WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: The extraordinary Formula One career of Brazil’s Ayrton Senna, admired for his natural speed but criticised – by some – for his desire to win at all costs.
Rugby Union will always be my first sporting love (and no, I haven’t seen Invictus yet), but Formula One has always come a pretty close second. My interest began in the late eighties, just at the time that Ayrton Senna became a leading light in the sport; a light that was tragically extinguished at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.
Senna tells the tale of the Brazilian triple world champion who lived simply to race. Coming through the ranks from kart racing, Senna caught the eye of team owners with his blistering speed, particularly in rain-affected races. He joined the McLaren team in 1987, forming an exciting-looking pairing with Alain Prost, known as ‘The Professor’ because of his intellectual, dispassionate approach to racing. However, the relationship quickly soured as Prost appeared to use dirty tactics at the Japanese Grand Prix to ensure he won the 1987 World Championship, exerting his influence with the sport’s head, fellow Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, to ensure he got his way.
Senna got his revenge in 1988 and was also World Champion in ‘90 and ’91, earning him the adoration of the Brazilian populace and the admiration of those within the sport such as Dr Sid Watkins; yet dissenting voices, such as Jackie Stewart, considered Senna dangerously over-aggressive. As technology moved on and Ayrton joined the Williams team for the 1994 season, he continued to drive to the limit, though struggling to recover his prime position. His passion, together with a disastrous mechanical failure, would ultimately cost him his life.
The first thing that can safely be said about Senna is that – to people already familiar with the history, at least – it doesn’t tell us anything particularly new. The film consists almost exclusively of television footage and voiceovers, so while it refreshes the memory and fills out the events of Ayrton’s life from an international perspective (there’s a cringeworthy clip of Senna salivating over a Brazilian kid’s TV presenter at Christmas), it doesn’t have a dramatic scoop or revelation to share with us.
What it does do, however – and this is why it easily merits its place on the big screen – is shape a compelling and ultimately heartbreaking narrative from the footage at its disposal. Senna’s family were quite well-heeled: he was no street kid and it’s not that story. Senna’s story is that of a man who raced on an almost subconscious level, who wrung every ounce of performance from his car, inspired absolute devotion and contempt, and who paid the ultimate price for his sport. In addition to some great race footage (the details of individual races are always excellently explained by people who were there at the time), the film fully exploits the ready-made conflict between Senna and Prost: the Brazilian athletic and handsome, the Frenchman rather less so (there’s a gloriously smarmy interview between Prost and Selina Scott).
However, the racing alone can hardly be the reason why Senna has proved so successful in cinemas. Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey cannily bring larger themes into play, such as Ayrton’s constant reiteration of his belief and trust in God. The driver’s death at the age of 34 is presented as a form of sacrifice, given greater significance by the fact that there were no fatalities in Formula 1 for over twenty years, until the recent, tragic loss of Jules Bianchi. The film also emphasises that Senna was an embodiment of Brazil, a superstar in a country not short of sporting heroes, but suffering under crushing poverty and grateful for a glamorous ambassador.
With his status built up in this way, the accident that kills Ayrton assumes huge proportions, and the film expertly exploits the awful inevitability of its climactic moment, simply playing on-board footage to highlight that the 1994 Williams car was almost impossible to control. Admittedly, it’s easy to shape the events in highlight, but the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994 genuinely seemed cursed.
There are niggles: although it’s made clear that having the best car is important in Formula 1, and that Senna often massively over-achieved (his second place at Monaco in 1984 in the Toleman is the stuff of legend), McLaren’s dominance of the sport at the time Senna drove for them is underplayed (they won fifteen of sixteen races in 1988). Also, the political angle of the film seems needlessly anti-French; though Senna undoubtedly suffered a bit at the hands of Balestre, and the man was evidently a control freak (not unusual for Presidents of sports’ governing bodies), he also benefited from the rules in 1988 as only 11 of the 16 races counted – Prost actually gained more points in the course of the season. Also, the contributions of the North American commentator are – to my ears – jarring, every time he over-pronounces ‘Eye-air-ton‘ (which may well be correct) and says ‘Proast’ to rhyme with ‘toast’, which I‘m fairly sure isn’t.
It’s perhaps inevitable that those who die early – Mozart, say, or Lennon – are lionised unfairly over those who live long enough to become mediocre: Salieri, McCartney. Senna must be seen in this light. While it’s not a hagiography, it’s obviously made by admirers, people who want Senna to be seen as someone for whom driver safety was always a priority, not as a man who valued winning over everything else. It may be biased, but the driver’s passion deserves a passionate documentary, and Senna delivers handsomely.