"To race is to live. But those who died while racing knew, perhaps, how to live more than all the others." These were the words of racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio and they are very fitting for Ayrton Senna whose racing career ended at the very young age of 34 at the wheel of his F1 Williams car at Imola in May 1994.
There have been several, fairly unsuccessful, attempts to dramatise Senna’s life on film but now, out on UK Region free Blu-ray, we have the 2010 feature length documentary that succeeds where others have failed. No attempt was made to find an actor to portray Ayrton Senna. Instead it was bravely left to reality and the critical eye of the news camera lens. Formula 1 attracts so much news coverage that there are always camera crews around and what makes it on to our TVs is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the years, crews from all over the world documented the meteoric rise of the young Brazilian World Champion and the film makers were able to tap into this - gleaning footage from a wide range of sources including Fuji TV, TV Globo and the FIA archives themselves with access courtesy of Bernie Eccleston (for a small fee of course).
The archive footage is very cleverly linked by the voices of people who knew Ayrton Senna best as they fill in the gaps with background information and give us an insight into the kind of man he was. The film covers his entry into F1 with the Toleman team in 1984, but it wasn’t long before his genius at the wheel outgrew the small outfit with limited resources. Moving to join Lotus from 1985 – 87, we see him piloting the famous JPS liveried cars before making the leap to McLaren in 1988 and then on to Williams in 1994.
The movie highlights his long term conflict with French driver Alain Prost, which led to Prost famously saying on camera that Senna had a small problem inasmuch as he didn’t think he was going to die – referring to his competitive style of driving and religious beliefs. Senna was quite firm in his belief in God and the film does not set him up to be ridiculed for this. Indeed, his measured response to Prost’s jibe only gained him credibility for his use of logic and calm explanation.
The film also paints a picture of ‘discrimination’ against Senna by the FIA – and in particular by its president Jean-Marie Balestre. While Balestre is seen hugging Prost after a win, it would appear that Senna was perceived as a thorn in his side. Courtesy of some Drivers’ briefing footage before several races, we see that Senna was unafraid to air his views on matters like track safety – based on his own experience, while other drivers would simply remain quiet.
In one briefing, Balestre’s arrogance is outrageous – with him claiming that the best decision would be his, in front of the cameras. His decision, at the end of the day involved a show of hands by the drivers over the positioning of a tyre wall. If in doubt, cop out – seemed to be his idea of a good decision.
The film touches on the friendship between F1 Doctor Professor Sid Watkins and Senna. Senna witnessed the Doctor attending to Lotus driver Martin Donnelly as he lay in the middle of the track following a dangerous collision. Afterwards he asked for a detailed description of what to do if a driver was injured. This was very useful at a later date when Senna leapt from his car to go to the aid of another injured driver – and we see him apply the techniques he had learned.
While the film is very revealing, it can also be quite shocking. The footage of Martin Donnelly lying motionless on the track was spared us at the time by the TV directors of F1, but seeing it here just brought home the actuality –that it was not a Hollywood movie, but real life.
Away from the track, we see Ayrton with his family courtesy of home video footage shot by Leonardo Senna. We also see how important his wins were to the people of Brazil, how it raised the spirits and national pride in a country where poverty was wide spread. After making individual donations to help improve conditions in his home country, he decided to set up a Foundation that would help educate and improve the lives of children. It was very touching to see someone use their fame (and fortune) to help others.
His care for others came through clearly in one of the Driver’s briefings where he suggested that a fund be set up to help a driver whose career had been ended by a crash. This discussion involved his old ‘friend’ Balestre and the upshot was that Senna was penalised with a ban on his licence as he was blamed for a serious incident and fined $100,000. Balestre then made everyone aware that half the fine would go to the injured driver – and naturally, it was all his idea.
Even though you know how this film has to end, it is no less traumatic to see Senna hit the barrier straight on in his Williams car and then sit still in the cockpit at Imola. He would have got out and walked away if a piece of the suspension hadn’t pierced his helmet’s visor and punctured his skull. Again, the cameras covered it and here we see him being taken from the car. Such a terrible waste of life! Thankfully, safety has been tightened up considerably in Formula 1 since 1994.
I was surprised at how emotive a film could be that was made up almost entirely of archive footage, but the movie makers have cut it together so skilfully that they have created the feeling of us having got to know the man so we care about him. If, in reality, he had been an arrogant and cold individual we would not – as audiences aren’t so easily fooled. This film is required viewing for F1 fans and movie buffs alike.