his bowling is shite

For the whole of this series he has been virtually unplayable, at least to the English batsmen. 37 wickets at under 14 runs each, 4 of the top 9 innings bowling stats on either side, conceding under 3 runs an over for the whole series. He’s been amazing, and England’s bowlers, with only occasional exceptions, have looked pretty ordinary in comparison. Everything that I said three years ago about England’s attack can be reversed and applied to Johnson, Harris & Siddle, who took 75 wickets at under 18 runs apiece.

4. Passive Captain
Alistair Cook has had his first major failure on this tour, but it’s been a truly humiliating experience. His batting has failed,  averaging just 25 compared to Michael Clarke’s 45. He’s made 50 3 times but failed to pass 72. 6 out of England’s 10 opening partnerships have been under 10 runs. England have seemed devoid of answers, inspiration, leadership. They’ve failed to convert whatever strong positions they’ve managed to create, and their longest innings was just 103 overs.

5. No Superstars
This is a trickier one to simply switch last time’s performances around. In 2010/11 England played pretty supremely. But this time they lost two of their world-leading players of recent times during the tour, as both Jonathan Trott and Graham Swann left the scene. But Cook, Pietersen and Bell also all failed. Matt Prior was dismal and dropped. Anderson and Bresnan, so powerful last time, took just 19 wickets at over 40 runs each.

6.Over-analysis
I can’t even begin to understand what was going on in the England camp, but it clearly didn’t work. The Australians had a plan and they executed it brilliantly. Even when things went awry, players like Haddin and Smith stepped up and simply took the game away. Haddin has been outstanding – the best batsman of the series, scoring nearly 500 runs with over half of them in boundaries.

7. No Depth
Ben Stokes has been the glorious exception to the dismal rule of this tour. He’s topped the batting averages with England’s only century of the entire series, and (while being a bit expensive) took more wickets than Jimmy Anderson. This year’s bowlers who came off the branch – Panesar and Bresnan – took just 8 wickets in 8 innings.

8. Chokers
This has perhaps been the biggest sadness of the tour for me as a fan. In 4 of the 5 tests, England had Australia in some kind of trouble in the 1st innings. The Australian top 5 wickets averaged just 143 – hardly the bedrock for a 5-0 series whitewash, especially after batting first four times. But this early strong performance was fleeting, and never established any kind of control. The Australian middle order of Clarke, Smith and Haddin rescued the team, scoring nearly 1,200 runs at over 44.

While the top 5 wickets stats bear reasonable comparison; 142 runs for Australia vs 124 for England, the bottom 5 are in different planets; 214 for Australia vs just 70 for England. On average across the 5 tests, England conceded a first-innings lead of 162. How did we expect to win anything?

Australia’s bowlers were terrific as a unit, and England’s batsmen were powerless. Let’s not forget that despite the loss of Trott, we started this series with a lineup including Cook, Pietersen, Bell and Prior; not too shabby. But the repeated collapses have been almost too extreme to seem real.

9. Warmups
Frankly, this is irrelevant. Maybe the problem has been coming over the last 2 years, since England briefly ascended to be the Top Test Team in the World in August 2011. That seems a long time ago.

10. Scars
If the England team don’t bear some scars after this tour, they can’t care enough. This has been humiliating for the fans, let alone the players. They haven’t become a bad team overnight, nor are Australia world-beaters. But this has been a hell of a beating.

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I normally title my blog posts with song lyrics or quotes, a hangover from my diary-writing youth. Today I’ve taken liberties with a terrific line from The Usual Suspects. Sorry to everyone involved.

About 6 months ago I signed up to take part in the UK Tough Mudder South West event. Back then it seemed quite a long way off, a faintly ridiculous commitment with a few colleagues that could be kept firmly at the back of my mind. I started doing slightly different exercises at the gym, and even went along to a Bootcamp class, but that was that.

Three more sleeps…

It’s very real right now. On Saturday morning, while you good readers are sleeping (or whatever in your own time zones!), I will leave the house at 05.15am to pick up my colleague and drive to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, for an 08.40am start time. Just shy of 12 miles of trails, 500m of elevation to climb, and 18 obstacles await us.

Uk Tough Mudder South West Course 2013

Those zigzags in the top left corner of the map, between Mile 6 & 8, that’s pretty much straight up and straight down a very steep hillside, gaining & falling a couple of hundred metres each time in not very far. The blobs are obstacles, which include mud, very cold water, barbed wire, mud, monkey bars, 12-foot walls, mud, tunnels filled with muddy water, electric shock and mud.

The closer we’ve got to Saturday 21st September 2013, the more this has risen in our ‘watercooler conversations’. One person fell off his bike and hurt his knee quite badly, another strained a calf muscle playing football. Nerves?

Think of the Charity

But we’re doing this for a greater cause, not just for our own masochistic pleasure. Our nominated company charity this year is the National Autistic Society, a choice inspired by another colleague whose young daughter has autism. Our employer, The Real Adventure, will match every pound we raise up to £1,500. So any donations we get have a double whammy feel-good effect.

At the risk of getting worthy, there are countless good reasons to support this cause. Here are just a few…

  • Autism is much more common than many people think. There are around 700,000 people in the UK with autism – that’s more than 1 in 100, and virtually double the number of people registered blind or partially sighted. If you include their families, autism touches the lives of 2.7 million people every day.
  • Autism doesn’t just affect children. Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism.
  • Over 40% of children with autism have been bullied at school. and over 50% of children with autism are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them. One in five children with autism has been excluded from school, many more than once.
  • Nearly two-thirds of adults with autism in England do not have enough support to meet their needs, and at least one in three adults with autism are experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of support.
  • Only 15% of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time paid employment.

The NAS works to create a better society for people with autism and their families. These people deserve our support. You can help by donating to our team, to help us around the course and through the mud, at www.justgiving.com/TheRealMudders.

Thankyou.

But because I know most of you have no idea what Tough Mudder actually is…

…and the infamous Arctic Enema. Surely this deserves a donation…!

It’s like eating icecream and getting punched in the balls at the same time…

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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.

Senna movie

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.

Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mclaren

They were team-mates?!

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…”

Jean-Marie Balestre

Scary man…

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…

Imola, 1994

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.

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