Every sport has its share of winners. Athletes and teams who outshine the competition, beat the field and come out on top at the end of grueling events, championships and seasons. In this multitude of achievers, two distinctive categories stand out. The first is a set of champions who redefine the boundaries of achievement in their sport and leave behind landmarks that history would laud them for and progeny would aspire to break – Sachin Tendulkar as the individual and Manchester United as a team are the foremost examples of these attributes. The second set comprises individuals whose footprint is borne out less by the tangible records that they leave behind and more by the impact that they have on their sport. These are men and women who by the sheer weight of personality, skill and unbridled talent become the face of their sport, expanding its influence beyond boundaries hitherto unknown and in an almost evangelical capacity convert many standing on the fringes into passionate faithfuls.
On a recent transcontinental flight, I happened to watch director Asif Kapadia’s award winning and richly textured documentary/ movie on Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula 1 (F1) driver who won three world titles, took the F1 world by storm and died tragically in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy in 1994. Part produced by ESPN and distributed by the big banners of Universal Pictures and Walt Disney and titled simply ‘Senna’, the documentary tracks the path of Senna’s F1 career between 1984, when he first raced for a lowly team called Toleman till his death a decade later while racing for Williams-Renault. Sports movies are not rare, with Hollywood routinely churning out human interest, rag to riches, back from the brink dramas of many historical individuals and teams. Kapadia’s effort though is less a movie and more a biography of Senna and that ambition can be tricky to achieve as the filmmaker sets out to map both the achievements of his protagonist and the reasons for his success while trying to make his final product appeal to an audience broader than simply fans and followers of the sport or his subject.
Senna the movie is huge compilation of archival footage that would surprise even the devoted F1 fans. Videos from the races, press interviews and conferences have been sourced but it is the behind the scenes and perhaps never before publically seen footage of driver meetings before a race, conversations between Senna and his mechanics in the paddock and home videos of the Senna family that provide an element of novelty to this effort. Combined with voice over commentary in parts (without an over arching narrator) by leading journalists of the time covering the sport, the documentary is a technical masterpiece rich with information and transports the viewer right into the world of F1 of the 1980s and 90s and lays bare all the intricacies, rivalries, jealousies and competitive passions that drove the sport. The fact that ‘Senna’ the movie won the Best Documentary feature award at four premier film festivals recently (Sundance, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Adelaide) is a clear testimony of how well researched and focused this look into Senna’s life has been.
The heart and soul of this movie is Ayrton Senna – Senna the youngest triple world champion (1988, 1990 and 1991), Senna who won 41 Grand Prixs and attained 65 pole positions in his decade long career (only Michael Schumacher with 68 pole positions over a career of two decades has a better record) and Senna the driver who through his charisma and personality created a legion of fans across the world that still swear by his name today.
Where the documentary succeeds most brilliantly is extracting Senna away from his fast car and the pit lanes of the F1 circuit and baring his persona in front of audiences that results in a strange sense of familiarity with him by the end of the viewing time. This is the most significant achievement of this feature for it is impossible to understand and appreciate Senna the racing car driver and champion without understanding and appreciating Senna the man.
Coming from a well off upper middle class family of Brazil, a country possessing income equalities not too dissimilar to those that we witness routinely in India, Senna rose through the ranks of Karting, Formula Ford and Formula 3 championships before making his way to top grade racing. At once, Senna came to symbolize the flair and glamour associated with the fastest sport in the world while simultaneously maintaining a sense of freshness distinct from the politics that riled F1 in the 1980s. In a wonderfully poignant video clip towards the end of the documentary, Senna is queried by a reporter as to which race and against which driver has he enjoyed competing the most. In an unexpected answer, Senna goes back to his Karting World Championship days of the late 1970s and talks about how, while F1 is about politics and aligning oneself with the right people, his karting races were ‘pure driving’. ‘Pure’ is a sentiment that can be associated with Ayrton Senna’s personality without any danger of it failing to meet the weight that the word commands. Senna the man comes across as intensely passionate and driven, fiercely competitive and yet sensitive and hugely aware of the limits of his speed and perhaps even the transience of his fame and life.
Senna the driver was closely fused with his car. Ron Dennis, the man who headed McLaren while Senna raced and won his three world titles for the team, describes how he was attracted by the ‘intellect’ of Senna. Senna was fast, drove harder than many others and pushed the boundaries of his car, a fact borne out by the high number of pole positions he attained through his career. Two things stand out about Senna through the documentary – his intense desire to always perform his best and win and his keenness to understand his machines that drove him to success.
In contrast to Alain Prost, with whom Senna shared a tumultuous rivalry through the late 1980s (brilliantly highlighted through the awkward and fake congeniality during one their interviews shown in the documentary), Senna always raced to win. Prost was the ‘Professor’, calculating and realistic. If he needed to hold the 5th spot through the race to advance his title chances, he would do so with the utmost efficiency. Senna by contrast talks about wanting to win because that is what drives his passion for racing. Senna’s competitiveness often rubbed his peers the wrong way but nothing captures the tenacity of his spirit than the multitude of his victories recorded in the midst of heavy rain falling on the racetracks, conditions under which few F1 races would be allowed in this day. The documentary movingly captures Senna’s most celebrated triumph, the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix. Patriotic, acutely aware of his nation’s difficulties and winless in Brazil till then, in 1991 Senna wanted desperately to win his home Grand Prix. In wet conditions, he led from the start and with the last few laps remaining, willed himself and his car towards the finish line with a broken gearbox, driving in 6th gear all across the circuit. An emotionally and physically exhausted Senna had to be extracted from his car and driven to the podium in a medical van. His tears and his celebrations reflect what the victory meant to him and to his native Brazil.
At the peak of his powers, 34 years of age with many victories still ahead of him, Senna died when his Williams-Renault crashed into a steel barrier at the high speed Tumbrello corner of the Imola circuit at over 200 kmph causing fatal head injuries, at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994 that also witnessed the death of another driver, Ronald Ratzenberger of Austria, during qualifying. Tragically, Senna was carrying an Austrian flag with him during the race that he intended to unfurl after winning, in tribute to the departed driver. The immediate cause of the accident was claimed to be a broken steering column, that Senna had got altered himself to suit his body frame in the car. There is almost a stillness of death as the documentary ends on the note of Senna’s crash and his funeral. The footage of his severed car being carried back to the pits in a crane bereft of its talented driver perhaps best captures the emptiness of that moment. The catharsis at Senna’s death can be matched by very few sporting tragedies, the closest perhaps being the death of eight Manchester United players in the Munich air crash of 1958, an event that similarly signified the loss of talent and future achievement.
It is perhaps the greatest tribute to Senna that for today’s drivers he remains a benchmark in driving style and the extremities of effort that only the greatest sportsmen can aspire to. When Michael Schumacher won the Italian GP in 2000 and equaled Senna’s number of 41 victories, he cried inconsolably at the press conference when informed by the press of this feat, an evidence of how highly Senna was regarded by his peers much after he had left the tracks. Senna’s legacy today continues to live both on and off the track. His sister runs an institute in Brazil that supports the education of underprivileged children, a cause for which Senna himself generously donated during his lifetime. His nephew Bruno races for the Renault F1 team and scored his first points in the current season.
Senna, the movie then, does a great service by bringing a champion back to life for a generation that did not see him racing live on television and has been untouched by his brilliance. A must watch even if you are not an F1 fan, it is a fascinating exploration into the soul of a man who raced to win, whose impact on his sport still remains indelible and who, even seventeen years after his death, is regarded as the best driver ever to sit the behind the wheel of an F1 car.