Directed by Asif Kapadia
Written by Manish Pandey
Starring Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis & Viviane Senna
Feature running time: 106 minutes
UK release date: 3rd June 2011
GENERAL STORY OUTLINE:
Spanning Senna’s titanic Formula One career, this documentary charts his physical and spiritual journey, both on track and off; his quest for perfection and his ultimate transformation from a supremely gifted novice, who exploded into F1 in 1984, to the myth after the tragic events of Imola in 1994.
Marking his place in the world as Brazil’s motor-racing legend, Ayrton Senna was believed by many to be the greatest driver to have ever lived. An amazing reputation that anyone else would long to have in their lives, only for Senna, it was to be tragically cut short at the age of 34 after suffering such a fatal head injury as a result of his car crashing into a concrete barrier while he was leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Italy on the 1st May.
I’m definitely no motor sports fan, and Formula 1 is one such racing sport that I may have caught every so often being shown on daytime television in the background, but never finding myself to be truly invested nor interested in it. Apart from Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton, I had no idea who Ayrton Senna was until I finally sat down and gave this top notch documentary a much delayed first watch. As a matter of fact, come to think of it, I’m no sports fan at all; so to watch a documentary about car racing was a shock unto itself. The one thing that really compelled me to see it was namely down to its director, Asif Kapadia, who’s stunning, well made and devastating documentary feature dedicated to the career and early death of Amy Winehouse, simply titled ‘AMY’, completely floored me. Absolutely deserving of its Oscar win for Best Documentary, you can read what I thought of it here.
After watching both, its easy to see all the similarities that these two fascinating documentaries share with each other, cementing Kapadia as a seriously talented documentary film-maker for all to keep a very close eye on and get excited for whatever doc he chooses to story tell next. The most obvious similarity with these two is in showing very honest portrayals of such inspirational figures in the eyes of the public, to whom have broken new ground and gone further than what is humanly possible for most of us, only to then meet their untimely deaths when all odds were against them. Like AMY, the story of Ayrton Senna and how he become such a racing sensation before tragedy struck and really hit home, is all told through archive footage and recorded interviews with not just himself but his colleagues, employers and family members also. Unlike Winehouse though, Senna wasn’t affected by drugs or alcohol at all. Instead it was his need for speed, his competitiveness, his stubbornness and absolute headstrong determination to come first place at all costs that ended up all being part of his ultimate downfall in the end. He had a strong belief in either you succeed or you just quit and forget about it.
Having so much drive, focus and and narrowing obsession on winning every race without accepting second or third place, wasn’t the only thing Senna had to contend with. He felt an enormous amount of pressure weighed down on him and of course, suffering some humiliation at a more later stage, when struggling in his ever increasingly difficult and competitive relationship with that of French four time Formula One drivers’ Champion, Alain Prost.
What started off as a respectful head-to-head companionship, soon descended into an ugly rivalry for both professional drivers. Upon joining McLaren-Honda in 1988 after Ron Dennis; the Team Principal of McLaren, had recognised the fantastic potential and great intellect in him, Senna was thrilled to come on board and happy to compete with Prost but they knew deep down early on that the challenges for them both will be far greater and the stakes even higher, as it was about beating each other rather than beating the actual field if one of them were really going to become the future world champion and only one of them could win. The trouble between Senna and Prost began as soon as they laid down a foundation for such a fierce competition, one that culminated in a number of dramatic race incidents between the two over a duration of the next five years. Despite that, Senna went on to win three world titles, proving himself to be the fastest driver in the world and holding the record from 1989 to 2006 for most pole positions.
During those pivotal five years, both Senna and Prost grew further and further apart, not wishing to speak to each other and vowing never to compete with each other ever again. Prost felt it was dangerous for other drivers to compete alongside Senna because of his belief in God and believing that God would never allow him to die, whereas Senna became continually frustrated by Prost’s attitude of always blaming someone else instead of himself if anything were to go wrong on the racing track.
Upon joining Williams after leaving McLaren in 1994, more difficulties and struggles had arisen for Senna. When racing in the San Marino Grand Prix of that year, he often complained about the handling of his FW16 and reported that the car’s performance became progressively worse after the latest adjustments made on it by the engineers. This may have been something that caused Senna’s shocking and untimely death. Much mystery has surrounded how he died on the 1st May 1994 during his mid-racing, it had been believed that what really caused the accident was the right-front wheel and suspension being sent back into the cockpit, striking Senna to the right side of his helmet, forcing his head back against the headrest. This is the most plausible reason that everyone who witnessed what happened could think of when trying to make sense of Senna’s sudden head on collision straight into the concrete barrier. People speculate that something must of went wrong with the car’s steering or the tyres but no one really knew for sure.
I’d like to have found out more about Senna’s personal life before he became noticed and went on to become a world champion. We only find out by word of mouth by others of his love for go-karting while growing up and knowing that driving was his passion and his life. He had found his true calling card in the sport of car racing. I would have loved to have found out though what really drove him to racing above everything else and who his main inspirations were in his life. I feel the documentary doesn’t spend too much time delving into his past and merely just skims it slightly by only barely scratching the surface.
The final act slightly dragged for me also. I obviously knew he died prior to watching the film but I had no knowledge how or why it happened. Maybe I was just being a bit impatient but it was all about the conclusion that this whole documentary was building up to, this case in point being Senna’s unfortunate death and this was something that I fully expected to be deeply affected by. That certainly was the case but it just took a long time getting to that point towards the end.
THE MOVIE NERD’S VERDICT:
Full credit once again goes to Kapadia and his crew for bringing to light a brilliantly constructed and well put together documentary of a man I knew nothing about in a sport I had little to no interest in. If it wasn’t for AMY, I may never have had any desire to watch this but I’m glad I did. I hope Kapadia carries on making compelling documentaries as terrific as this for a long time to come as it makes me want to find out more about the icons of the world he chooses to examine through all their personal struggles and inner demons.