Cinema Review: Senna

Written by: Julia Collins

Talk to any Formula One fan and they will be unequivocal in their admiration of Ayrton Senna.

And this stunning documentary goes a long way to explaining just why that is.

Compiled from hours of archive racing footage and interviews and the Senna family’s home videos, this is a comprehensive look at the Brazilian’s F1 career and it’s not just for fans of motor racing.

The film follows the period from his 1984 debut to his death aged just 34 in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and right from the start there’s an emotional punch when we hear Senna’s mother talk about how much she worries about the dangers of the sport and we see the close relationship between the racer and his parents.

Ayrton Senna

Director Asif Kapadia has crucially chosen to only use archive footage and there are no talking heads to disrupt the flow of the narrative; any recent interviews are often teamed with footage of the speaker interacting with Senna This clever decision means that the story builds almost like a thriller and the fact that everyone knows how it will end only adds to the tension.

There are even bad guys to boo and hiss at as we are shown the developing rivalry between Senna and his McLaren teammate Alain Prost and the clashes he had with FIA president Jean-Marie Ballestre.

But there are also scenes which capture some of the stunning drives which endeared him to so many fans, including the astonishing win at his home race in 1991 where he pushed himself to his physical limit in a car which had become stuck in sixth gear several laps from the finish.

There is also carefree footage of family holidays and scenes of Senna’s increasing popularity in Brazil, where he focused on helping disadvantaged children.

When the caption comes up for the race that signifies the final weekend of Senna’s life it causes a lurch in the stomach and a growing desire for a different ending to the story.

As the accident toll mounts after an incident involving fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello during the Friday practice Senna becomes increasingly concerned about the safety of his car. We see his horrified reaction to the death of fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger during the Saturday qualifying session and we hear that Senna was close to refusing to race on the following day.

And the tension is heightened further as we join the onboard camera for Senna’s final lap, travelling those last few corners with him.

It’s to the credit of the filmmakers that the accident scenes don’t feel uncomfortably voyeuristic, the ones that are used are devastating enough without lingering uncomfortably and unnecessarily on the aftermath.

But it’s during the closing credits that one of the most arresting scenes is shown and it’s one that clearly reveals the core of Senna’s character.

After a crash during the qualifying session for the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix Senna arrives at the scene a few seconds later,  pulls over and sprints across the track, narrowly avoiding being hit by another car, to help the stricken driver. It’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of F1 drivers putting themselves in that position.

Frustratingly this film has had a very short time in cinemas but it’s one that really should be seen on the big screen.

It’s a mesmerising and emotional portrait of a fascinating sportsman.


Author: Julia Collins

My favourite film is French, which means that I can pretend to be really deep. I can often be found at gigs and festivals dancing enthusiastically and very badly to the music I love, even if no one else is.

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