ITV4: Thursday 1st May, 10.30pm
“Ayrton has a problem: he thinks he can’t kill himself, because he believes in God and things like this.”
So said Alain Prost; it was possibly the only moment in ‘Senna’ in which the four times Formula 1 Champion was credited as calling things right. Tragically so.
That’s not to be taken as a criticism of those responsible for this documentary, they are clearly very much besotted with their subject, and as you follow the unfolding career of Ayrton Senna, it’s easy to see why.
We begin as Senna effortlessly makes the transition from karting to Formula 1, in only his sixth race for the relatively new and comparatively tiny Toleman team, the world is forced to sit up and take notice as he races in the from 13th to 2nd place in the space of 19 laps at a rain lashed Monaco; approaching the halfway mark, he’s closing in on Alain Prost at the rate of 4 seconds per lap – only a red flag and an early abandonment cost him an almost certain victory.
A move to Lotus in 1985 and a maiden pole in Estoril leads to a first victory – he wins by over a minute, in doing so, lapping all but one of his competitors. Here we had a truly remarkable driver in the making, and his move to the mighty McLaren team in 1988 was to confirm it. At the first time of asking, he delivered a world title, recovering from 16th after stalling on the grid at the final race at Suzuka to pip team mate Alain Prost to the prize.
That year marked the beginnings of the explosive Senna-Prost relationship, one that intensified with each passing season and it this that drives the documentary through its second act. A ferociously competitive spectacle, built on an unspoken respect – and also undoubtedly in Prost’s case, fear – that often manifest itself in suspicion and even on the part of Prost, explicit hatred, in doing so making for one of the most compelling of all sporting rivalries. The reoccurring theme of climatic final days in Japan, conjuring the sort of drama even our greatest storytellers would struggle to dream up.
While events in the pit lane and on the track define Senna as a global sporting icon, the film is forever keen to emphasise the adoring relationship between man and homeland, a bond never more clear than in 1991 when the opportunity of victory at Interlagos presents itself. With Senna cruising to victory he suffers a gearbox failure and is faced with completing the final dozen laps stuck in sixth gear, the experts deem it an impossible situation, yet remarkably he confounds them all to win for the first time in front of his countrymen. It’s only once he’s over the line that he succumbs to the extraordinary physical strain of his feat, passing out in the cockpit during his celebration lap. The toll on his shoulders is such that struggle to lift the trophy is clearly excruciating, but as throughout his career, he refuses to be beaten. If any race defined the driver, it was that.
But while Interlagos provides the film with it’s emotional highpoint, ultimately, the story is one of tragedy and that sense of foreboding permeates throughout. At the very start, Senna’s parents reveal their fears that his karting career will inevitably lead to Formula 1 and all its dangers, while in interviews their son speaks openly on the subject of mortality. Ayrton is also the most vociferous of all in the drivers meetings when safety measures are discussed. By the time the weekend of the fateful San Marino Grand Prix weekend is reached, the mood created is almost unbearable.
To the film makers credit, they don’t shy away from relaying the events and circumstances around them. It’s the third race of a very trying start to the season with his new team and Senna goes into the weekend with serious reservations about the handling of his car. On the Friday, his fellow countryman and protege, Ruebens Barrichello is involved in an horrific crash but emerges unscathed. Senna’s relief can hardly mask his tortured thought processes. Come Saturday, we’re shown footage of Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger, lightheartedly discussing the challenging nature of his qualifying session – moments later, we’re offered a crowd’s eye perspective of his fatal crash, as the devastation unfolds, suddenly the footage switches to film of Senna reacting to the accident, he looks on horrified, visibly wincing and turning away. Next thing, he’s seen speaking with his long time doctor who, sensing his mood, suggests Senna might just choose this moment to walk away from the sport, just pack and go fishing with him. Senna replies that he’s not made that way…the tragedy of the exchange lives on long afterwards.
Come race day and as the sickening collision approaches, the director confronts us with a view from the cockpit, keeping the footage locked for what seems like an eternity, only switching to a more conventional TV angle at the point of impact. The power of the moment, as we look on, already aware of Senna’s fate is devastating, the reaction of Prost in the commentary box, the bitterest of foes, reduced to a shattered, frozen state of shock, immediately brings home the gravity of the situation. The limp body, slumped over the chassis, almost impossible to look at.
Although inevitably haunted by its tragic finale, Senna remains, above anything, a documentary about the joy of racing, the thrill of competition and the purity that underlay one of the greatest sporting rivalries of our times. For all the sniping, the back biting and the dirty tricks, the tragic loss of Senna is never more evocatively captured than in that shot of Prost’s face. Days later, the Frenchman was to be amongst the coffin bearers at the funeral and in the years that followed, he was to become a trustee of his great rival’s charitable foundation. Proof positive, that regardless of all acts and deeds carried out in the name of battle, Prost never lost sight of how formidably talented an opponent he faced.
A piece that unashamedly venerates its subject and succeeds quite brilliantly; as a documentary, Senna is amongst the greatest in the field, viewed as a sporting biopic, it is without equal.
Showing on the day that marks the 20th anniversary of his passing, there is no greater tribute to be found.