Directed by Asif Kapadia and written by Manesh Pandey
He is arguably the most charismatic and influential sportsmen of the twentieth century. One thing is certain, the story of Ayrton Senna and his rise to success in the world of motor sport is a story that deserved to be told to a wider audience and the hands of Director Aasif Kapadia this has been profoundly achieved.
Reaction to the movie and its impact
Across movie websites and newspapers alike, reviews for the 106 minute documentary have praised how it engages the audience by allowing Senna himself, to describe his personal feelings, emotions and beliefs throughout his career in the pinnacle of world motor sport. While Senna had on-track battles with the likes of Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher, it is his torrid battle with Alain Prost, arguably the greatest motor racing driver of the 1980s, which the understandably focuses on for not only its sheer spectacle, but to also highlight the personal conflict and emotion that the two drivers rivalry brought out in Senna. Aside from the enthralling story that culminated in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix where Senna deliberately drove into Prost to secure the Formula 1 World Championship, Australian movie reviewer David Strathern has joined many reviewers, themselves apathetic to motor racing, declaring Senna as ‘amazingly charismatic, handsome and brilliant’, Paul Byrnes writes that while Senna was ‘brash, attractive, aggressive bordering on reckless, there was always something disarming in his demeanor’, Senna always seemed more open, vulnerable, more emotional’. The success of the film lies in the charisma of the focal character as optimised by those who are being introduced to Senna for the first time.
As a motor racing enthusiast it has been very interesting to hear and read the thoughts of film reviewers and friends who have spoken not only about the documentary itself but also about what memories they themselves have about Ayrton Senna. A very interesting reaction comes from my female friends who have indicated that while they had no interest in Formula 1 motor racing, they distinctly remember the death of Ayrton Senna because of the reaction his death brought in their fathers. This is the message no doubt Australians who would have woken to the news of Senna’s death on the morning of 2 May 1994 would go as far as to say that for many young boys and girls, myself included, the news of Ayrton Senna’s death is reflective of the baby boomer generation being told of the JFK assassination.
What story does the movie tell?
While Senna is a documentary, it would be wrong to see it as a documentary on his life or even his grand prix career. The film provides a short over-view of Senna’s Formula 1 career, focusing on his most important races, the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix where he first came to prominence in the eyes of the viewing public and the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, his first victory. The knowledgeable fans of Formula 1 will note that there is no race footage of Senna form the 1986 and 1987 seasons. Where the early part of the film seeks to emerse the audience in the rivalry between Senna, Prost and the FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre. The success of the film is the interviews chosen by Kapadia and Pandey to be included in the film. At the conclusion of the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna provides incredible insight into his belief on why the race was stopped due to the heavy rain, a decision that prevented him from taking the lead in the race. While admitting it did not necessarily cost him the victory, as you still need to keep the car on the road (the documentary understandably does not highlight that Stefan Bellof in third was going even quicker than Senna), Senna speaks of the political issues that a driver must deal with when in a smaller, less influential team and being a driver with limited experience. The interview serves perfectly to demonstrate Senna’s awareness that to succeed in Formula 1 required an understanding of events occurring both on and off the track, an understanding that would be strongly tested five years later.
While the film does focus on the 1988, 1989 and 1990 Formula 1 seasons, race footage is very limited. In this period, race footage is only shown of the 1988 and 1990 Monaco Grand Prix, the 1988, 1989 and 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, and the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix, a staggering 6 races out of a possible 48. Essentially, the race footage is only shown where it provides a vital moment in the rivalry between Senna and Prost or provides the audience with a greater understanding of Senna. The main reason for this technique is that while racing, the audience gains very little about the drivers themselves as racing drivers wear helmets and in the 80s did not use in car radio systems as they do today. Motor racing footage is only shown with purpose and in doing so, does not alienate those uninterested with motor racing. However, to say that the lack of race footage is to the detriment of fans of the sport is far from the truth. The footage of driver briefings, home video, team discussions, rare advertisement and foreign television interviews, rarely seen by even the greatest fans, are what is so enthralling about Senna. For me, the footage of the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix following the collision between Prost and Senna was captivating. The look on Prost’s eyes as he sees Senna still circulating while he walks back to the pits, Prost jogging into the stewards office, the footage of Senna, Balestre, Prost and Ron Dennis form below the stewards office as post race discussions are conducted, and the incredible press conference given by a rarely emotional Ron Dennis at the Australian Grand Prix as he pleads to the audience ‘Where’s the consistency? It can’t be right.’ Put simply, this footage is F1 history at its very best, emotion, drama, controversy, politics and intrigue in the back drop of one of the greatest prizes in world sport.
The later part of the film moves swiftly through the 1992 and 1993 seasons, identifying the introduction of active suspension and the inferiority of Senna’s McLaren. This leads us to the San Marino Grand Prix and the weekend of Senna’s death. Director Asif Kapdia conceded that you could have done an entire film on the San Marino Grand Prix weekend however, they have chosen incredible footage nevertheless, particularly of Senna’s discussions with Adrian Newey, Patrick Head and David Brown following the weekends practice sessions. In these brief clips it is clear to see Senna’s frustration and amazement at how difficult the Williams FW16 has become and to learn of the doubts surrounding Senna’s continued participation in the race weekend following the death of Roland Ratzenberger. One of the more interestingly placed pieces of footage of the San Marino Grand Prix is the on-board footage of Senna actually overtaking the safety car and gesticulating to the driver to speed up. The significance of this footage is never really elaborated on but it demonstrates how slow the safety car, at the time in its infancy in Formula 1, was travelling, and how Senna was aware of the significance this was having on his car. Following Senna’s accident, a main line of investigation was that the Williams’ tyre pressures had reduced while behind the safety car, thus lowering the car’s ride height and giving greater credence to the theory that Senna had lost control of the Williams over the bumps at the Tamburello curve. To elaborate on that comment further, if you watch the trackside camera viewing the Tamburello Curve of Senna and Schumacher on the laps prior to the accident you can see Senna’s car striking the tarmac, culminating in a violent strike. In contrast, Schumacher’s car follows without striking the ground at all. For some reason the footage from this trackside camera has never emerged on the lap that Senna crashed, but comparing the track surface on Senna’s on board camera to that of the trackside camera, it is clear that Senna suffers a loss of control at the moment where the car had been violently striking the track surface. Appropriately, the film does not get bogged down in these details.
How is Senna portrayed?
To say that Senna is an overtly pro-Senna film would not be entirely correct. What it certainly does not do is heighten the talents of any driver of Senna’s era, over and above that of Senna himself. Equally, the film does very little to try and highlight the driving skills and prowess of Alain Prost aside from positioning him as a worthy adversary for Senna during his career, we are left with no doubt that Prost was the best before Senna arrived. However, where the film does no favour to Prost at all is in its portrayal of the French world champion as a manipulator of the FIA and its decision making processes while under the control of Jean-Marie Balestre over and above his immense driving prowess. In portraying Prost in this light, some may argue that the film provides some justification for the actions of Senna. Interestingly, in the preview screening of the documentary shown at the Cremorne Orpheum, the audience was drawn into applause when Senna intentionally drove Prost off the road at the first corner of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, an act that has increasingly been viewed as a blight on the career of Senna and for which some people do not view him as the greatest grand prix driver of all time. Conversely however, the movie does not glorify Senna’s actions. Ron Dennis speaks of the immense personal conflict that Senna was in following the accident, the Brazilian hardly raising a smile over winning the world championship. The series of personal interviews and press conferences serve to highlight the incredible passion and belief that Senna had towards not only racing but to life itself. Senna is shown as a genuinely honest man with a strong personal conviction towards fairness and justice born out of both his religious beliefs and the struggles faced by the people in his home country of Brazil. Faced with what he feels are ongoing injustices, the audience is thrust into the conflict that Senna is faced with, culminating in the incredible decision he takes to vindicate himself.
In the films conclusion we are left with undoubtedly the most telling response in Senna’s career. To the question of who was his greatest competitor? Senna tells a press conference that it would have to be Terry Fullerton, a world champion English go-kart driver that Senna raced alongside in the late 70s. Senna chooses Fullerton because here was a driver who like himself, was competing for the love of the sport, something which even in the later part of his career he never abandoned. In Senna’s words ‘there was certainly no money, no politics, just pure driving, real racing and that makes me happy.’
View of the movie
Through the mixture of in-car footage, personal interviews, press conferences, commercials, and home video intertwined with one of the most beautiful scores by Antonio Pinto, the thematic technique of Senna has created a masterpiece of motor racing documentation. The movie portrays with dramatic effect but not to the extent that it is historically wrong. It is unquestionably a movie that’s success lies in the ability to attract both F1 fans and motor racing detractors alike by focusing on the actions and emotions of the main characters and their struggle for supremacy in the world of modern day motorsport. If the film doesn’t make you a fan of Formula 1 it will certainly leave you admiring its central character.
Suprising footage and images not included in the movie?
Presented with the daunting process of reducing thousands of hours of footage into a 106 minute documentary will always result in some footage being left on the cutting room floor. However, in light of the angle taken by the movie, there are some very interesting things that failed to be included. Of significant note is the press conference with Senna prior to the start of the Australian Grand Prix in 1991 where Senna delivered an explosive press conference outlining the conclusion to the 1989 and 1990 championships and all but admitting that he had intentionally driven Prost off the road. Of this conference, only Senna’s plea that ’I was treated like a criminal’ is included in the movie, but it’s context is not fully incorporated into the storyline.
Also interesting is the way the 1985 Australian Grand Prix pole position lap is incorporated into the film. Rather than show the lap in order, the movie skips form the middle of the lap to the beginning and back to the end and fails to include the stunned reaction of BBC commentator James Hunt when Senna crosses the line to record a time of 1.19.844 seconds.
Despite extensive footage being in existence, little is seen of Senna’s training regime. There is brilliant footage of Senna training in Brazil, doing chin ups and sit ups, reinforcing his dedication to the sport and highlighting his reputation as a supreme athlete, a constant source of criticism from motor racing sceptics. While we do see footage of Senna training in Sao Paulo with his trainer Nuno Cobra with the end credits, the film does not show Cobra visiting Senna’s coffin during his funeral which would have tied in well with the final montage of the film.
The omission of the battle between Senna and Prost in the 1988 Portuguese Grand Prix where Senna pushes Prost all the way across the track to the pit wall is also not included and would have served to show the increasing rivalry within the McLaren team in 1988. This footage can be viewed on YouTube.
Equally important in the rivalry between Senna and Prost is the disagreement between the drivers at the commencement of the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix where both drivers had made a pre-race agreement that the driver who arrived at the first corner would not be challenged for the race victory. These plans would be thrown into confusion when the race was restarted following the horrendous crash of Gerhard Berger at the Tamburello curve. At the restart Prost, who had lead at the first start, expected to be unchallenged for the race and despite getting off the line at the re-start first, Senna promptly overtook the Frenchman at the third corner much to Prost’s disgust. Following the race Prost, disgusted that Senna had broken the agreement, voiced his complaints to the press. None of this footage was included in the film.
One notable falsity in the film is the on-board footage at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. This footage is not actually Senna at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix as evidenced by the fact that the car does not have a camera above Senna’s right shoulder when he is extricating himself from the car following his accident. The footage is form the 1990 race and has been altered to give the appearance that it cuts out when Senna hits the outside wall.
Other interesting omissions from the film include the opening lap of the 1993 European Grand Prix which is highlighted by the Top Gear tribute and regarded as one of Senna’s greatest performances. In the context of the film, this footage would reinforce to the audience the extent of Senna’s brilliance and the continuing battle with Prost in spite of the Frenchman’s superior car advantage.
Interesting issues that will be raised in further posts
So where does Senna rank against the greatest of all time? Racefans will take a look back over some of the more famous and infamous attempts to rate the greatest grand prix drivers of all time. Who’s gone up? Who’s gone down? And why are they so different? Racefans will also provide a top twenty list of its own. As with any movie about Senna, the 1994 Formula 1 season is shown for three races. Frank Williams comments in the film that Senna had protested the legality of the Benetton B194 which appeared to have retained forms of the traction control that had been outlawed at the beginning of the season. Through the views of experts during the 1994 season and since, Racefans will outline the arguments for and against the suspicion of whether the B194 really was illegal.