Senna Review: King Of The Road

SENNA (12A): On General Release Friday 3rd June

I’m not a motorsport fan but even I‘ve heard of Ayrton Senna (I wasn’t fooled into thinking this was a documentary about constipation aids).

Senna is a personal portrait of a sporting genius which charts his start as a go-karting driver in his native Brazil to three-time world champion and national icon. Eschewing one-on-one interviews typical to most documentaries, director Asif Kapadia has instead created something altogether more interesting – the result is a joy, a fitting tribute to a sporting legend but also an arresting piece of astute film making.

There’s a huge amount of material on offer, from news footage, intimate home movies, on-car perspectives as well as never-before-seen clips of drivers’ meetings. These are linked and structured without the use of talking heads – a style which lends a fluidity and immediacy to the documentary as it never cuts away from the action.

What it does capture is Senna’s towering personality and all-encompassing self-confidence. Despite coming from a privileged background (you’re unlikely to find go-karting champions in the favellas of Brazil and his family were rich enough to indulge their son’s hobby), Senna comes across as remarkably humble – naively believing that simply being the best driver would be enough to carry him through the choppy political waters of Formula One motorsport.

Inevitably his ambition coupled with unwillingness to play the political game caused significant friction, most notably clashing with fellow driver Alain Prost (perhaps portrayed a little unfairly as a calculating sleaze, not helped by a clip showing him sliming on Selina Scott on the Wogan show) and FIA chief Jean-Marie “the best decision is my decision” Balestre – practically an avatar of stubborn arrogance.

That he was a driving genius is undoubtable and Kapadia gives plenty of evidence of that – Senna’s mastery of the track, particularly in wet conditions, is plain to see. There are plenty of moments of nail biting tension, even for those who might have previously thought that Formula One was dull.

But it’s Senna’s conflicts with the system which are the most interesting. When interviewed by racing legend Jackie Stewart about the perceived high number of collisions he’d had in a racing season, he replied “If you no longer go for a gap, you’re no longer a racing driver” – a reputation for recklessness all but diffused by the fact that he reformed The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association to improve track safety following the death of Ratzenberger and the horrific crash of countryman Rubens Barrichello, ironically only hours before his own death.

Those who wish to nitpick will probably point at its impartiality – Kapadia only touches on Senna’s personal life briefly (and omits his relationship with Adriane Yamin who was 15 at the time) and doesn’t mention the incident where he punched Eddie Irvine – but all documentaries have to make omissions and importantly there’s an overwhelming sense of Senna’s personality, his passion and his dedication.

A perfect companion piece to TT: Closer To The Edge released a few weeks previously, Senna is a well-constructed and poignant documentary, appropriate for not only those who like motorsport but simply for those who appreciate fantastic cinema and a fitting tribute to a sorely missed master.