In 2010 a documentary on the life of Ayrton Senna was released titled Senna. It is fucking awesome.
CART was a type of formula racing and to me it was the only formula racing that existed because it is an American series and I am American and back then the Internet was not the world-shrinking device it is today. Of course there are many other formula series including the most globally well-known Formula One.
In the 2000s the world was shrunk by the internet and I discovered many things outside of my little country including the incredibly awesome British television series Top Gear. And it was during an episode of Top Gear that aired last year that I was properly introduced to the Forumla One legend that is Ayrton Senna.
At the end of the video Jeremy Clarkson mentions a new film about Senna was about to be released and the Top Gear video was more than enough to pique my interest. It has since been released on Blu-ray, although not in the U.S., but with a little effort you can find imports for sale through various popular online stores. I was able to get my hands on a copy and I watched the film.
The first thing that struck me about this film is the quality of footage. The producers had access to an incredible amount of film and tape, some of which had never before been broadcast. Furthermore they appear to have done some processing of the old footage to help clean it up and make it look much more crisp and clean. The end result is a film comprised of footage from the 1980s and 90s that looks amazing.
The second thing that struck me was how the life of Senna could not have been scripted; if it were a Hollywood film you would scoff at it’s impossibly cliched nature, and yet this truly was his life.
Senna started out in kart racing at the age of 13 and 10 years later found himself in Formula One. In his rookie year of Formula One two things were immediately obvious; the car he was given underperformed atrociously and Senna had massive talent which was especially obvious when it started raining. It was during the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix that Senna’s abilities were put on show. It was raining and the track was very slick and most drivers were relatively slow due to the unstable nature of the cars on such a slick track. It was Senna who, in his underperforming car, would post the fastest lap of the race. The more it rained, the closer Senna got to the leader. By lap 29, when it was very obvious that Senna would eventually catch the leader, said leader (four-time world champion Alain Prost) began to signal to the race stewards that he felt the course was too slick to continue the race. By lap 32 the race was stopped and Prost was declared the winner; Senna came in second. After the race there were insinuations that the Prost had been shown favoritism by the then president of the FIA (and good friend of Prost) Jean-Marie Balestre who stopped the race so that Prost would not lose to a rookie driver.
The scene at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix would be a template for much of the racing-related drama in Senna’s life. Prost and Senna would eventually drive for the same time, but the tension between the two would grow to the point that Prost would have it written into his contract that he would drive for a team only if they promised to not hire Senna. Senna and Balestre would also butt heads several times and Senna would see a 6 month suspension, a $100,000 fine, and a world championship taken away and given to Prost because of a Balestre ruling made after a race Senna had won in spectacular fashion. One year later on the same track Senna and Prost got into an accident on the first corner of the first lap of the race. Because of the accident Prost was unable to finish the race which secured Senna the world championship for that season.
In 1993 Senna watched as technology overcame driver ability and another team, Williams F1, with drastic technological advancements over the other F1 teams, would dominate the season. Senna wanted the faster car (despite coming in second in points that season) and would leave his team for Williams in 1994. It was with sad irony that between the 1993 and 1994 seasons FIA ruled that the technologies that made the Williams car faster would be banned from the upcoming season. Without things like traction control and active suspension the Williams car was difficult to drive and Senna became increasingly frustrated with the car’s performance.
In the third race of the 1994 season Senna crashed and was killed. The cause of the crash is not exactly understood, although it is widely believed that there was a mechanical failure in the car (most likely the steering column broke) rendering the car uncontrollable. The impact of the crash caused a wheel and a piece of suspension to hit Senna in the head, probably killing him instantly.
The film isn’t just a retelling of Senna’s racing achievements, it’s about who he was as a person and what he meant to his home country of Brazil. He was the heart of a nation that was undergoing a lot of change and suffering from poverty and corruption. Many saw Senna as the only joy in the Brazilian life. A joy that perhaps climaxed with his win at the 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Senna was also a devout Christian and would often talk about his connection to God with racing. Other drivers, most notably Prost, would express concern at this believing Senna was a serious danger on the track because he believed God would protect him and so was willing to drive recklessly.
Only after his death was it made public that Senna, throughout his career, had secretly donated millions of dollars to aid the poverty-stricken children of his home country. His sister went on to form an organization, the Ayrton Senna Institute, to continue Senna’s wish to help the children of Brazil. Prost is an active member of the institution.
In the 1990s I got into NASCAR and my favorite driver was Dale Earnhardt. And I was watching with millions of others when he had his fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. I stopped watching NASCAR shortly after and only within the last year have I started to watch it again. It was such a gut-wrenching event. I didn’t follow Formula One when Ayrton Senna was driving, but I can get a feel for what his loss must have felt like for his fans.
Having watched this film I wish I had been following Formula One when Senna was driving.
Yes. Very much so.
I think it’s a movie that is very accessible even to those who are not racing fans. It’s not just about racing, but about all aspects of Senna’s life. It follows his Hollywood-story with Senna as the great hero who is able to overcome all obstacles; it introduces Prost as the antagonist; there is tension and hardships and victory. By the end of the film Prost is redeemed and although we are sad Senna is gone we are happy to have had him for the time he was on this Earth. I even think this movie achieves something that is not always easy to do: explain with example what made Senna a damn good driver.