Now there are two schools of thought concerning Formula One. Some say the breakneck symbiosis between man and machine has a beauty and intensity unmatched in the sporting world. Others like my Dad say it is colossal waste of time and money and there is no skill in "just putting your foot down"
When you see in-car footage of Ayrton Senna's car tearing through Monaco's tight roads at 200mph knowing the slightest error could result in his death you can't help thinking my Dad needs to lay off the coffee.
Senna the new film from Asif Capadia about Brazil's legendary driver is a pure joy. Playing more like a blockbuster then a straight-laced documentary its story beats anything Hollywood scriptwriters could come up with. Painstakingly put together from thousands of hours of footage some of it unseen in the vaults of F1 supremo Bernie Eccleston its authenticity is its strength. I found it utterly captivating all the way through to its emotional climax.
Whilst not quite a rags to riches story (Senna was brought up in a fairly well-off family) the film charts his progress from go-karting, through to his first F1 drive with Toleman then Lotus and then his bitter rivalry with Alain Prost which elevated F1 into the global spectacle we see today.
The battle for dominance with Prost is particularly fascinating as the Frenchman is painted as the Machiavellian schemer with friends in high places. The acrimony between the two reached such a level that Prost admits the only clause he insisted on having inserted into this contract with Williams was that Senna could never be a team mate of his.
Senna joined Prost at McLaren in 1988 and it quickly became apparent that the team was too small for the both of them. Senna's recklessness and commitment was completely at odds with the pragmatic calculating Frenchmen known as "The Professor". In an interesting exchange Prost jokingly asks Senna if the title could be drawn. Senna incredulously responds
"There can only be one winner"
With both of them driven to win they relationship degenerated to such an extent that they stopped speaking to one another and they each became paranoid about the help the other was getting from McLaren's engineers. Jealousy is an ugly business.
Things come to a head at Suzuka in 1989 with Prost knowing Senna needs a win to stay in contention forces him off at the first corner. Senna gets a push start and records a miraculous victory only to have it taken away by despotic F1 president Jean-Marie Balester, a fellow Frenchman, who disqualifies Senna for missing a chicane because of the collision.
Balestre is the film's real villain. The film implies he is in cahoots with Prost to do everything in his power to scupper Senna's chances. He moves the grid positions around to favour Prost and for the most part he makes Sepp Blatter look like Kofi Annan.
I couldn't help but snort out loud when during a drivers meeting he slams his fist down and proclaims
"The best decision is my decision!"
Senna transcended his sport. He was bigger than a racing driver. He is a messianic figure in Brazil where he is still revered. At a time when Brazilians were getting over a dictatorship and dealing with large scale poverty Senna was a beacon of hope, a source of national pride who instead of hiding is heritage when on the podium he would swathe himself in the Brazilian flag.
Religion was a huge part of Senna's life and he was accused by Prost of
"Acting like his was immortal"
He always dedicated his wins to God and felt it was fate that guided him to be the world's foremost racing driver. It is ironic that in his final tragic race at Imola in 1994 it was fate that conspired against him. The cause of the crash is still shrouded in mystery but Senna was pulled from the car with no broken bones. If the suspension strut had flown off 6 inches either side he would have walked back to the pits unaided.
There is always a danger of canonising someone as a result of their death and the film just about avoids becoming a hagiography. Senna was no saint. He was pathological in his desire to be number one and he was just as capable as Prost to resort to underhand tactics. He drove Prost off the road at Suzuka 1990 and quickly ditched McLaren when he realised their performance had been overtaken by Williams. It doesn't fit the films narrative to paint Senna as the bad guy so his "quirks" are glossed over.
Yet, despite his flaws you cannot help but warm to the man's passion as he rallied against the politics and corrupting influences of F1.
A genuinely heart-pumping, fascinating and moving film that you don't need to be a fan of F1 to enjoy. Given his premature death I was left questioning the wisdom in the maxim of whether it is better to burn out than fade away.