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Senna: more than just a racing movie

Asif Kapadia’s moving biopic of the Brazilian motorsport legend shows us fierce rivalry, courage and tragedy.

Viral Shah

Topics Politics

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Cutting down the late Ayrton Senna’s achievements at the pinnacle of motor racing into a 90-minute film was never going to be easy. There were around 15,000 hours worth of archive footage of the legendary Brazilian driver to use. Kapadia notes in a recent interview that ‘it took us four years’ to find the right combination of footage to represent Senna’s 10-year career in Formula One.

The extensive footage of F1, a sport saturated with television coverage, spliced with home-movie images of Senna with his family, provides a touching portrayal of the various aspects of Senna: driver, national hero, winner, philanthropist, family man.

The film begins at the scene of one of Senna’s finest drives, for the unheralded Toleman team at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. This performance, in only his sixth Grand Prix, typified his general brilliance in rainy conditions; he was only denied victory because the race was stopped due to torrential rain.

Kapadia swiftly passes over Senna’s development as a youthful kart driver back in his native Brazil, along with his exploits in Formula Three. Instead, the central narrative of Kapadia’s work is the rivalry between Senna and the four-time F1 winner, Frenchman Alain Prost.

There are touching moments between the two, who were team-mates at McLaren for two years during the 1988 and 1989 seasons. An early exchange between the two would fall under that much-despised term ‘banter’, though there is an underlying competitive tension in their words. Prost asks his team-mate, ‘Is it possible to be equal?’ to which Senna replies ‘No’. Prost amusingly concludes: ‘Shit.’

Yet, after spending so much time creating this piece, there is bound to be a partisanship from Kapadia towards Senna, with the dramatic arc seeming to cast Prost, almost unfairly, as the villain to Senna’s heroic protagonist in a simplistic representation of both drivers. Furthermore, the accusation that Prost was in bed with Jean-Marie Balestre – the French president of FIA, Formula One’s governing body – is disappointingly repeated by Kapadia. Whatever the relationship between the two may have been, Senna’s disdain for the politics that have engulfed F1 is made clear.

Though such a representation of Prost gives a strong dramatic tone to the story, it is clearly one-sided. It contrasts strongly with the fact that Prost was a pall-bearer at Senna’s funeral in Sao Paulo, and that he is also a trustee of the charitable Senna Foundation, a point only briefly noted in the concluding statements of the film.

The Japanese Grand Prix in 1989 saw tensions between the team-mates exceed all expectations. Senna attempted an inside pass on Prost, who cut him off, resulting in a collision as they slid onto the Suzuka chicane escape road. Senna, who required a victory in this penultimate race to remain in contention for the title, was aided with a push-start from the marshals to get to the pits to replace the damaged front of the car.

The footage curiously cuts to show Prost, who assuming the race was over, jumped out of his car and rushed immediately to the FIA office. Against all odds, Senna demolished the five-second lead of Alessandro Nannini, driving for Benetton, to finish first. His joy was shortlived, however, The FIA disqualified Senna for cutting across the chicane, meaning Prost won his third title in controversial circumstances. Senna was even fined $100,000 and given a temporary suspension of his licence, a point which only serves to reinforce the hero-villain narrative and embolden notions that Prost was in alliance with Balestre (probably accurately presented as the Sepp Blatter of that F1 era). In another twist, Prost left for Ferrari after McLaren decided to appeal the decision, seeing the team’s decision as a lack of faith in him.

The following year, in Japan again, the situation was reversed. Senna would be world champion for a second time providing Prost failed to finish. To add to the tension, pole position (won by Senna, Prost started second) was put on the right side of the track, away from the favoured racing line, a decision Senna argued against.

Consequently, on the first corner, Prost took the lead but left a slight gap, which Senna characteristically went for. Prost cut across, meaning Senna went into the back of his rival, causing both of them to career violently off the track. This time, Senna was the champion. This desperate will to win, even if it meant taking accident-inducing, life-threatening risks, formed only one half of the dichotomy that is Ayrton Senna.

The other half is epitomised by an incident at Spa, Belgium in 1992, after fellow racer Érik Comas had suffered a crash at the Blanchimont corner during qualifying. Senna stopped mid-lap to run over to Comas’s car and hold his head up in a stable position until medical support arrived. This example of his heartfelt compassion and bravery surprisingly failed to make it into Kapadia’s cut. The Brazilian’s religious convictions are also explored through the stunning 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix victory where Senna drove the final laps in excruciating pain with the car stuck in sixth gear, causing muscle spasms. Afterwards he claimed ‘God gave me the race’.

The film sensitively handles Senna’s death during the tragic weekend at Imola in Italy in 1994. Senna had signed for Williams-Renault, winner of the past two championships (and the team Prost had retired from at the end of the previous season). But the team’s new FW16 car seemed to have many faults and driving difficulties compared to its winning predecessors, due to new FIA regulations regarding active suspension and traction control. These changes caused Senna to struggle with the car as he failed to finish the first two races of the season.

The third race was at Imola, with Senna under pressure to kick-start his season. The weekend began ominously, with serious accidents involving Senna’s compatriot Rubens Barrichello, Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto, along with the tragic death of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying.

Kapadia doesn’t speculate as to why Senna’s car failed as he entered the high-speed Tamburello corner on lap six, unlike previous documentaries. Whether it was steering-column failure or another design fault, the fact was that the car left the track at high speed, hitting the concrete retaining wall at around 135 mph, despite Senna’s best efforts to regain control. He suffered massive head injuries in the crash.

By focusing on Senna’s entire F1 career, and not just the awful events of Imola, Kapadia to his credit goes over new ground, promoting the achievements of Senna and shaping a portrait of a man, whose intellect and charisma, in addition to his racing ability, have been widely praised.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the combination of the events on screen in the film’s finale, combined with the emotive musical score, will have brought many audiences to tears. The best sport documentaries and films always appeal to a wider audience outside the sports they cover. And by showing us the human aspect of the life and death of a sporting legend, Senna accomplishes this with aplomb.

Viral Shah is a spiked intern and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He blogs at LiberoFootball.

Watch the trailer for Senna:

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