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A Driving Force to Be Reckoned With

Senna (2010)

2011 Sundance Film Festival

“The main motivation for us all is to compete for a victory.” In a simple, single phrase, Brazilian Formula One icon Ayrton Senna betrayed the unrelenting drive and intensity of his ambition that led him from junior karting in his homeland to become the most exciting racing driver of his generation and the multiple Formula One world championships that came with it. It was, too, this inherent sense of purpose and passion for his sport that led to his tragic death at the age of just 34 at the infamous Tamburello corner at San Marino’s Imola circuit on a fateful May Day weekend in 1994.

The name Senna will forever remain synonymous with Formula One; and Asif Kapadia’s stunning documentary feature “Senna” is a fitting testament to the mystique, unparalleled talent and iconicity of the man. Comprised entirely of largely unseen archival footage which reveals the pit-lane politics of Formula One as well as home movies that expose his tenderness, generosity and soulfulness, Mr. Kapadia’s film is a fascinating insight into a man who transcended sport and united a nation.

Mr. Kapadia wisely avoids utilizing talking heads to eulogize about Senna, instead letting the 10-year chronology of Senna’s journey from his debut season in Formula One to his death speak for itself. Effectively, Mr. Kapadia — ably assisted by scribe Manish Pandey — opens a window on Senna’s career, with Senna himself narrating much of the action with telling input from luminaries such as his bitter rival and teammate Alain Prost, team managers Ron Dennis and Frank Williams and Formula One race doctor Sid Watkins. And what a fascinating and emotive journey it is.

Monaco, 1984: Senna was a relative unknown, driving in his debut Formula One season for the unfancied Toleman team. After qualifying for the race in a lowly 13th position, no one could have predicted what was to unfold. In a field boasting no less than three world champions, as well as three future ones, Senna demonstrated his promise by taking advantage of the heavy rain and dreadful conditions to produce a thrilling drive. Cutting his way through the field, Senna took the checkered flag ahead of Mr. Prost, only to be cruelly denied the victory on a technicality as the race had been red flagged as he passed Mr. Prost. It was just a taste of what was to come.

“You either do well or forget it.”

For Senna, winning was everything. He left for Lotus, a winning team in 1985, a move that almost immediately paid off as Senna won the second race of the season at Estoril. His reaction to taking his maiden victory is particularly telling. It’s clear how much it meant to him and, in fact, how much more he wanted. Mr. Kapadia’s focus on this intense side to Senna’s nature gets to the crux of what kind of man he was. Senna raced on the edge and would push the limits to win, sometimes at any cost; and Mr. Kapadia draws a fascinating parallel between Senna and his antithesis — the methodical and composed Mr. Prost, who by the time they were paired together at the McLaren team in 1988 was a double world champion.

Monaco, 1988: Senna was dominating the Grand Prix and had established a massive and seemingly unassailable lead. He was driving on pure instinct; and, despite pleas from Mr. Dennis, he didn’t let up. Mr. Kapadia puts us in the cockpit as Senna careened around the city streets, pushing himself, fighting the car, striving for perfection. Then disaster struck as Senna lost control and crashed out of the race. At that moment it becomes apparent that Senna was on another plane to every other driver, as he refused to compromise on his instincts by coasting to victory. To do so would have been contrary to everything Senna believed in; and in a poignant moment, Senna revealed that he felt that his racing brought him closer to god. Despite the setback in Monaco, Senna clinched his first world championship with a trademark comeback win in Japan. Relief, rather than joy, sets in as it’s clear that this moment was a realization of his destiny.

The year 1989 saw an elevation of tensions between Senna and Mr. Prost. Mr. Prost knew that the title would be decided in his favor if Senna didn’t win the penultimate race of the season in Japan; and as it transpired, Mr. Prost — seemingly deliberately — collided with Senna, effectively putting them both out of the race. Yet Senna again demonstrated his incredible will to win by rejoining the race and winning against all odds. Not so — The French-run International Automobile Federation ruled that Senna had breached the rules and nullified his victory, handing the title to Mr. Prost, the favorite and fellow countryman of F.I.A. chief Jean-Marie Balestre. Mr. Kapadia cleverly utilizes damning footage of Balestre to expose the sordid politics of the F.I.A., emphasizing the political impasse Senna found himself up against.

Poetically, the 1990 season was decided by a direct reversal of 1989. Senna, embattled by politics, crashed into Mr. Prost on the first lap of the Japanese Grand Prix, winning the title in the process. It was a reckless move, but it embodied Senna’s win-at-all-costs attitude, even if it went against his guiding principles. Yet, Mr. Kapadia is also mindful to remind us that Senna was all too aware of how fragile life is. In a shocking moment, Senna witnessed a horrific crash; and although it’s clear that he was deeply affected by it, it’s also evident that the incident spurred him on to be even better.

“I needed to win. I needed to finish first.”

Brazil, 1991: Senna — desperate to win his home Grand Prix for the first time — was leading the race. Plagued by gearbox problems, he found himself stuck in sixth gear with several laps left. Through sheer will, he limped to the finish and took an incredible victory. The exertion caused Senna to collapse from exhaustion, yet he was overcome with emotion and it’s clear how much it meant to him and his compatriots. For them, Senna was a hero, proud of his nation which was in a desperate state, blighted as it was by poverty. In Senna, they had a unifying figure who represented the best of Brazil and who gave so much back to those less fortunate than himself. By the time he won the title for a third time, he was seemingly unstoppable.

“Ayrton ran out of luck.”

By 1994, Senna had engineered a move to the by-now superior Williams team. As Mr. Kapadia steers us to Imola, the tension is unbearable, as this is where Senna’s story must end. In Friday practice, Senna’s compatriot Rubens Barrichello was lucky to escape serious injury following a horrendous crash. The crash rocked the already nervous Senna, who was desperate to get a performance out of a technically flawed car. When Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying the next day, the under-pressure Senna was deeply affected. Despite the protestations of close friend Mr. Watkins, Senna felt duty-bound as the senior driver to go ahead with the race; and so it’s an incredibly emotive moment when his Williams finally slams into the wall at Tamburello.

Although granted a heroes funeral in Sao Paolo, attended by an estimated three million people, his death seems all the more futile and heartbreaking given that it was only caused by a number of freak circumstances. Yet Mr. Kapadia is seemingly determined to convince us otherwise and remind us that Senna would have seen nothing futile in his own death. As Mr. Kapadia’s picture concludes, Senna cites an unknown karting rival named Terry Fullerton as his greatest competitor. Here was a rival who didn’t race for plaudits or for financial gain and wasn’t blighted by the politics that saturated Formula One, but instead drove for the pleasure and thrill of the race. Senna admired that and it’s clear that pursuing the purity of racing was ultimately his driving force.

“Nothing can separate me from the love of God”

“Senna” is an emotive, absorbing and fascinating picture. It relays an incredible story that’s tinged with sadness, given the inevitability of how Senna’s tale ends. That said, it’s a celebration and a beautifully edited, directed and scored one at that. It’s a fitting love letter to a great champion, a deeply spiritual, religious and generous man who embodied all that we love in a sportsman, but he had the drive, passion, natural ability and instinct that elevated him beyond the sport. Senna was a legend and a hero to millions of Brazilians and fans across the world and the circumstances of his death have guaranteed his status as an icon of the 20th century. He lived and died on the edge, but Senna wouldn’t have been the champion he was if he hadn’t.


Opens on June 3 in Britain and on Aug. 12 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Asif Kapadia; written by Manish Pandey; edited by Gregers Sall and Chris King; music by Antonio Pinto; produced by James Gay-Rees, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Universal Pictures and Producers Distribution Agency, in association with ESPN Films. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.


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