05 June 2011

Road to Ruin

Here are some sports I enjoy watching: gymnastics, athletics, football, swimming, rowing and volleyball. I used to play or practice most of these myself at some point. Motor racing would probably come fairly near the bottom on this list; I don't like loud noises generally, especially the whines and roars of fast cars, and maybe I'm just a typical girl but I've never been interested in finding out who can drive a fast car the fastest. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed watching Senna this afternoon and by the end of the 1h45 documentary about the life of Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, I was wiping away my tears.

I was ten when Senna died in 1994 and although I remember it being reported in the press, I didn't know any of the details until I saw the film today. I do remember the clever headline "The Ignited Colours of Benetton" appearing in The Sun but this turns out to refer to a fire that affected another driver slightly later in the 1994 season. Senna opens in the late 1970s when Senna first comes to race competitively in Europe and then follows him through his phenomenal rise during the 1980s. The documentary has no voice-over and there are no contemporary vox pops; the story is told entirely through archival footage, which made for an interesting and original film.

The rivalry between Senna and Alain Prost remains a key focus throughout the film. Senna complains that the French president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile favoured his compatriot Prost over Senna when it came to certain rulings. Prost argues that Senna's driving is dangerous and his behaviour unprofessional. "Ayrton's problem is that he thinks he cannot kill himself," Prost says, a few years before Senna's death. But Ayrton insists that if you are a true racing driver and you see a gap through which you can overtake your competitor, you will always go for it and that if you don't go for the gap, you're no longer a serious driver. Later, Senna grows frustrated because his rivals on the Williams-Renault team have more advanced cars that use a computer to help balance the car on difficult corners. He moves to the Williams team and then, of course, the technology is banned.

The last twenty minutes of the film are pretty emotional. You know that any minute, you're going to reach Senna's final race and with Senna making comments on camera along the lines of, "I'm not ready to die yet" and "I've got plenty more to do and plenty of time left," every few minutes, it's even more uncomfortable. In the fateful weekend at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix that saw Senna's fatal car crash, two drivers had already experienced crashes (one of which was also fatal). Poignantly, after these two accidents, Senna's doctor friend Sid Watkins told a freaked-out Senna that he should quit and they could both go fishing instead but of course Senna was never going to quit.

And so of course the ending was sad; that goes without saying. It's a tragic story with a talented, likable hero. I was more impressed by the way the film even managed to get me excited about the racing sequences. I was worried there would be too many of these and that they would be too long but actually, I got caught up in the excitement and was willing Senna on whenever he pulled off his latest plucky come-back. I was also cringing every time the gap through which he wanted to drive seemed impossibly small. So, I agree with what most of the reviews of this film seem to be saying: it's a real treat for F1 fans but it's also a well-constructed and highly engaging documentary for people who would usually prefer to watch damp paint dry than a grand prix.

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