“Live fast and die young” as the saying goes. Arguably the life of Ayrton Senna is summed up both perfectly yet tragically by this apparent ideal of those who wish to remain ‘immortal’ (which in itself is dreadfully ironic). Senna’s career as a racing driver was cut short during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, where his car left the track on his seventh lap with devastating consequences. Senna charts the politics, egos and media frenzy that surrounded the sport (and still largely do) during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when intensely fierce rivalries were not only confined between teams, but also team-mates.
The documentary begins with the dawning of Senna’s career in the go-kart competitions of his native Brazil. His parents are shown to be financially comfortable enough to be able to afford for him to enter Formula Three and subsequently Formula One, where he tested cars for British-based Williams, McLaren, Toleman and Brabham teams. He makes his debut with Toleman during the 1984 season, before moving onto Lotus. Having built up a reputation for having a great deal of potential due to his intelligent and daring racing style, Senna is signed up by McLaren who, with the approval of then-double world champion and number one driver Alain Prost, is installed as the team’s number two and so starts the most tempestuous and successful part of his career.
Ayrton Senna’s arrival at McLaren hailed a period of almost complete domination of motor racing. However, this also meant that Senna and Prost were now vying for the World Championship as team-mates and rivals, consequently having a number of run-ins on the track which led to relations between the two to become increasingly fractious. Senna’s fame, especially back home, became stratospheric and he had the pressure of an entire nation willing him to overcome his ‘nemesis’ Prost and be the best driver in the world. Various incidents cause Senna and Prost to gradually fall out, such as Monaco in 1988 and in the same year in Portugal. The following year Prost won the championship in controversial circumstances after colliding with Senna during the deciding race of the season at Suzuka in Japan. Senna eventually becomes the triple-champion before leaving for Williams, in whose car he would suffer a fatal crash in 1994.
Senna goes against the grain of the standard documentary formula. We expect footage and voiceovers but more often than not, talking heads interrupt the story and they tend to ruin the momentum of the fascinating world which is being portrayed. Here there are absolutely no cuts to anyone – this works extremely well, as the footage makes up the entire running time and therefore the immersion in the story is total. Such a vast amount of archive material has been assembled, that it is a racing fan’s dream, with not only just Ayrton Senna being featured, but also some of the greats, including Alain Prost. Everything is placed together chronologically, but there is never a dull moment as this incredibly gripping documentary details the various aspects of Senna’s rise to fame. Also featured are the troubles he encountered with not only the politics of the-then governing body Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) and its president Jean-Marie Balestre who is shows a similar managerial style to FIFAs Sepp Blatter, but also the pit lane pain suffered with his McLaren team-mate Prost.
If there’s one major criticism you would level at director Kapadia, it would be that the story is very much one-sided, placing Ayrton Senna upon some kind of Messiah-like pedestal. Despite the fact that Senna’s ego slips out on a couple of occasions, showing him to be a petulant child when pushed too far (much like his fellow drivers then and now), there is a recurring theme that Senna believes he is somehow anointed by God and has a destiny to win the World Championship – something that grates after a while. Senna himself plays down this suggestion later on, but there is still a sense that the film is essentially geared towards his exultation. The depiction of Alain Prost as some kind of pantomime villain is also difficult to take – we don’t even get a glimpse of the pressures facing Prost as the expectation on his shoulders had catapulted him into a similar stratosphere that Senna experienced later. Prost himself denounced Senna for this portrayal, saying that it did not address the fact that he and his great rival actually reconciled with one another and became firm friends in the last year or so of Senna’s life. An end credit note does say that Prost is a trustee of the Ayrton Senna Foundation, which begs the question why Kapadia has left this gaping fact out completely.
Senna has been said to be the kind of film that you don’t need any prior interest in the subject matter to enjoy it – this is inaccurate, as much of the archive footage goes very deep into the world of Formula One for much of its running time. Most likely those with even a passing interest in the sport from the most common participating countries such as Brazil, Great Britain, France and Spain will find this a rewarding experience and a largely inspiring look at a short life of a remarkable, ambitious man, filled with success but ultimate tragedy.