Film School: Senna, cinematic tour de force
"He thinks he can't kill himself, because he believes in God," sneers Frenchman Alain Prost when asked about his one-time arch-rival Ayrton Senna in a television interview cut into the glorious cinematic odyssey that is Senna.
Adored by women, celebrated by his countrymen, hailed as a sporting hero and "other-worldly superstar", three-time Formula One World Champion Senna died at age 34 doing what he loved, but he was keenly aware of his own mortality. "Just because I believe in God does not mean I’m immortal. I know I can get hurt," he said.
He truly believed that God empowered him to race, and through the documentary we see how this is possible: winning the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix with a car stuck in sixth gear? "Somehow I got closer to God and this was very important to me. I visualized and saw God who is a part of me," he said after winning one race.
But he also feared himself. "Suddenly, it frightened me," he said after qualifying in pole position for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix and going on to crash in the final as he pushed the limits to better Prost in pursuit, "because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding. I drove back slowly to the pits and did not go out anymore that day."
Senna was a man of many admirable virtues. Beyond his technical skill, we find a humble, highly intelligent, introspective and eloquently spoken gentleman with a deep sense of justice. While he longs to experience the "purity" of racing, he finds himself immersed in a world that is highly political; he detests the corruption and self-interest that pervade the sport at its highest level.
He feels particularly betrayed when, in 1989, he collides with Prost at the Japanese Grand Prix and is disqualified on a technicality after getting back on track to win the race, forfeiting his title in the process. The following year, we find him confronting officials – more particularly Jean-Marie Balestre, president of the FIA – in a pre-race meeting to have the rules amended to avert a similar situation: the unanimous vote in favour of the changes drives him to leave the room.
He is heartbroken, despite the outcome being for the best of everyone; highly sensitive to the experience of being wronged, if a little petulant. Man cannot serve both money and God, and pride lies somewhere in between, but you cannot fault his wish to make the sport clean. "There was a tranquillity about him that was almost priestly," said his friend and head of the Formula One medical team Professor Sid Watkins.
There are three storylines at play in Senna: his growth as a racing car driver, as a man and in his relationship with God. Like the charismatic King David, his deep passion and convictions – together with his immense feats of physicality and sporting prowess – are matched almost equally by his flaws.
His drive, ambition, passion and perfectionism propel him towards the finish line, and see him climb the ladder to pole position, but they also cause him to make grave mistakes which reminded him of his humanity and God's divinity.
Still, he was man enough to learn. Following the close scrape in Monaco '88, he conceded: "The mistake I made changed me psychologically and mentally. I changed a lot inside. It gave me the strength and power to fight in critical moments… It brought me closer to God than I have ever been."
He then went on to win six of his next eight races. Even after stalling on the grid in Japan, seeing him in 16th place, by God's grace it started to rain (his favourite weather condition), which saw him go on to overtake Prost and win.
"Senna is a genius," said British Formula One driver and commentator Martin Brundle. "I define genius as just the right side of imbalance. He is so highly developed to the point that he's almost over the edge. It's a close call."
Born in 1960 São Paulo into a wealthy Brazilian family, Senna was aware of the privileges his circumstances afforded and felt a responsibility to realise his potential for both God and his country. Amidst the poverty and the brokenness is a man lifted on high. After his death, three days of national mourning were observed.
"I always had a good life but everything I achieved was through dedication, perseverance and a great desire to achieve my goals, a great desire to win, win in the life, not as a racer," he said in one interview. "And to everyone who is watching this I tell you whoever you are, no matter what social life position you have, rich or poor, always have a goal, be strong, be determined and always make everything with much love and faith in God, so one day, somehow you'll achieve all your goals."
At the age of 13, Senna raced a go-kart competitively for the first time, having watched his own Formula One heroes on television, and naturally he won. He reflects lovingly on those halcyon days of karting in the film, grainy footage of the gorgeous young teen eating lunch in a trackside tent are just some of the special moments to which we bear witness through director Asif Kapadia's edit.
While Senna detested the politics that corrupt Formula One, he was not himself immune. In 1990, he drives Prost's Ferrari off the track in an act of revenge to claim his second championship title ("I am not revelling in the fact that I had to do that," he says quite honestly). In 1993, at the height of his success, we then see him defer from McLaren (the team that gave him six seasons and three world championships) to Williams in pursuit of the ultimate vehicle to further his quest... the one that ultimately leads to his death.
In the final scenes leading up to the fateful crash on May 1, 1994, at the San Marino Grand Prix, we see the anguish on his face. He is anxious, irritable, afraid. The Williams car he is to drive is unbalanced, and we wonder if he feels he has betrayed God as well as himself in his pursuit for bigger, better, best, but other sources suggest his unrest was in knowing his time on track was up.
After watching two crashes in the lead up to the race, one resulting in the fatality of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger, he reportedly called his girlfriend, Adriane Galisteu, and told her he didn't want to race; he was getting to the point in his life when other parts were more important. On the morning of this race, he read from the Bible a passage that told him he would be given the greatest of all gifts: God himself.
As King David himself said, "I saw the Lord before me at all times; he is near me and I will not be troubled. And so I am filled with gladness, and my words are full of joy. And I, mortal though I am, will rest assured in hope, because you will not abandon me in the world of the dead; you will not allow your faithful servant to rot in the grave." (Acts 2: 25-27)
Senna was not a perfect man – his first marriage was a casualty of his move to Europe to pursue racing – but like David facing Goliath, he overcame some great obstacles to rise to the top, and has left a legacy for his nation and the sport beyond his human fallibility. His contributions to the world also included the millions he donated to help build Brazilian children a better future.
"Ayrton was no ordinary person," said Sir Frank Williams, former head of Williams Grand Prix engineering. "He was actually a greater man out of the car than in it." The vision of Prost, his longtime nemesis, joining the casket bearers at his funeral is a further testimony to that.
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