Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

SENNA comes to Netflix // Reviewing Ayrton Senna's story from a newer F1 fan's perspective

Published by Kai

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Before I begin, let me say that I have successfully avoided every review about the Senna movie up to this moment so I could watch it without any preconceived notions. And I will talk about all parts of the movie, so feel free to avoid this and see it for yourself first. But I suppose if you are avoiding it, you won’t read this part either.

  • Title: SENNA
  • Directed by: Asif Kapadia
  • Streaming on: Netflix in the U.S.
  • Date: May 1, 2011

As a fan of Formula One I have heard of the legend of Senna, and the rivalry of Senna and Prost, of course. I have seen replays of the accident that took his life, and theories as to why exactly he lost traction. But I did not know anything about the man.

The documentary “Senna” opened up his racing life to me. Now I more fully feel the impact of his loss on this day, May 1, 17 years ago. I struggled with how to describe this experience today. How do I communicate the emotional impact that this film has had on me? I can’t really, but I’ll give you my impressions the best I can. You must see it.

Early career

The movie opens with a quote from Senna about his first karting days in Europe in the 1978 Karting World Championship. He refers to it as “real racing. No politics, no money involved, just pure racing.” There is a common thread throughout that Senna was a man who loved the truth and integrity. He was also a man of tremendous faith, and this was a very important part of his life. He lived to do well, to achieve, and was determined to reach the limits of his potential in racing, and at the same time he lived with such heart and with more humility than most. He said, “I believe if you are doing something like competing, like motor racing, you either do well or forget it.”

Senna’s career progressed quickly. In 1984 at Monte Carlo Senna’s performance in the Toleman car was stunning. It was his first time there, and in the wet, which Senna we find out was Senna’s favorite. He had started in 13th place. He worked his way up and eventually passed Niki Lauda for second! As he closed the gap on leader Alain Prost at a rate of 3 seconds per lap, the race was stopped due to the wet conditions. Was this Senna’s first taste of the political machinations of F1?

Senna’s talents grew as he moved on to Lotus. He knew he had a lot to learn. His first win came in 1985, the Portugal GP. After getting his first taste of it he said, “Winning it’s like a drug. It’s something so strong and so intense that once you experience it, you keep searching for it all the time.” The tension begins to build now in the film as you see his bright hopes and we know the dark end is always looming, somewhere, coming up.

One word: Fast

A reporter, I think it was John Bagnino, spoke about his driving. “There’s only one word that describes Ayrton’s style, and that is fast. He would take the car beyond it’s design capabilities. He would brake later, fly into these corners where the car was just over the edge, and somehow he could dance a dance with that car to where it stayed on track.” Ron Dennis was very impressed with Senna’s pace and dedication, but especially with his intellect. So, on to McLaren, where he drove with Alain Prost as his teammate. No pressure!

Senna vs. Prost

Watching their body language now and how they related to one another - or didn’t - was fascinating. I was watching F1 myself as a kid in the late 80s, but I was young and I wasn’t aware of all of those kinds of dynamics. Plus it was in the U.S., so our coverage was crap. But looking back now, wow. What a time it was to be following a sport. It must have been incredible to watch.

I was impressed that he didn’t just pitch a fit, he learned from it. He seemed to do this his whole life

The onboard shots in the movie are priceless. It’s a dream to be able to drive along with Senna. During the footage from Monte Carlo in 1988 he said “That day I suddenly realized I was no longer driving conscious. I was in a different dimension for me. The circuit for me was eternal, and I was just going, going. And I realized I was well beyond my conscious understanding.” But when they told him to slow down because he was 55 seconds ahead of Prost, he hit the wall. He walked back to his apartment directly from the track, full of pure anger at himself. No one heard from him for 2 or 3 hours. After that he lost confidence but he found his way back through his faith and he said it was a very important event to him as a man. I was impressed that he didn’t just pitch a fit, he learned from it. He seemed to do this his whole life.

In Japan 1989, Senna was excluded from an amazing victory over Prost because Prost said he used the escape road after they crashed instead of using the track. Senna almost left F1 altogether after this. It seemed to pain him most that he was “being treated like a criminal”. Ron Dennis encouraged him to come back, which he did. And shortly thereafter in a driver’s meeting Nelson Piquet raised the issue of penalties for cutting the chicane because of the harsh punishment levied against Senna. It became clear that all of the other drivers agreed that it was a ridiculous exclusion against Senna, except Prost, of course.

In 1990 we begin by seeing the footage after Martin Donnelly’s horrific crash, and it was so startling to actually see the man laying. on. the. track, crumpled. There were no parts of the cockpit near him. How could that happen??? How could a Formula One driver be lying in the middle of the corner in his full racing uniform and helmet!!? It shook me to the core. We never see the guys outside of the car when the race is on, much less laying on the track! Everyone was shaken by that day. Senna said even though he was scared, he was not ready to give it up.

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Credit: LAT/Williams F1

Triumph

Aryton’s reaction after winning his home Brazilian GP in 1991 was pure exhilaration and exhaustion. He had only had 6th gear at the end of the race. He screamed at the top of his lungs with the victory and then he had such pain and muscle spasms in his shoulders and hands that he had to stop on track and people had to remove his fingers from the steering wheel and help him out of the car. He struggled on the podium to lift the trophy and champagne. He was even determined to celebrate properly.

Tragedy

It was gut wrenching to hear Senna say in a 1991 interview that he may only be at the half way point of his life at age 32, and that he had so much more he wanted to accomplish in his life. These kinds of things break my heart when we know what’s coming. He had less than 3 years left. The tension and suspense built and built through the film until my heart was in my throat.

As Senna moved to Williams for the 1994 season and some of the electronic suspension and traction controls were banned, you could see the tension written all over his face as he struggled for grip in his new car. He said the car was less stable, and it kept “changing balance in the middle of the corner” with both understeer and oversteer problems. “During the middle of the corner it breaks away at the entrance. When it’s supposed to break away, it breaks away even more.” He and the engineers were clearly not happy with it.

Then we see the terrifying crash of Rubens Barrichello during qualifying. He was okay, but it was so scary to watch him fly into the fence and land upside down. And Roland Ratzenberger’s crash was...just....awful. We see the doctors doing CPR on him inside the car, and the tears were flowing for me again. What a very dangerous sport this is. Sometimes I forget just how dangerous. And how brave for these people to endeavor to challenge physics in such ways.

Senna looked so troubled in the car at the start of Imola, I just wanted to reach in and stop time or rescue him or something. But Dr. Sid Watkins asked Senna to quit the day before, after Ratzenberger’s death. He said he had to go on. But as of Saturday night, Frank Williams wondered if Senna would start on Sunday.

The day begins with the terrible crash at the start with Pedro Lamy smashing JJ Lehto’s car to bits because Lehto stalled on the grid and Lamy didn’t see him. As if we don’t have enough foreshadowing! Then it’s onboard with Senna where we all hold our breath. Then it happens. He hits the wall. He didn’t break a bone, and there were no bruises on him, but a piece of the suspension hit his helmet, causing a fatal head injury. We get the description from his friend, Sid Watkins. It was devastating, even though I knew what was going happen.

I’ve been trying to sort out why this is so emotional, but for me it’s not that he’s some mystical presence that was lost. It’s that he was ‘just’ a man. He had a dream and he pursued it with everything he had, and he was SO good, with this intriguing mix of humility and passion. And when he was in the zone, there was magic, but he was just a man who did the best he could in all areas of his life, and in that we recognize our own struggles and wishes for the future. It’s such a tragedy that he’s gone when he had such an affect on so many. Senna’s friend, Dr. Sid Watkins, took over the safety measures in F1 after his death, and since then we haven’t had another fatal accident.

Perspective

This access was invaluable in helping us discover what really went on behind the scenes and the politics involved

Director Asif Kapadia did an amazing job putting together the interviews so the story of this man was told by his friends, family, journalists, and Senna himself, not to mention the footage inside driver’s meetings, in the paddock, from home movies, and the onboard cameras. This access was invaluable in helping us discover what really went on behind the scenes and the politics involved with FIA head, Jean-Marie Balestre.

As much as I love the technology and the fine edge that F1 is on at all times, the human story behind it all is what really gets me. The insights given here show a more complete picture of the struggles and the many layers of competition in F1, from the actual driving of the F1 car to the politics and personalities.

I rode the emotional roller coaster of hope, triumphs, setbacks, danger, determination and ultimately that moment where Senna sighed and let go at Imola in 1994. What an incredible life he led. What an incredibly driver. And what an incredible human being.

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Credit: LAT/Williams F1

I don’t have the added perspective of those who will remember this time in F1 from first hand experience, so I am at the mercy of the director’s abilities to show us what really happened. I am eager to find out from those who know what their impression of the film will be and what other information we can add to the discussion.

Bottom Line: This was more than a film to me, this is everything that racing is about.