Senna – the Movie

It is more a reflection of the poor choice of movies in North London at the moment, rather than of any interest I have in Formula 1, that I went to see ‘Senna’ at the cinema; but I am glad that I went.

I will even confess to a tear, in both eyes, by the time the end credits rolled.

It’s a well crafted documentary, made using only film footage taken at the time of Senna both on and off the track with recently recorded commentary by people close to him during his lifetime.

Before watching the film, my knowledge of Senna amounted to nothing more than the fact that he was a racing driver who died in an accident in the early 1990s.

But this film wove a much more interesting story of endeavour and ambition combined with skill and skullduggery.  One of the focusses of the tale was Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost; team mates yet chalk and cheese, or fire and ice if the commentators are to be believed.  In the years in focus in the film, it was a competition between these two for the drivers championship, which boiled down to a victory or a finish in a race in Japan.

To be honest that aspect of the film was not really that interesting to me; what was fascinating was the relationship between the rivals, and the continuing question over whether even though they were ostensibly team mates, they may or may not have deliberately run each other off the track.

To a certain extent we were allowed, as viewers to make up our own minds as there was no ‘word of god’ voiceover; instead we were able to observe their body language as they strode off the track not looking at each other, or to watch from afar the expression on their faces as they talked to the mechanics when they returned to the pit.

Prost is not shown in a good light in the film; apparently small minded and mean, yet he was a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral, and according to the literature participated in the making of the movie, so is clearly more generous than he appeared.

The real villain of the piece is an extraordinarily bombastic French official in the F1 governing body who manipulated the arcane rules to Senna’s disadvantage at every opportunity and would brook no argument, insisting that everything he, and only he, said, was correct.

The sheer volume of material the film makers must have had to watch, select and then weave together, is extraordinary; and the poignancy of the last few minutes when we know that we are approaching the fatal crash was deeply affecting even for the previously ignorant.

On a more trivial note, I was struck by the extreme gaudy tackiness of all the trophies they hold briefly over their heads on the podium, before the ritual of the champagne spraying.

According to the film, Senna was the last F1 driver to be killed on a track.  That surprised me and challenged my belief that F1 drivers were frequently killed; but I realise that this is because up until that time, and during my youth it was a regular occurrence; the implication being that safety has improved significantly since.

It’s not turned me into a fan of F1, but it was a fascinating piece of film making.

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  1. LONG

    “Prost is not shown in a good light”


    This is a disgrace. Prost was by some distance the fairer of the two men, in a very hard trade. Senna was forever pulling strokes that were unsporting and villainous. He was wonderfully fast, but sporting was not in his playbook.

    “they may or may not have deliberately run each other off the track.”

    There is NO question. Senna perfectly deliberately ran Prost off the track, because he knew that if he did, he would win the championship. It was a disgracefully unsporting act, but effective, because Balestre permitted it.

    Under todays rules, he would have been penalised and lose the championship.

    I saw Senna a few of times in his pomp, he was different. Driving a F1 car is an edgy business, the tyres are on the edge of adhesion just about all the time. Senna always took it too far. At Silverstone, spectators would crane forward to see drivers. When Senna came by, they moved back from the fences in fear.

    He was extraordinary, and yes, Jean-Paul Balestre was an evil, corrupt devil. In his final race, Senna was in an uncompetitive car, attempting to run away from a young and very fast Michael Schumacher. At the time, Schumacher was, like Vettel now, a game changer. Within F1, there is a mostly unstated opinion that in attempting to run away from Schumacher, Senna over-did it one time too often.

    Some of the causes of the accident are to do with the technical regulations of the time, the cars would go faster than airplane take off speed in a straight line but couldn’t go round corners. (its to do with the turbo engines, ground effect downforce and aerodynamics.) So, they were inherently dangerous when cornering.

    Watching modern F1 cars change directly is an awesome display of impossible engineering feats in motion:) They are far faster than even a few years ago, and much faster than in Senna’s time.

    “Senna was the last F1 driver to be killed on a track.”

    Yes, he was. That weekend was bad. Roland Ratzenberger was also killed during practice at Imola. It had also been 12 years to the previous death on track. The sport finally realised it couldn’t have its major stars killed every year. In large part the safety is down to the otherwise perfectly vile Max Mosely.

    The cars _and_ the tracks have been made much safer. Monaco and Monza are, with the cars getting faster again, exceptionally dangerous.

    The accidents of Robert Kubica in Canada 2007 and Perez in Monaco 2011 are raw examples.

    It is fair to say, that F1 opinion generally sanctifies Senna. Current fans would not agree with my conclusions.

    Those who were there, and especially those who saw Senna in action, probably would.


    Kubica’s Canada 2007. 3d reconstruction, a very good demonstration of how the cars are safer now.

    Kubica 2007, the real thing.

    Perez at Monaco, 2011. This is a VERY dangerous impact.

    • Oh dear, Brendan, didn’t I say the film hasn’t inspired me to take an interest in F1?

      Anyway, in the film they examined two collisions between the 2 drivers – one which led to Senna’s suspension, the second in a later year which led to him winning something or other, and the narrative drew a straight line between the two incidents.

      But the story for me is in the film making and the extraordinary feat of editing.


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