Senna (Film Review)

The Return of a Legend – Asif Kapadia brings to the big screen Ayrton Senna’s life story

In Brazil, particularly from 1989 to 1994, Sundays were not lazy days, and Brazilians were not allowed to sleep until late. Sundays were Formula 1 Grand Prix days, days to see the man with the yellow helmet holding the green and yellow flag. This man was Ayrton Senna; a man who won three Formula 1 World Championships and kept the record for most pole positions from 1989 to 2006. Most of all, he seemed to have no fears and was a hero in a country, at this time, without any expectations. With a meteoric rise and a tragic death, he suddenly turned into a myth.

Seventeen years after Senna’s death at the 1994 Imola Grand Prix, the British director Asif Kapadia, Bafta winner, brings to the big screen the driver’s cinematographic life story, in a documentary that runs from the traditional structure rebuilding the docs’ concept, without the use of voice over and with just a few testimonies. More than investigate the car driver’s life, the film revives chronologically his ascension, passing through Formula 1 politics and Senna’s God-given talent.

Using images from TV, the FIA and Senna’s family archive, the film Senna also invites the spectators to know the man behind the wheel – a practising Catholic; patriotic, determined and intelligent, also capable of stopping his car during a race to help a colleague that was hurt.

By virtue of his determination to win, Senna was several times accused of being ruthless and to be a driver with no fair play. Born in a wealthy family from São Paulo, which was able to support his passion for the elite sport, the car driver always had to prove his ability – he was an outsider with no contacts and, instead of being the greatest, his aim was to be the fastest.

But, in real life, things were a bit different; it was not a matter of being a great driver or being good on a wet track, which he was. The world of Formula 1 was full of commercial and politic interests. Something Senna realised for the first time at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, when he took his limited Toleman car to the finish line first position. The result was cancelled and the French driver Alain Proust became the winner. Since then, Proust became his biggest rival, even when they were racing for the same motor-racing team, the British McLaren. When Proust left McLaren, one of his demands was not to have the Brazilian at the same team. During this time, Formula 1 was a magnet for journalists with a huge following watching Senna and Proust fight for the World Championship and for every pole position, inside and outside the track.

The “soap opera” Senna vs Proust reached huge ratings, but more important was Senna’s disagreement with the totalitarian figure of FIA Director, Jean-Marie Balestre, who, in a meeting with the drivers, after receiving a complaint from Senna in relation to the security of the cars, replied: “The right decision is my decision”.

The cursed weekend

The 1994 Imola Grand Prix was surrounded by a tense atmosphere caused by a car crash with Rubens Barrichello on Friday, followed by the deaths of the Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger on Saturday and Senna on Sunday. Senna had just moved from McLaren to Williams and was not confident about the safety of his car. To show the sequence of the accident, Asif Kapadia made an option to use the car driver camera. For the spectators, it appears to be a simulation, but they already know the end. Inside the car of the ultimate risk-taker was found an Austrian flag.

The emotional atmosphere in the film becomes manifest after the tragedy. Senna’s tragic death ground Brazil to a halt, the government declared three days of national mourning, three million people followed the car containing the coffin in Senna’s hometown – São Paulo – and the Brazilian football team dedicated the World Cup title to their national hero.

Ayrton Senna was the last Formula 1 driver to die on the track. After his death, FIA cracked down on making the championship safer for the car drivers. He was right in his fears. But, in the end, it was all about passion.
Senna’s spirit can be summed up when he was about what he missed more. His answer was simple: “the World Kart Championship of 1978″. And why? “Because it was pure racing. Not politics”.

by Bruna Gala


  1. I find it interesting that Schumacher can be roundly criticised and reviled for his win-at-any-cost mentality but Senna is widely praised as being the best driver ever.

    It goes to show if you are charismatic you can get away with anything.

    Great film which I have also reviewed on my site:

  2. Philip

    Bruna, I look forward to seeing ths film. I remember how unbelievable the news of Senna’s death seemed at the time. He had an aura of invincibility. You could believe that any other driver might be killed in a race, but not Senna. Nor Prost , to be fair, who was such an analytical driver who never took careless uncalculated risks – no wonder he was called The Professor. Senna was different, he was passionate, he took risks, he was thrilling to watch. And he was ruthless. Yes, probably sometimes he drove unfairly, dangerously. His reputation grew, so that many times he could pass other drivers easily because other drivers were scared of him, they kept out of his way. Later, Michael Schumacher developed this same reputation. As for the film, it will be interesting especially to see the impact Senna had in his native Brazil. Thank you, Bruna.

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