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I’ve always had a passing interest in cars.  The kind of cursory fascination kids harbor towards astronomy or military history extended for me to automotives, subjects at once worthy of appreciation but daunting enough to repel the undetermined. As a result of this merely passing curiosity, I couldn’t explain to you what we were looking at if I lifted up my hood, nor delve into any of the myriad options, upgrades, models and various iterations of performance enhancement currently offered. I viewed racing through a similar lens: there is obvious appreciation for the machines and those who operate them, though the skill, endurance (both mental and physical) and, finally, courage also populated the category of only general amusement.

All this is preamble to make the point that Senna, the stirring, at times wrenching, and altogether haunting documentary on former Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna absolutely kidnapped my attention for its 100 or so minute running time. With no prior knowledge of professional racing, let alone F1, I was a complete novice. While I know little more now than when I started about what makes a car go, I have at least been somewhat initiated into the cult of F1, its devoted fans, the competitively hostile working conditions amongst the most elite racers and the surprisingly political nature of the sport’s governance.

The movie charts Senna’s rise from accomplished go kart racer, whose interest in driving piqued and was encouraged in his comfortable birthplace of Sao Paulo, steadily progressing through the ranks of machine until arriving in the big leagues of F1. The movie makes two things about Senna quite clear early on. The first is that while he came from a background of privilege, he had the foresight to recognize that real and lasting success in F1 would have to be the result of paying dues and nurturing his talent. The second point the film makes is his fierce sense of competition.  In what was only his sixth race in Formula One, Senna, in rainy conditions at the legendary track in Monaco, overcame poor starting position to climb into second place and cut into the lead of first place racer Alain Prost. Though he was gaining on Prost at an incredible pace, the competition was ended early as a result of the conditions and Prost wound up the winner.  The documentary makes clear that those present, from fans to fellow racers, all bore witness to the arrival of a major talent.  In fact, Monaco, rain and Alain Prost were to become inescapable hallmarks of Senna’s career, and it seems fitting they would all arrive as early as possible.

Stranded on a less than elite team and car, every accomplishment and burst of brilliance was made that much more mesmerizing and eventually big players like Lotus and McLaren came calling. Having already won a world championship, Senna teamed with Prost and McLaren, forming a veritable 1 and 1A of the F1 world at the time. Both men would win championships after this union, though the professional and personal relationship, described at best as tense, apparently disintegrated rapidly. The movie captures a number of wonderful camera shots whose visceral impact words can’t adequately recreate, so I will suffice to recap what seemed to me the most important incidents of their tenuous relationship.

Shortly after joining McLaren, Senna was not atypically leading a race in Monaco, though in this case seeming particularly motivated to obliterate Prost. With a commanding lead the Brazilian became slightly careless and wrecked, failing to finish the race, so great was his desire to crush his teammate, the movie argues.  Senna retreated to his apartment following the crash to regroup, emerging after a few hours of isolation.  

Beyond that, the two experienced seasons whose finishes parallel one another quite eerily. In 1989, with Senna needing a fist place finish in Japan to continue their points battle to the final race of the season, he and Prost collided on an early turn. Prost spun out and left the track, though Senna re-entered the race and, miraculously, came in first. The euphoria of this comeback was short lived, however, when FIA officials convened, with the curious presence of Prost in their offices, to eventually disqualify Senna for maneuvering around the chicane and entering the race through pit lane. This overt influence of politics (the head of the FIA at the time was a countrymen of Prost’s), the movie and first hand interviews with Senna suggest, robbed him of a chance at a title.  A man known for being ruthless in pursuit of angles, positions and wins was, even after performing a comeback the F1 higher ups should have been championing as an instance of incendiary perseverance, muscled out of victory by infuriatingly bureaucratic machinations.  

The beautiful thing about sports, though, is that they tend to offer redemption in the most mirrored of fashion. The following year, engaged in another microscopically separated battle of points, Senna and Prost met in Japan for the season’s penultimate race.  In this situation, if Prost failed to finish Senna would claim the title. Entering another turn early on Senna, known for being voracious in the presence of a slight but manageable inside opening, shot the corner and wrecked with Prost. Unable to finish, Prost relinquished his quest for a title and Senna was crowned, though with the distaste of technical victory in his mouth.  It was not the gloriously awe inspiring come from behind performance from the year prior, but having been instructed in the impersonal rulings his sport hands down, it was the one a man after victory had to ensure.  

The disillusionment at his victory in that situation is an important point to focus on when considering the person Senna appeared to have been, which the movie spends an admirable amount of time doing. From images, interviews, and testimonials it becomes apparent that Senna was a vibrant force in F1, as well as a rallying point of humility and integrity for Brazilians who at the time felt ashamed of their country’s global reputation. A devout man who cherished friends and family, Senna, like many in the dangerous and often times violent sports world, was forced to reconcile the seeming recklessness of his passion and profession with the quiet, reserved personality he adopted in private life.

Unfortunately, racing intervened to make that premature reconciliation for him. On a day in San Marino in 1994 Senna, on the heels of the fatality of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, lost control of his machine and struck the wall of a turn, being mortally wounded in the process. The grief displayed by the F1 world and a huge degree of Brazil was legendary, supposedly the greatest mass mourning in world history in Sao Paulo.  A small footnote to what was discovered in his crash devastatingly summarizes the person this documentary highlights: An Austrian flag.  Senna had taken to carrying a version of the Brazilian flag in his machine to hold up during victory laps.  In this instance, the presence of an Austrian flag showcases both the genuine and uncommon compassion he felt towards a racer he hardly knew as well as the unfailing confidence in his ability to finish first.  

There are many live fast and die young stories in the world, some not surprisingly in the sport of competitive racing. What differentiates this story, at least to me, is the sense of who this person was. His demeanor and thoughtful, considerate tone with fans, family, reporters, etc. is so warm and inviting, it’s impossible not to feel regret that a person like that isn’t around anymore. Like the best documentaries should, Senna presents the viewer with a topic and subject they may not be enthralled by at the outset, and by the conclusion they are converts, believers in the fullest. What I came away from Senna with, among other reactions, is an appreciation for the nuance and sublimity of an expertly won race, the disgust that politics and bureaucratic machinations infiltrate what should be some of the more objective decisions in the world, the awe that can be inspired within complete strangers who happen to share a nationality with someone of prominence, and the sobering regret that accompanies the loss of a person with honesty, motivation, talent and humility, regardless of their chosen pursuit or profession.