On the Formula 1 circuit, the elite level of professional racing, the skill of the drivers varies less than the quality of the cars. Consequently, a good driver in a superior car will almost invariably beat a great driver in an inferior car. But there is an exception: Rain is the equalizer. A wet track is a democratizing force that eliminates mechanical advantages, and, when the skies open, talent will out. So it was at Monaco in 1984 when Ayrton Senna, a raw rookie behind the wheel of a relative clunker, drove with spectacular verve to pass most everyone in the field. So began the legend: Senna was a genius in the rain.
And so begins this documentary, which traces his often tumultuous career through the next 10 years, up until that fatal moment on another track in a different car – the one that mysteriously malfunctioned at terrifying speed. Director Asif Kapadia has no shortage of footage to choose from. Senna’s ascent to the F1 championship coincided with the rise of the camera on the circuit, poking its lens everywhere – in the pits, at drivers’ meetings, above the track, on the track and, of course, inside the cars themselves. Kapadia is working with an embarrassment of riches, but to his credit he selects wisely, and has the good sense to keep the talking heads off the screen. They’re heard but not seen – in a world where speedometers reach 300 km/hour, there are far more dramatic sights on offer.
En route, the film has a dual and duelling focus: the character of the man and the nature of the sport. Formula 1 is notoriously fraught with Byzantine conflicts among the teams and the managers and the executives. Or, as Senna bluntly put it: “F1 is political – it’s about money.” As a Brazilian driver, and thus an outsider in a European-dominated circuit, he frequently bumped up against those politics, often to his detriment. Yet he also learned to play the political game, sometimes to his benefit but, on the evidence here, never to his liking. To those with scant interest in F1 racing, or even to the passionate, all this internecine stuff will seem tedious and repetitious – indeed, around the midpoint, the doc gets bogged down in it, and stalls.
Far more intriguing is the character issue. Certainly, this is no rags-to-riches story. Born into wealth, Senna was “about money” too, and we see him on the family yacht, cavorting in the sun with his blonde du jour. But he also had a spiritual side which, perhaps surprisingly in a sport that courts danger and death, seems rare. Says a talking head: “Senna would take a car beyond its design capabilities.” Says Senna on how he did it: “I went well beyond my conscious understanding.” Of course, many athletes speak in a similar, near-metaphysical fashion about such sublime moments, talking of “being in the zone” or “outside myself.” Yet Senna took it a step further, claiming after one especially brilliant ride: “I visualized God.”
His arch-rival, Frenchman Alain Prost, held an equally strong belief: that Senna’s personal companionship with the Deity made him a hazard to other drivers. Prost too was superbly skilled, but in a different way. Dubbed “the professor,” he aspired to be as efficient, as logical, as precise as the machine around him. Senna wanted to transcend the machine and assert his own omnipotence. Accuses Prost: “He never wanted to beat me, he wanted to humiliate me – and that was his weakness.”
Of course, that was also his strength. It’s a fascinating dialectic, although the winner is easy to declare. Since then, Prost’s philosophy has triumphed, as computers, those super-human machines, have steadily assumed more and more of the driver’s tasks. But Senna never lived to witness that dubious victory. The close-up of his face, uncharacteristically anxious in the cockpit at the start of that final race, looks ominously prophetic. The crash, lethal in an eye-blink, was hard to watch when I saw it live on television, and it’s not any easier here. The day was clear – no rain in sight.
- Directed by Asif Kapadia
- Classification: 14A