“He could dance a dance with that car”
Let me preface this review by acknowledging the fact I have no love for the sport of racing. I realize the amount of physical duress and athleticism it takes to do what these men and women do at insane speeds, but I can never bring myself to watch their cars drive along the same pathway for hours on end. Like baseball, the duration of time spent watching a monotonous display of activity over and over again can never be forgotten by one great play. I don’t care if the home-run was a miraculous event that somehow cured cancer—ten straight minutes of waiting while a pitcher tries to both will his opponent on first to sprint and the one in the batter’s box to choke is a lifetime I’ll never retrieve.
So, the simple fact I would attempt to watch a documentary with Formula One racing as its subject’s environment could be deemed a large miscalculation. However, when the film pinpoints its motivations to tell the tale of one of the greatest legends from not only racing but also sports itself, how could I not be interested? Ayrton Senna was quite possibly the greatest athlete his trade has ever seen and through all his success never appeared to be anything but focused on winning. Through director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey‘s Senna, we experience the whirlwind decade-long career of a master driver cut down in his prime to serve as the final cautionary tale before overhauling the sport’s safety regulations into what they are today. No one has died on the F-1 track since Ayrton’s tragic day.
Senna is portrayed as a man everyone would love to be friends with. Exuberant, dedicated, and full of love, this young Brazilian left his country to arrive in Europe with God in his heart and dreams of brilliance within reach, it didn’t take long for the rookie to make a splash by finishing second at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix in only his sixth Formula One race ever. Signed to a losing team without the capabilities to serve his drive and desire with the technology necessary to allow him victory, this result was all the more stunning considering a snafu at the checkered flag almost gave him a place at the podium’s apex. And after Toleman he’d race with Lotus in 1985 to win his first Grand Prix in Portugal, beginning his three-year stint as the circuit’s top dog.
We learn through a wealth of interviews—past and present—as well as home movies that Ayrton not only lived a privileged life financially, but also emotionally. His parents were supportive in his want to race and they appear to have been at every single championship lap of his career. Forever smiling and basking in the heroic status his homeland held him to, Senna remained vigilant to work harder, improve, and equal the biggest name in racing at the time, Alain Prost. Theirs would be a heated rivalry evolving from teammates at McLaren into archrivals who would stop at nothing to be victorious. We witness the media’s blitzkrieg of the war and learn to take the harsh words from each with a grain of salt in the heat of battle. Yes, Kapadia is never afraid to show Prost’s underhanded maneuverings for a win, but he also doesn’t forget the compassion and comradery the two maintained at the end.
The film delves into details concerning the political aspects of the sport and one could argue it depicts those attributes searching for equality just as much as it displays its namesake racer. Through his ten-year journey we’re allowed behind the scenes into drivers’ meetings and closed door votes in order to understand Senna’s desire to dissolve the obvious ‘Old Boy’s Club’ mentalities running rampant out of the public eye. The most prolific racer of his generation, he could have been even better if not for the well-documented bumps costing him accolades everyone besides F-1’s French President agreed he deserved. But with a very spiritual core and an optimistic outlook on life, Ayrton never found himself on the mat long. He forever rose to new challenges and made sure the technicalities would never strip him of what was rightfully his again.
Shown chronologically from ’84 to ’94, Senna becomes a greatest hits collection of a career chock full of worthy moments. From his amazing comeback victory to claim World Champion in 1988, the despair of watching an ’89 victory slip away in a bureaucratic mess, to his return on top in both ’90 and ’91, this inspirational young man captivated nations. Whether a missed chicane cost him six months of his career, new balancing technology cheapened victory as money became more powerful than skill, or a pole position line change all but proved favoritism towards Prost, Senna was steadfast in progressing, being charitable, and surviving the limelight with a gratitude few in his position ever seem capable of possessing.
We hear his screams for joy after wins and see his tears when witnessing fallen comrades carted to the hospital after horrific crashes. He never gave up from fear nor slowed down when detractors questioned that his religion caused recklessness on the track by cultivating a complex of immortality. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of God-like power when watching the in-car camera zip through curves as though we’re in Ayrton’s seat letting the speed take us flying before instances like his shoulder pain after finishing a race stuck in sixth gear makes us realize we could never fill his shoes. There’s amazing insight from doctor Sid Watkins about his state of mind and sister Neide never stops sharing examples of his humility.
But to watch it all end on a freak accident most—likely caused by automobile failure courtesy of the sport’s loose grip on rules and regulations—is tough to accept. Kapadia cuts together memories of happier times with the funeral footage and we too remember what was and what could have been. Perhaps it was luck that had run out or maybe God had finally decided to reward him with the greatest gift he could give, no one knows. Above all the questions, though, lay the facts that Ayrton Senna was a giant of a man who brought joy to Brazil, excitement to the sporting world, and a sense of pride we should all aspire towards.