On the 1st of May 1994, whilst competing in the San Marino Grand Prix, three-time F1 world champion Ayrton Senna was killed. For unknown reasons, his Williams car understeered on the usually incident-free Tamburello corner careening into a wall. Several parts of the front wing, including the tyre, broke off striking him in the head – the damage proved fatal. His death sent his native Brazil into a state of mourning and, despite not being royalty; he was given a state funeral.
Sixteen years later and Ayrton Senna’s legacy still looms over Formula One like a ghost. Often hailed as the greatest driver of all time, his death led to new safety measures and speed restricted cars. Senna remains the last driver to die for the sport. His charismatic, yet, insatiable appetite for success is still subject to great debate. Was Senna a reckless daredevil or a spiritual man hopelessly succumbing to his own nature?
They say life is stranger than fiction and the life of Ayrton Senna certainly reads like a screenplay. Senna begins humbly in the world of Kart racing showing a young Ayrton in what he calls “pure racing” unaffected by the financial and political motivations of his later Formula One career. The beauty of this documentary is that from the outset there is footage to support the ideas. This isn’t a documentary of extended interviews intercut with clips: This is a running commentary of the rise and fall of Ayrton Senna. With such comprehensive coverage it draws the audience in – we feel the emotion as we can see the events happening rather than being told about them.
With a lifetime of video footage and quotations to wade through, Asif Kapadia’s task is not so much as a director but more of a cut and paste supervisor. Kapadia follows Senna’s life chronologically but flavouring the narrative with choice quotes from Senna, his friends and even his critics. Senna does occasionally struggle under the gloom of Ayrton’s death but Kapadia counteracts this by focussing on the vibrancy of the man, rather than the tragedy of his legacy. In a time of great political unrest Senna was a common love in Brazil. When Senna finally won the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991, it was to scenes of rain drenched fans rejoicing as their exhausted hero is barely able to lift the trophy. It has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood sports movie with a fairy-tale ending. But it is what happens after the fairy tale ends which matter. Death is life’s only certainty.
There are other moments throughout Senna which also follow Hollywood conventions. Senna is portrayed as the emotional Ying to Alain Prost’s cold Yang. Whereas, Senna is warm yet erratic, Prost is shown to be calculating and politically savvy character. It is suggested that the French run FIA and Alain Prost conspired against the Senna during several races, yet, each driver purposefully crashed into the other to win the world championship on two different occasions. Prost may be painted as the pantomime baddie but Senna was far from innocent. Interestingly, this rivalry is played out, not just on the track, but also in press conferences. Both Senna and Prost were open and derogatory of each other in interviews. When compared to the current so-called “Sports personalities” and Twitter PR blunders this makes for fascinating viewing.
Mankind has a history of blood lust. From ancient Rome to modern day Youtube videos, the cravings for blood and death are age old. The true mark of Senna’s success (both in film and as a person) lies in their power to evoke emotion. Senna’s death loses all morbid fascination and it is viewed between fingers rather than with curiosity. In life, Senna’s rivalry with Prost was legendary but in death, Prost acted as Senna’s pallbearer. Cynics would say that Senna is a documentary rubber-necking on the death of Ayrton Senna. In reality, however, Senna is a celebration of a remarkable man blessed with a remarkable talent. So was Senna a reckless daredevil? Or was he a spiritual man helplessly succumbing to his own nature? The answer is both.