SENNA: Diary of an F1 Champion

More than just a driver, “Senna,” the dramatic documentary on the life and career of Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna da Silva, is a pure story of sacrifice and winning the game.

Words: Kristie Bertucci
Images: Courtesy of PDA

There’s something about sports documentaries that really captures your attention. Even if you’re not a fan of the sport, the dramatic storytelling coupled with an intense desire and drive to achieve by such amazing personalities is as alluring as it is intriguing.

The same could be said about Senna, the powerful documentary about Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna da Silva and his 10-year career as one of the sport’s most charismatic and talented drivers. Released earlier this summer in the UK, and just this month Stateside, the documentary has already won the Audience Award World Cinema Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Directed by Asif Kapadia and written by Manish Pandey, Senna captures your attention early, from the beginning, with the sound of an F1 race car’s engine shifting gears. Unlike other documentaries that provide extensive background and sideline stories on their protagonists and those close to them, Senna focuses mainly on Senna’s rise to fame within the F1 circuit, and slightly broaches topics like his earlier racing years, where he started as most racers do in karting, to provide the context of what’s to come.

Born in 1960 to wealthy landowners in Brazil, Senna’s family supported his interests in motorsports and encouraged him to pursue his childhood racing dreams, but by no means did Senna purchase his way into Formula 1. As a very athletic and goal-oriented child, Senna moved up the go kart ranks fairly quickly and later, in 1981, made his way to England to begin his single-seating career. But it wasn’t until 1984— the year that Senna became an official member of the Formula 1 team, Toleman—when the true starting point of the documentary really begins.

Picture it. It’s June 1984 at the Monaco Grand Prix. This is the race where Senna finally showcases his skills and need for speed to the entire F1 world. As a young driver, he is pitted against one of the greatest line-ups in motor racing history. He finishes second to Alain Prost, the man who will soon become his teammate. One would think that for a fairly new racer, that Senna would beat himself up over the loss. Instead, the film depicts a light-hearted Senna, accepting his second place position with pride, jumping for joy and celebrating as if he had won first place.

This was the person Senna was. He relished every opportunity and was proud of his achievements every step of the way. Confident in the fact that he had the skills and intellect to master the track, Senna showed immense control in wet conditions, a predicament that most drivers normally frowned upon. In 1988, after growing his reputation within the circuit with his wins, Senna joined Prost, one of the top racers in the league, as a member of the best team in the sport, team McLaren. But as in all stories of great athletes, a rival helps define the person and the player they become. As was the case with Prost, who would leave an impact on Senna’s career.

The documentary perfectly captures this ongoing rivalry, which begins quite the opposite, as positive camaraderie between teammates, between the former and the new, between a champion and a challenger. However, over the years the very attributes that brought them together fueled their competition, as the feats of the young, up-and-comer Senna begins to overshadow those of the great Prost. The tension and conflict with Prost, as well as the changing political atmosphere within the culture of Formula One, intensifies, leading to, without giving away the entire plot, the heart and climax of the film.

While the film speaks directly to fans of the sport, for those who have never heard of Senna, the documentary does an excellent job, truly capturing the driver’s inner struggle for perfection, his fight to stay true to his passion for the sport despite interfering politics, his relentless competitive spirit, his undying faith, his charitable nature, all while uncovering just how much the people of Brazil saw him as their hero.

Compelling, emotional and inspirational, Senna Director Asif Kapadia’s approach to the film feels less documentary and more cinematic drama, in that the film does not feature an extensive number of talking heads to narrate Senna’s life story. For the film that took almost seven years to produce, what makes this film most appealing is that it often feels as if what’s happening in the film is happening right now, in the present, and viewers are privy sideline onlookers.

“As a filmmaker, I just want to try as much as possible to take a risk with all my films,” he explains. “The toughest thing is to make a documentary that doesn’t have narrators that cut in and out of scenes as they talk about the past,” Kapadia explains. “For Senna, I wanted everything to be in the present as it related to the footage. It was a bit of a gamble, but I’m glad I did it because viewers really took to the film.”

In the end, Kapadia accomplished his goal and truly made an emotionally-engaging film that is not only about an athlete who happened to be one of the greatest F1 drivers in history, but Senna is about a man who made a difference in his own world, and thereby touched the lives of so many others. It is a true story of champions— sure, about one in particular, but his lessons learned and weaved into every scene of the film are shared— as to what it takes to become extraordinary and the ultimate sacrifices one must make to get there, and the most priceless gift the film provides.

Images courtesy of PDA.

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