Senna (2010) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

Senna (2010) Directed by Asif Kapadia. With Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Frank Williams.

Before seeing this documentary, my knowledge of and interest in Formula One racing were pretty much on an even keel, borderline non-existent. For anyone wondering if you need to have a love or history of understanding of the sport in order to get full value out of Senna, then the answer is no.

This is a story of a human being with such enthusiasm and passion for the thing that he did, that success on the racetrack was the difference between personal happiness and life failure, and it’s a story that accessible to anyone and everyone. Film-maker Asif Kapadia lovingly traces the Senna story back to his days as a go-kart racer in his native Brazil through to his years of struggle against the politics and backstage goings-on that both frustrated and willed him on, to the eventual tragedy that befell him and brought an untimely end to his life and career.

Often in this glimpse into the significant events of his life, Senna appears to be a man battling with himself while trying and  seemingly failing to achieve personal satisfaction. His increasing rivalry with French driver Alain Prost is fascinating and showcases the personal pressures that loom large over anyone fighting to be and stay the best at what they do. Prost is suspiciously painted as the villain of the piece as the two men, who are initially team-mates, eventually become bitter enemies in their respective quests for domination of the track. What seems evident is that Prost was not as talented a driver as Senna and although had buckets of charisma of his own, was more integrated into the politics of Formula One. Given the film-makers clear love for Senna, it’s hard to take the angle on Prost at full face value although i defer to anyone with better knowledge or experience of the times.

What this documentary doesn’t try to do is to delve very far into the personal life of Senna to try and reveal more about the man. We see small snippets of family home video and fleetingly glimpse him with a significant woman in his world, but these are mere backstage glances while the main focus remains firmly fixed on his life in the car. What’s particularly pleasing about the film is the way in which Kapadia captures the fandom and love that exists for Ayrton Senna in Brazil where his inspiration was felt far and wide. A country with huge social and economic problems, Senna was a beacon of light and an individual cause of national hope and pride. Very much like ‘When We Were Kings’ did for Muhammed Ali, ‘Senna’ successfully creates a portrait of a great man fighting to stay great, and all the while at the back of your mind, you know the story won’t end well. Fascinating and hugely emotional in equal share. 5/5

About garethrhodes

Full-time lover of all things creative.
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1 Response to Senna (2010) Film Review by Gareth Rhodes

  1. Jojo says:

    I would agree that this is a truly great sports film, if it were a work of fiction. And partly it is, which makes me a bit ambivalent about it. As you already suggested yourself, Senna and Prost’s rivalry was a bit more complex IRL. I don’t see either one of them as a hero or a villain. They could both play dirty if need be, and Senna was not above pulling strings behind the scenes to gain advantage himself. When Prost has talked about the preferential treatment Senna got from the engine supplier (Honda) when they were teammates, I truly believe it’s the truth. The gap in qualification lap times with Prost was sometimes utterly ridiculous, even if we take into account that Senna was probably the fastest man ever over one lap.

    Most professional race drivers and fans rank Senna as the greatest driver of all time, but there were things Prost was better at. While Senna was (and is) the undisputed king of qualifying and wet weather racing and often seemed to outperform his car, Prost (nicknamed the professor) had better racecraft, and it is a form of talent as well. As the old motor-racing saying goes, “to finish first, first you have to finish.” It is not just an unlucky coincidence that Senna had more DNFs than Prost. Things like nursing the tyres to the finish line and not needlessly pushing the notoriously unreliable engines of the 80’s over the edge are part of the game, too.

    Also, Senna was widely seen as a bit dirty and reckless driver by his competitors. When he said that “if you don’t go for a gap that exists, you’re no longer a racing driver”, it was something that he hated anyone else try to do on him. Pushing someone deliberately off the track if they tried to overtake him was not really a problem for him. While many fans admired how relentlessly driven he was to win, Prost was not the only other driver who saw him as irresponsible and dangerous in a sport where you drive “a coffin on wheels filled with high-octane fuel at 170 mile per hour”, to paraphrase James Hunt’s line in Rush, another F1-themed movie. Out of the other champions he drove against, I can remember at least Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell talking about it, too. Essentially he bullied himself into a position over his career, where most drivers would give him a bit of extra room they would not against any other driver, because his sense of entitlement and recklessness made it a bit of an extra risk trying to overtake him or defend a position against him.

    Lastly, I think Senna’s tirade against Prost’s supposed cowardice, because he vetoed he would not have Senna as a teammate at Williams was hypocritical. Senna was at least as much guilty for their falling out as Prost, and I find it perfectly understandable that Prost did not want to work with Senna ever again. And in 1993, Senna himself was trying to influence Ron Dennis to keep Michael Andretti as his McLaren teammate instead of their test driver Mika Häkkinen, who would later win two championships with McLaren. Andretti had had a difficult transition from CART to Formula 1, Häkkinen was fast in tests and when he finally got a race seat he managed to outqualify Senna in his first race of the season to pretty much everybody’s utter surprise. Häkkinen was quite close to Senna in qualifying speed for the rest of season, although in the only race they both finished the gap was larger in the actual race. Now, I don’t think Senna was scared of Häkkinen in the sense that Häkkinen would actually be a faster driver than him, he just wanted as little competition as possible in competitive cars, even if it was against his employer’s best interests.

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