SENNA is a documentary directed by Asif Kapadia that explores the life and death of F1 Driver Ayrton Senna. Spanning his years as a Formula One racing driver from 1984 to his untimely death a decade later, SENNA explores the life and work of the triple world champion, his physical and spiritual achievements on the track, his quest for perfection and the mythical status he has since attained. The film won the 2011 World Cinema Documentary Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Best Documentary in World Cinema Audience Award at the 2011 LA Film Festival. The film premieres in the US on August 12, 2011. You can learn more about the film here.
Many NASCAR fans may start with the question – Who was Ayrton Senna? It is no secret that the typical stock car fan does not pay much attention to F1 so let me start my review of SENNA with a brief introduction about the man.
Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian born race car driver that many to this day say was the greatest driver to ever compete in Formula 1. A three-time world Champion (1989, 1990 and 1991) he amazed fans and other drivers alike with his ability to constantly drive on the edge of his car’s ability.
If you do not immediately recognize the man you will remember his car. Senna’s “Marlboro” paint scheme might be one of the most epic liveries in all of racing – along side the #43 STP paint scheme of NASCAR’s king Richard Petty.
Senna made his F1 debut in 1984 for Toleman-Hart Racing. Many current-day NASCAR fans would consider this a “start and park” team at best and Ayrton took his natural talent and jumped to Team Lotus his second year in the sport. While not a top-tier team, Senna won six races over three seasons at Lotus before jumping to F1 powerhouse McLaren.
It was at McLaren where Senna and his teammate Alain Prost started a feud that carried on for years and made the Kyle Busch / Kevin Harvick feud seem like tiddlywinks in comparison. The two drivers battled each other from circuit to circuit leaving others in the wake of their 7 combined championships.
The film does a wonderful job by making you feel like you were there. The combination of vintage footage and current interviews give a play-by-play of each season that Senna and Prost battled for the podium.
In 1994 at the San Marion Grand Prix on the famed Imola circuit the 34-year old superstar lost his life. To this day questions abound about what really happened to cause the crash but in the end a broken suspension part and six inches were all the separated life and death that day on the track. Experts say Senna could have walked away from the accident if that part had not struck his helmet.
His death draws the most immediate parallel to NASCAR in the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. Both men, legends in their own worlds, lost their lives doing what they loved and their deaths changed both series in significant ways.
After Senna and Earnhardt’s deaths, both NASCAR and F1 embarked on unprecedented safety campaigns. The proactive measures taken have resulted in safer cars and no driver has lost his life in either series since.
Both men were also living legends. Popular with the fans both were also known to be fearless on the track. Neither would ever make apologies. The film shows Ayrton being interviewed by legend Jackie Stewart and Senna scolds Stewart for questioning his driving style. “If there is a gap, and you don’t go for it, then you are no longer a racing driver,” Senna said.
I actually think Senna’s life more parallels that of Tim Richmond than Dale Sr. While we did not lose Richmond on the track his battles with the France family are very similar to what Senna faced in his battles with the FIA – the sanctioning body of Formula 1.
There is no doubt that Richmond and Senna left us too soon and both would have won more championships. Many in NASCAR argue that Dale Earnhardt SR would not have won his seven championships had Richmond still be racing. Similarly, one can argue that 7-time world F1 Champion Michael Schumacher would have fewer crowns if Aryton hadn’t died that day at Imola.
One of the most striking things detailed in the film are the battles between the FIA and Senna. NASCAR fans today complain about seemingly inconsistent calls from race control, but these complaints seem insignificant compared to some of the “rulings” that were made against Senna.
In the 1989 Grand Prix of Japan, Senna’s nemesis Alain Prost squeezed Senna off his racing line and into the run-off road near a chicane. Prost’s car was terrible damaged and he was out of the race – the DNF would cost him the championship. Senna, while damaged, continued on to win the race and the championship.(as it was flagged)
His teammate Prost quickly jogged to race control to protest. Senna was stripped of the win, his championship and his license was suspended for 6 months. The FIA ruled that Senna used the run-off road instead of the chicane and that was a clear violation of the rules.
The problem was that the FIA had selectively enforced that rule in the past. There is footage from other races where other drivers took the same “escape” route without getting any penalty. The FIA at that time was ruled by Jean-Marie Balestre and he always seems to rule in favor of Prost who was also a Frenchman.
At the 1990 Grand Prix of Japan Senna had taken the pole position. Before the race, Balestre and the FIA moved the pole position to the dirty side of the track.
Can you imagine if that happened on a NASCAR restart?? Let’s say Dale Jr. was on the pole and wanted to start on the inside. Then at the last minute, Mike Helton called over the radio and said the rules changed and Junior would have to start on the outside.
In spite of these political battles with the FIA and his on track battles with Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna became one of the best drivers in history and a real hero in his native Brazil. When he died Senna was honored with a State Funeral.
Driven by his faith in God Senna’s life offers inspiration for even the most casual race fan. Formula 1 fan or not, every NASCAR fan needs to watch this movie. The in car footage showing Senna navigate the wet streets of Monaco is amazing and worth the price of admission!
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