For racing fans, it’s hard not to wonder what would have been–had professional driver Ayrton Senna survived his fatal crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. His short-lived career had already seen many accomplishments. Senna had won the World Championship three times, and was one of the few racers brave enough to truly challenge the politics of his industry. When asked by a reporter to recall his most memorable race, Senna harkened back to his early days as a go-kart racer. He recalled his first competitive race outside his home country of Brazil.
“[The race] has no politics, no money. It was all pure racing,” Senna replied.
For a racer as young as Senna — in his mid-‘20s at the time — being pitted against his much older peers was a humbling experience. He continued to embrace the simpler dynamics of his past, despite the politicized nature of the professional racing field.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna is an apt highlight of this youthful energy: an exploration of Ayrton Senna’s celebrated victories, as an athlete who continued to push the borders and trappings of his institution. Senna’s infamous rivalry with his former McLaren teammate Alain Prost is the beating heart of the film: portraying the tense and frankly cinematic battle between two contrasting forces. Their long duel was an important turning point for Senna: a crucial driving force that pushed him to grow as a professional.
What made Senna such a gripping film is how each piece of footage was edited as if it were part of a live-action drama. Rarely did the film dwell on the past, preferring to dedicate itself to following Senna as he lived in the present. There are generous amounts of footage of Ayrton Senna in his big races; the camera strapped inside the car facing front as if we are looking through his POV in these important moments. It allows viewers to feel the roar of the engine, the driver’s adrenaline.
Senna is an imperfect documentary. It wasn’t able to achieve a complete picture of Ayrton Senna’s larger-than-life personality. He is far more than his Grand Prix trophies. However, the documentary is a worthy achievement solely for its stylistic choices and respect for the subject. This is, without a doubt, a beautifully-made tribute that embodies Senna’s sense of adventure.