Senna (2010)

17 years have passed since the death of Ayrton Senna, the most worshipped, the most inspiring, and the most intense racing driver ever to have lived among us. Documentaries and biographies paying tribute to the great man are plenty ; in fact, you could find more books and DVDs on Ayrton than most of the other great drivers combined. Such has been the impact of the Brazilian on the collective motor-racing psyche. ‘Senna’ is a rather different documentary.

I admit the fact that although there have been numerous films on motor racing over the years, most of them have turned out to be quite disappointing. More often than not, the plot would be wafer thin or non-existent, and the editing would be amateurish and all those friends whom you managed to drag along to accompany you in watching it, would moan about it for years. But this time, if a racing-enthusiast-friend of yours tells you this documentary doesn’t require a Senna fan or an F1 fan or even a motorsport fan for that matter, to appreciate it, believe him. Senna is an excellent film all on its own, and director Asif Kapadia has managed to make it enthralling to watch for seasoned F1 fans as well as people who have never heard of Ayrton before.

One of the strong points of the movie is the style of narration. Instead of the all too familiar talking head interviews we have become used to over the years, Kapadia uses countless hours of hitherto unseen footage of Formula 1 to tell the story. Rather than listening to people around Senna recall various incidents from the Brazilian’s time in F1 (1984-1994), we now see it like it happened, with plenty of press conferences and behind the scenes footage to re-contextualize some of those events. The film primarily focuses on Senna’s F1 career, with Ayrton, his arch-rival Alain Prost and McLaren team boss Ron Dennis more or less slipping into the lead roles and telling the story in chronological order. With judicious editing, ‘Senna’ is impressive in the way the characters of Ayrton and Prost are developed – the contrast in their approach to racing and life as a whole is handled brilliantly.

Alain Prost Vs Ayrton Senna was one of the greatest battles in motorsport history, and as such, I expected the four-time title winning Frenchman  to be portrayed as the villain. However, ‘The Professor’ as he was known as, is shown to be a bitter rival every inch of the way, but never as a baddie. That role is given to the reigning FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre and although you could argue he was not quite the eccentric, allegedly biased, high-handed boss as he is shown to be, several controversial decisions on incidents involving Senna and Prost didn’t help his cause.  As a result, you see that Ayrton is the man fighting against the odds, against the mucky politics infesting the sport and his defiant attitude towards the deteriorating morality in his beloved sport is fascinating to watch.

I have seen several complaints that some of Senna’s ruthless actions on track, bordering on the unfair and sometimes dangerous, have been omitted, showing the three-time world champion as a competitive but faultless, saintly person. Controversial incidents like the battle at Portugal in 1988 which started the decline in the relationship, and the restart at Imola the next year could have been included. But I feel the amount of screen time that will be taken up by contextualizing those events does not justify what it contributes to the average viewer’s perception of Senna as a whole, at the end. It is impossible to make a documentary suitable for both F1 fans and the mainstream audience alike, without forgoing some details of the subject.

And one could hardly make a documentary spanning Senna’s F1 career without mentioning his supernatural qualifying lap at Monaco in 1988 and the collisions with Prost at Suzuka. Although the former requires no background colouring, hearing Senna’s thoughts on that lap will give you goosebumps for sure. The movie also shows the crashes at Suzuka in a different light. Senna’s actions at the start of the 1990 Japanese GP seem almost justifiable, and it appears to be his way of giving Balestre and Prost the proverbial finger. Ruthless he may have been, but Senna always did what he believed was right, and was straightforward in word and deed. It is to the film’s credit that it manages to convey a great many things about the complex and beautiful character of Ayrton without actually putting it into words. Like Senna’s concern for the safety of other drivers and his desire to help underprivileged children in Brazil.

Another wonderful part of the movie is Senna’s first home win in 1991, in front of an adoring crowd at Interlagos, Brazil. He looked set for an easy win, but gearbox gremlins forced him to drive with just sixth gear working. In that ailing McLaren, he battled his opponents, battled against the elements and soldiered on towards the finish, with a roaring Sao Paulo crowd egging him on. Hearing his and the fans’ emotional response after he took the chequered flag put a lump in my throat. But with the man utterly drained and exhausted, he had to be lifted out of the car and he barely made it to the podium. And there, the way he struggled to lift the trophy, his agony when he failed the first time, and the sheer determination on that worn out face, to celebrate with and dedicate this win to his people by lifting it, and the heart-wrenching emotion on his face when he managed to do it – I couldn’t stop the tears at that point. Ayrton was more than a philanthropic sportsman – he was a national hero, an inspiration for millions and a single blinding star on a dark Brazilian skyline.

Those few minutes after the race ought to be preserved as an example of the immense joy humanity is capable of inspiring in itself. For the benefit of my friends in the Indian subcontinent, let me just say that it was pretty much like how we all felt when Mahendra Singh Dhoni sent the ball soaring into the stands to win the Cricket World Cup for India in style. In that glorious moment, the sport and it’s magnificent exponent transcended all boundaries to become one with it’s passionate fans. Every once in a while, sport blurs the line between competition and art – and Senna gave us those priceless moments so often, just like Gilles Villeneuve did before him. Watching the achingly gorgeous black-and-gold Lotus dancing in a straight line through the streets of Adelaide, the uncompetitive Toleman coming to life in the hands of a wet weather master at Monaco, you wont want it to stop.

But the movie goes on, and as the 1992 and 1993 championships flash by, you begin to dread the fact that it will invariably arrive at the black weekend at Imola in 1994. For it is much like watching ‘Titanic’ or ‘300’. You admire the talent, the courage, the audacity, the defiance, the commitment, the dedication, the determination of the protagonist, and yet you know how the story ends – and you really don’t want that devastating end to come. There’s no avoiding it, however, and the aerial view of the Tamburello corner signals the beginning of the end, so to speak.

Starting with Barrichello’s horrifying accident in practice, we then see the Simtek Ford of Roland Ratzenberger slamming into the wall through Villeneuve corner at 180 mph. Roland’s death should have led to the event being cancelled, but unfortunately it was not. No one was interested in racing that Sunday. Not a soul. Formula 1 one should have left Imola and denied that devil of a weekend a chance to claim more victims.

Thankfully, the film does not go into the details of Senna’s crash, instead preferring to conclude with the poignant scenes from his funeral. To see the one million people lining up on the streets, the tears and inconsolable grief on every face, the state funeral with three days of national mourning declared is quite an emotional sequence that you watch with a heavy heart. The final scene where Senna describes a cherished karting memory is also touching.

For me, the best thing about the film is the way it immortalizes Senna the man, rather than Senna the superstar racer. It shows all the facets of Senna’s character, the competitive nature on track, the tenderness in helping the underprivileged, the concern for safety of the drivers, as well as the emotional responses to F1’s politically rooted controversies. It shows a man who loved and lived for racing, who followed his heart and remained true to himself. Yes he had his faults, but he fought against them, as hard as he fought the politics in the sport, his fellow competitors and his ill handling Williams FW16. And I believe even if God had whispered in his ear about his impending accident, Senna would’ve taken that broken car around Imola to try and defy His will. And it is that defiance that defined Ayrton Senna as a human being. And a rather remarkable human being at that. ‘Senna’ is a fitting tribute to this fantastic man blessed with supreme skill and a beautiful soul. It is a great movie by itself, and in my opinion, by far the greatest film on motor racing ever made.

Senna – International Trailer


4 Responses to “Senna (2010)”

  1. Gaurab Sinha Says:

    I would rate the movie 4/5…I really liked the way they illustrated the story with the help of notable people’s voice over.
    Ron Dennis was adding very insightful thoughts through out movie in his own special ways and Alan Prost too with his candid messages!

    “For me, the best thing about the film is the way it immortalizes Senna the man, rather than Senna the superstar racer. ” TRUE, absolutely they could have showed many of his racing endeavors, but i think the movie was created to show Senna as a man rather than only a racing driver….

    I think Top Gear’s 10 minute tribute to Senna was also fantastic and a must watch!

    • I think those are the two reasons the movie has come out so well – the style of narration and the focus on Senna as a person. 🙂

      And yes, I’ve watched the Top Gear tribute, it was, as you said, fantastic. The best tributes in my opinion are those which don’t focus fully on his race wins and stats. 🙂

      Here’s a link to that video if anyone’s interested :

  2. Saiprasaad Ganapthy Says:

    Hats-off to sundar shankar. This was absolutely a brilliant job! I never would expect this type of work from you so far. I have heard a story about Senna for many times but most of the times from your mouth. It was give a vast introduction about Senna to me and i have slowly attracted to him. And started to learn about him through internet. I was wondered and surprised after seeing his profile and races which he has participated. Most of the times i could heard a Formula1 news from you.
    This work is completely hilarious! i have gone through your comments about the movie it simply tells the story neatly and the last sentences which could completely make me into deep crying.

    • Thanks a lot man. 🙂

      You know what, when I post stuff like this, lots of people tell me it’s a good article and all that, but when I see comments like yours that you really learnt something new, and it has kindled your interest to know more about this, I find it a lot more satisfying. 🙂

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