The Senna Film: Story of a Modern Tragedy
Ayrton Senna was one of the most charismatic drivers ever to race in Formula 1, or world auto racing in general. He was also the last driver to die in a Formula 1 race, at the San Marino Grand Prix, at Imola, Italy, on 1 May 1994. It has taken until 2010 for a film to be made of his life, but the resulting documentary is one of the great racing films of all time.
Directed by Asif Kapadia, the film, simply entitled, "Senna," is made almost entirely from archive footage, with a few voice overs from journalists and family members. In using original footage of the driver from television interviews and racing images, Kapadia has woven together a dramatically tight and visually poignant story. And while to the Senna fans and Formula 1 fans that lived through, or know the story by heart, it may at first seem strange that the film has reached a much wider audience than racing fans alone, the reason for such success on deeper analysis soon becomes evident.
This is because the Senna story is one of a charismatic, good-looking, soft-spoken man who lived his beliefs and values to the very limit. So much so that he died by them. On the black weekend on which he died in the fatal crash during the race, the previous day one of his fellow drivers, Roland Ratzenberger, had died in another accident. Senna's friend, Dr. Sid Watkins, the F1 doctor, suggested to Senna that the two of them quit racing together. Senna responded that he could not do that. Despite being emotionally destroyed by the death of his fellow driver, Senna was ready to die for his values and his love for racing.
The Prost Factor
The film is also dramatic because of how it makes use of the battle between Senna and that other titan of racing of the time, Alain Prost, the French driver who would become Senna's teammate at McLaren. The two won all but one race of the 1988 season. But their battle for supremacy became vicious not only on track, but in their off-track verbal warfare.
Prost, nicknamed "The Professor," was all about a cerebral approach to racing and life, whereas Senna was the spiritual, instinctual, gut-reaction man. The clashes were evidently going to be hot. But while the story of the competition between the two gives the film much of its dramatic conflict, the film also finds one of its weak points in the portrayal of this relationship. Senna is lifted to a pedestal, and just about everything he did in his life is justified by the film. Prost is portrayed as a weak, moral inferior.
I will never forget when Jacques Villeneuve, the son of Gilles Villeneuve who also died in a racing accident, was interviewed at the height of his racing career in Formula 1 on French television. The interviewer asked Villeneuve who his favorite recent driver was. When Villeneuve responded that it was Prost, the interviewer was surprised and said, "Not Senna?!?" Villeneuve explained in French: "I like that Prost won all those races and titles and he is still alive today."
Indeed, the Senna film and the story of Senna's life, is actually a classic tragedy of ancient dramatic proportions. But that is also why the film touches us.