Friday 19 January 2018

Movies: Senna ****


Paul Whitington

I tend to get about as moved by today's Formula 1 motor racing as I do by the idea of a round of lawn bowls, but once upon a time the sport was electrifying and as much about a driver's skill as the car he happened to be in.

Asif Kapadia's painstakingly constructed documentary revives the sport's last golden age and tells the story of perhaps the most charismatic driver ever to have graced the international tracks. Ayrton Senna was a teenager when he first arrived in Europe from his native Brazil to compete in the Karting World Championship, but from the start he displayed a fearlessness and dexterity that marked him out as a future champion.

Kapadia's film charts his spectacular rise from a rookie driver with obscure British racing team Toleman to his heroics with Team Lotus and his three drivers' championship wins with McLaren. Senna's driving and reactions were so good he excelled even in mediocre cars, and despite hailing from a wealthy family he became an idol among the poor of Brazil at a time when that country was going through a period of dire economic hardship. Every hero needs a villain, and for Senna it was Alain Prost.

Aside from being a brilliant if rather overly technical driver, four-times Formula 1 drivers' champion Prost was a consummate politician, and he seemed to enjoy a special friendship with high-handed Formula 1 boss Jean-Marie Balestre. After a series of crucial decisions went against Senna in 1988 and '89, the Brazilian became convinced that Balestre was deliberately favouring fellow Frenchman Prost, and a nasty and dangerous rivalry developed that fascinated crowds and dominated Formula 1 until Senna's death.

That came during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, when after a high-speed crash he would normally have been expected to survive, a piece of debris penetrated his helmet and fatally fractured his skull.

Kapadia has assembled and skillfully woven remarkable archive footage into a truly compelling film that gives a sense of both Senna the driver and Senna the man. And it's Balestre rather than Alain Prost who emerges as the true villain of the piece. Prost was one of the pallbearers at Senna's funeral, and seemed genuinely heartbroken at having lost the only man he considered a worthy rival.

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