By David G. Firestone
January is Wheel Reviews Month. This month, I will feature four Wheel Reviews, two movie and two book reviews. I’ve got an obscure movie next week, and a couple of interesting books prepared for the weeks after that. This week, I’m going to focus on one of, if not the, best racing documentaries ever produced.
One of the most important laps in Formula One history was the seventh lap of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. That was the lap where Ayrton Senna lost control of his car on the Tamburello corner at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, located in Imola, Italy, and died as a result of his injuries. That accident was the genesis of the refocusing on safety that saw Formula One go without a fatality for 20 years, which is unheard of in the history of auto racing.
The dark clouds that were over that race were clear to everyone. Rubens Barrichello was seriously injured during a crash. During Saturday qualifying, Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a wreck. There was talk among the drivers and track staff about the issues, and if drivers would back out of the race. Senna and Dr. Sid Watkins allegedly discussed Senna backing out of the race and going fishing. Senna did appear to be visibly shaken and his mental state before the race clearly wasn’t where it needed to be. Senna decided against going fishing, and during lap seven, his life came to an end.
One of the best documentaries about Formula One, and for that matter auto racing, Senna was released in 2010. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and James Gay-Rees, and directed by Asif Kapadia, Senna revolves around Ayrton Senna’s Formula One career. It touches on his time with Toleman in 1984, and Lotus from 1985 to 1987. Where it really starts to get in depth is when it discusses his signing with McLaren in 1988.
Senna won five races prior to 1988, but when he joined McLaren, he became a top-shelf driver. The film discusses in detail his personal life, and his relationships with his family off track, and his rivalries with Alain Prost, and Jean-Marie Balestre, among others. The rivalry between Prost and Senna is the main conflict. You get a sense that the two didn’t like each other on a personal level, but they had a deep respect for each others driving skills.
You also see that Senna had a deep respect for Brazil, even though politically the country was in a bad place at the time. The country rallied around him because he gave the country something to root for in a dark time. Senna was a devout Catholic, and his faith plays in to who he was as a driver and a person. The conflict between his on-track and off-track lives makes the ending even harder.
One of the things that I like is that the documentary doesn’t have a single narrator, but that Senna speaks via archival footage, and what interviews were done aren’t shown, but heard audibly. It’s hard to watch the ending, seeing the wreck that took the life of a great driver. The personal life/professional life conflict is also a great part of the film.
I would make a few changes to the film. I would like to see more on his racing upbringing. The first 4 years of his career are covered, but I’d like to see more focus on 1984-1987. More importantly, nothing is discussed concerning how he went from Karting to Formula One. I’d like to see Ayrton Senna before he was a legend in the industry. I also would love to see more background on the political issues that Brazil was facing. It’s covered somewhat, but I would love to see the documentary get more into the issues, and how they affected him, both personal and professional.
All in all, Senna has a few minor issues, but it’s still in my mind the best racing documentary ever made. If you haven’t seen it yet, go out and rent a copy.
Next week, an obscure Formula One documentary.