In Review: Senna (2011)

By Adam Vaughan


What I know about Formula 1 racing would fit on the back of a stamp. Seriously. For all I know a ‘pit stop’ is a chance for the drivers to jump out of their cars and do a dance with fans and feathers…although what common sense I have suggests that that probably isn’t the case. It’s a testament to the success of new F1 documentary Senna (2011) then, that I walked out of the screening feeling equally entertained, enthralled and educated (I now know what a ‘pit stop’ actually is).

The film chronicles the racing life of Brazilian driver, Ayrton Senna, through his meteoric rise to three F1 World Championships. The story delves into his love/hate relationship with the sport, and rival French colleague Alain Prost, that continued up until his tragic death on the track.

Senna was a man devout in his search for the quasi-religious ideal of ‘pure driving’ an ideal in which drivers would compete solely for the prestige of winning rather than for money. This philosophy is shown to be completely at odds with the wider Formula 1 industry where Senna’s often rebellious style of driving was punished by the racing powers-that-be.

The film, consisting of only stock footage and the occasional audio interview slavishly put together by director Asif Kapadia and his team, winds up as part conspiracy thriller, part Bond film. Senna’s rivalry with Prost develops dramatically on the racecourse through crashes, rule-breaks and tense interviews and Jean-Marie Balestre, the ‘big-wig’ of F1, might as well be stroking a white Persian cat as the film represents him as an almost insidious character locking horns with the passionate Brazilian driver.

The film depicts Senna as a sensation in his home country. In an extraordinary segment the audience see Senna break down from physical and emotional exhaustion after winning the Brazilian Grand Prix in spite of a gearbox malfunction. The fault had meant that he had to conclude his final laps in sixth gear, placing him under immense psychological strain. On the podium he struggles to lift the trophy but, as a symbol of his determined character, he tries again and, this time, succeeds.

From its opening sequence which features Senna racing go-karts this film builds an intriguing portrait of a captivatingly impassioned yet contradictory figure. The conclusion of Senna, in which director Asif Kapadia chooses to exclusively use stock footage, creates an excruciating feeling of inevitability that will strike a chord with even the most stringent of cynics.

Adam awarded Senna four Torches of Truth.

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