Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Ayrton Senna

Any motor-racing fan of a certain age can tell you where they were on 1 May 1994. I was home from university and was watching the San Marino Grand Prix with my parents (yes, the petrolhead gene is inherited). Leading the race, Senna lost control of his Williams car at the Tamburello curve on lap 7 and struck an unprotected concrete barrier. It was to be a fatal accident robbing Formula 1 of its most naturally talented and arguably greatest ever driver.

Ayrton Senna was 34.

Once upon a time, racing drivers used to die young. Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve to name but a few. Before the San Marino Grand Prix, there had been no fatal accidents during an F1 race meeting in 12 years. That weekend there were two fatalities. Roland Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying the day before the race. As officials examined the wreckage of Senna’s car the following day, they found a furled Austrian flag which, had he won, Senna would have raised in honour of Ratzenberger.

I grew up in a house where Nigel Mansell was king. Mansell was the kind of man that all men loved. The moustache, the flat cap, the innate Englishness, the eternal underdog who drove every race like his life depended on it. What was there not to love…if you were a man. I suppose women had James Hunt in the 70s but there were definitely slimmer pickings in the 80s. Prost and Mansell, I ask you?! Anyway this Mansell adoration meant that Senna was The Enemy. I was never quite sure why but his endless pole positions and utterly dominant drives were not well received back at the childhood ranch. I really wanted to like Senna but it was not allowed. Child, thou shalt worship at the altar of The Moustache and no other. I checked with the husband and at his slightly more exotic ranch (in the land of the Springbok), Mansell was apparently also The Man.

Now get don’t me wrong, I think Nigel Mansell was an immense driver and I have the rain sodden programme from a British Touring Cars race at Brand Hatch to prove it (in the name of ‘quality father/daughter time’ – lucky I liked cars hey). However, try as one may, it is hard to imagine a feature-length documentary being made about our Nige. However, the enigmatic and iconic Ayrton Senna is an altogether different proposition. After seeing all the accolades and plaudits that Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Senna received (and totally failing to get babysitter organised in time to see it on the big-screen) the Senna DVD got added to the husband’s Christmas list. I will admit that it was an entirely tactical move to ensure that the DVD did end up in our house (the husband has a slight tendency to go ‘off piste’ and panic-buy me girly stuff he spots other men buying like Mamma Mia DVDs – also still unwatched!). Anyway a mere 3 months after Christmas (and hey this is good going for us – we still have most of the West Wing boxset bought for Christmas 2008 to wade through) we finally sat down and watched Senna last weekend.

And so this brings me to the point of my blog – aside from getting withdrawal symptoms not to mention the fear of losing my one guaranteed reader (the husband – he promised to post a comment on my last blog….did he heck!), I felt so sufficiently moved by watching Senna that I wanted to put pen to paper (finger to keyboard doesn’t sound so literary does it). Obviously the internet is awash with far superior film reviews so best checking out those if you’re expecting a Barry Norman-esque exposition.

In my extremely humble opinion, the film is one of the great sporting documentaries of all time. A measure of its success is that many people I know who have little or zero interest in motor-racing have absolutely loved it. Kapadia’s masterstroke is realising that to best tell the story of Ayrton Senna’s extraordinary and dramatic life, all you actually need is Ayrton Senna. The film is entirely constructed from historical footage and is totally uncluttered by talking heads (the cardinal sin of so many documentaries).

The start of the film propels us back to the early 80s when rightly or wrongly Formula 1 was more real and more dangerous. Like all forms of sport in the last 30 years, it has become sanitised and commercialised to within an inch of its life. You didn’t have to be Lenny Kravitz or Owen Wilson back in the old days to mingle with the drivers, just a fair dinkum fan. Men drove cars not the other way round. Men were like James Hunt. Ah well you get the drift! Still what hasn’t changed are the political machinations that were just as prevalent in the 1980s as now. Jean-Marie Balestre in his Bond Villain glasses is truly Machiavellian and sinister. Some of the most fascinating footage is from the pre-race driver briefings where drivers such as Senna and Berger had fierce showdowns with Balestre. Its safe to say Monsieur Balestre wouldn’t have made too many Christmas card lists. What a pompous douchebag he was!

You quickly realise even when watching the very young Senna that you are watching someone rapidly ascending to greatness. One of the unexpected treats of the film is hearing James Hunt’s wonderfully evocative laconic commentary – “we are watching the arrival of Ayrton Senna” – while Senna was driving spectacularly at Monaco (to finish 2nd behind Prost) in his first F1 season in a fairly rubbish Toleman car. A film about Lauda and James Hunt is currently in production (with the very respected Ron Howard as director)…suffice to say I’m monitoring the release date obsessively!

The main centre-piece of this film was Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost. Like all great sporting rivalries, they were the absolute antithesis of each other. The calculating, controlled Frenchman who they named the ‘Professor’ versus the reckless, quixotic and emotional Brazilian. It is incredible to think that they drove for the same team even for 2 years and indeed that Ron Dennis lived to tell the tale. What really struck me watching the film was how eerily insightful Prost was (well before Imola) about facets of Senna’s personality that may have led to his untimely demise.

Ayrton has a small problem. He thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God. And I think that’s very dangerous.” (Prost)

There was an intensely spiritual dimension to Senna as a person and as a driver. He felt at times that he reached a transcendental state on the racetrack, perhaps best epitomised by his victory in the 1991 Brazilian GP. He finally won his home GP in excruciating pain after his car was stuck in 6th gear for the last few laps. He said afterwards that God had given him the race.

There did seem a terrible Icarian inevitability that Senna’s reckless, on-the-edge driving would only end one way. Looking back on it, the whole race weekend at San Marino in 1994 was a Greek tragedy from start to finish. In practice on the Friday, Barrichello had a spectacular crash, the following day Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying and at the start of the race, several spectators were injured after debris flew into the crowd after a massive pile-up at the start. A more spiritual person might have felt the race was jinxed, as if someone was telling them not to race. Did Senna think this? That weekend, he seemed extremely agitated and full of foreboding. After warm-up, Senna saw Prost in the Williams motorhome and sat down to speak with him (much to the surprise of Prost). Afterwards when recording a lap for TF1 (who Prost was then working for), Senna sent a message to Prost:

I would like to say welcome to my old friend, Alain Prost. Tell him we miss him very much.”

Was Senna, full of premonition, making his peace with his great rival? Poor old Alain does get a pasting in this film (even down to the utterly cringe-worthy Selina Scott interview!) and so it was almost a shock to see at the end of the film that Prost is a trust of the charitable Senna Foundation. As with great rivalries, Senna was not all right and Prost was not all wrong but the film would at times have you believe otherwise. If you want more balanced, factual accounts of who crashed into who and who did what and who was to blame (answer: both Senna and Prost on different occasions!), then Sky has a continual loop of season reviews on the Petrolhead Channel (408) to peruse.

What this film does is to tell the story of Senna from Ayrton Senna’s point of view. It shines a spotlight onto his complex personality – the boyish innocence, the reckless edge, the obsession with winning, his intense patriotism, his humility and compassion for others are all laid bare in the film. Perhaps most of all, the film showed how much Senna was defined by his strong religious faith. The epitaph on his tombstone simply reads “Nothing can separate me from God”.

Since 1994, no driver has died in F1. Perhaps Ayrton Senna is up there praying for them all.  


  1. Thank you very much for this review. It is beautifully written and much better than some other well known reviewers comments. Thank you!

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Its was one of my favourite pieces to write and brought back so many great (and tragic) memories of Ayrton. Glad I did him justice even a little!