No Formula One racing driver has died while pursuing this knife-edge sport since 1994. That’s a laudable testament to the commitment to safety that has enveloped F1 since May 1 of that fateful year, when the Tamburello curve at the San Marino Grand Prix claimed the life of 34-year-old Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna.
But Senna’s legacy and impact go far beyond F1’s ensuing safety record, as evidenced by Asif Kapadia’s award-winning documentary “Senna,” which has nabbed top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival and is in select theaters across the country.
What is striking about “Senna” is that it plays more like a scripted drama than a traditional doc, thanks largely to a key decision by Kapadia. Those few people who add narration to the film -- including Senna’s sister Vivane and rival-turned-friend Alain Prost -- never appear on camera. That means the film’s true narrator is Senna himself, an intense presence who appears on screen constantly in a series of archival clips that, in many cases, have never been seen before thanks to years of negotiations with Senna’s family and F1 brass. And those scenes include one real shocker: Senna’s in-car camera on his fatal lap.
“We found instantly that this really played as a three-act movie, with Senna’s rise to fame, his Ali-Frazier-like duels with Prost, and finally his untimely death,” said Kapadia from his London home. “We wanted him to tell his own story.”
Kapadia, a sports fan who didn’t consider himself an F1 aficionado, says what appeals about Senna the man was his fierce dedication to winning as a means to reach a higher level of consciousness.
“Senna talked a lot about God, so much so that he stopped doing so with the English-language press because people would make fun of him, but the Brazilians understood,” Kapadia said. “We show that faith really was a big part of him, that for him racing was a journey to perfection. He wasn’t really racing against other drivers, he was racing to both find the limit of what the vehicle could do and to achieve an almost out-of-body experience that got him closer to God.”
He added that behind-the-scenes research revealed that most of today’s F1 drivers -- the legendary Ferrari star Michael Schumacher included -- consider Senna (who was a three-time world champion) tops of the modern racing era, setting the bar high for those who followed.
“It wasn’t just the amazing way he drove, especially in the rain, that makes him the best for so many, but it was the way he changed the sport,” Kapadia said. “With Ayrton, the sport became very lucrative for teams and drivers. Senna seemed to start the trend of drivers coming up through kart racing. And it’s because of Ayrton that drivers became focused intensely on fitness, something Schumacher became known for later.”
Does the director have a favorite part of “Senna”?
“No question, it’s the footage of him winning the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991, in front of his home fans,” he said. “Any time I see it, I get emotional. It’s moments like that, caught on film, that I hope make this so much more than a racing movie.”
Other scenes contributing to that feel include tense drivers’ meetings -- images filmed, owned and rarely released by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone -- in which Senna argues passionately for track safety measures, and home movies of Senna romping at the beach.
As for the film’s standout-if-sobering clip -- the camera footage from Senna’s Williams-Renault machine -- Kapadia feels that it only confirms what many racing insiders and fans have long concluded: that Senna’s death wasn’t due to driver error but some sort of mechanical failure that led to a suspension part piercing his helmet.
“That clip was very hard for his family to watch. But I think it shows a man who is not struggling with the car, but rather someone who is flying almost effortlessly,” he said. “The irony is that in many ways, it was the perfect Senna lap.”
- Ayrton Senna