It’s easy to run out of superlatives when conjuring up praise for ‘Senna’. Director Asif Kapadia’s dramatic documentary about the life – and ultimately death- of one of the greatest racing icons the world has ever seen has been reviewed many times over by the world press. The consensus is universal acclaim: A fitting tribute to a great driver and, at heart, a great man. Seventeen years have passed since Ayrton Senna met his fate at Imola on 1 May, 1994. Yet the void left by his death continues to resonate, and from the diverse demographic who came to see the film, his reach remains transcendent. Echoing the words of fellow driver Niki Lauda, Senna was the greatest driver who ever lived.
It would seem a tall order then, to attempt to summarize Senna’s meteoric life into a mere 108 minutes of film. But somehow under Kapadia’s stewardship, along with writer and fervent Senna devotee Manish Pandey, managed to achieve the impossible. With blessings from the Senna family estate and Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, the duo was granted complete access to archives that had, until now, remained unseen by the public.
What resulted was a masterpiece that takes the audience on a journey from Senna’s humble beginnings in karting to his ascendency into the pinnacle of motorsport. Race footage along with press interviews were seamlessly spliced together to portray the feral intensity of a racing driver possessed by an unrelenting thirst for winning.
While the racing faithful are rewarded with stirring highlights of Senna’s greatest drives throughout his career, the storytelling refrains from becoming overly technical that it neglects the casual filmgoer. Moments of pure awe came when reliving Senna’s maiden podium finish under a torrential Monaco in 1984 cementing his reputation as a rain master, to his first win on home soil at the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, his body spasms so ferocious by race’s end that it took an effort worthy of divinity to lift up the winning trophy.
Kapadia made a point to juxtapose Senna’s driving prowess with an impassioned, even vulnerable facet of a mere mortal relishing in the simple company of family and friends. Proud of his Brazilian heritage, Senna was also a trailblazer in that he never hid his roots. His trademark yellow helmet was painted in the colours of the Bandeira, the national flag of Brazil. Senna’s success galvanized a whole new generation back home, where people saw him as a beacon of hope for a better future amidst a landscape of political and social turmoil.
Senna’s tribulations in Formula One took center stage for the latter part of the film. The story found its adversary in Frenchman and fellow McLaren teammate Alain Prost. What started out as the perfect pairing quickly turned distrustful and toxic, fuelled by a blind desire to humiliate one another both on and off the racetrack. Then-FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre wielded the organization to his own benefit and sided with Prost as his favourite racing son. His prejudice came at the expense of maligning Senna, the two often coming to verbal blows during driver meetings. Senna found himself in unfamiliar territory dealing with the political hubris that overshadowed his purpose as a racing driver.
The psychological warfare intensified up until the fateful weekend at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, with those closest to him in the paddock recounting the ominous signs. The race inevitably went ahead, Senna putting on one final dazzling display before succumbing to his fate. The on-board camera abruptly cuts away from the final moments, and Senna’s life was no more. While denial held out hope for the best, the enormity of his death didn’t hit home until the funeral. Senna’s sister Viviane stood in front of the mahogany coffin, weeping silently and clutching onto the familiar yellow helmet as mourners came in the thousands to pay their last respects. As the end credits rolled on, the only sensation left was that of raw emotion. The only sound heard was that of a thumping heartbeat, and the only movement felt was that of streaming tears.
The poignant moment in the film came during one of Senna’s many interviews, when he reminisced on the simple, carefree days of his youth starting out in go-karts, when all he wanted was to realize his dreams of becoming a racing driver. He succeeded in becoming so much more.
‘Senna’ will be released nationwide in Canada on 13 August. Go and see it.