Ayrton Senna Documentary: A Feast for U.S. Formula 1 Fans

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Ayrton Senna Documentary: A Feast for U.S. Formula 1 Fans
Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images
The New Senna Documentary Captures The Great Brazilian's Brilliance

The thrilling documentary, Senna, may just be the first film inspired by the potential of YouTube.

Director Asif Kapadia manages to piece together an homage to Formula One legend Ayrton Senna that captures the charisma, brilliance, spirit and even contradictions of the three-time world champion through expert use of straight-from-the-source archival footage, and without the tired approach of having multiple experts prattle on with backward-looking perspective and what it all means to them.

This is a documentary that lets you see for yourself what happened during Senna's remarkable F1 career, starting with his scintillating drive in the rains of Monaco in 1984, through the legendary battles with archrival Alain Prost in the late 1980s and early 1990s, right through Senna's tragic death at Imola in 1994.

Kapadia does an expert job of mixing clips from the key races of Senna's career with interviews from the man himself to allow the viewer to not only see for themselves Senna's seat-of-his-pants brilliance, but to also know what the great champion was thinking along the way.

Use of a handful of commentators, officials and observers who were on the F1 scene during Senna's career is made to keep the story moving, but it is Senna himself, through the power of video, who tells the story of the arc of his career.

It is this recognition that Senna's racing and words at the time, through video, are the best way to tell his story that makes the film so powerful.

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Senna's charisma as a driver and celebrity jump off the screen as we're treated to some of his best drives through on-board camera footage and original race video. His most explosive moments off the track are covered as well, as Senna did not hold back his thoughts about the politics of Formula 1 during his day.

It is particularly the recapping of Senna's feud on and off the track with four-time world champion Alain Prost where the power of using original clips and interviews is so strong. The two were so fundamentally different as drivers, Senna always on the edge and going for it, Prost in control and pragmatic.

The Prost-Senna battles are right up on screen for us to see. The racing battles between the two were thrilling, even if watching the relationship between two such great champions could at times be heartbreaking.

The Suzuka trilogy of 1988-90 is particularly riveting to look back upon, as three years in a row, the world championship comes down to Prost vs Senna in Japan.

The differences between the two drivers' philosophies are drawn out expertly by interview clips from the drivers themselves.

Asked by Jackie Stewart about why he had been involved with so much contact in his career, Senna is legitimately perplexed by the question and says, essentially, that if you aren't always trying to charge through gaps, then you are not really a racing driver.

Simon Bruty/Getty Images
Alain Prost Was Senna's Biggest Rival
Prost, on the other hand, explains that he knows the difference between when he is competing and when he is not competing, and even throws out the, in retrospect, chilling comment that Senna's problem is that Senna does not believe he can hurt himself in the car, which makes him dangerous to himself and other drivers.

The film also effectively explores Senna's later career, as he continued to battle an uphill battle against the politics of the sport that he so deplored and tried to deal with the changing F1 technologies of the early 1990s.

Senna's celebrity is portrayed as well, in addition to his near-idol-worship in his home country of Brazil.

We are finally taken to the horrible 1994 spring weekend at San Marino where both Senna and Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger tragically died in crashes.

This weekend is looked at in depth, including actual footage of both crashes and both drivers' deaths. It is really up to each viewer to judge as to how these scenes are handled in the film. An argument could be made that too much is shown, while others might say that this was a key moment in the history of Formula 1 and only by recognizing how dangerous things had gotten could the sport have moved on to the improved safety levels that have seen no drivers' lives taken since Senna.

This is a film highly recommended for the Formula One fan. The true aficionado might take issue with the semi-one-sided way the Prost-Senna feud was portrayed, but this is a Senna, not a Prost, documentary after all.

And every fan will likely be able to recall moments that were left out that should have been included. Again, though, there are always time constraints when dealing with a feature film.

Ultimately, the film captures almost to a tee what it sets out to capture—the overwhelming spirit and speed that made Senna such a great champion.

Special mention has to be made about the editing in this movie. The film was not so much directed as meticulously pieced together. The vision was undoubtedly Kapadia's, but the execution was performed by film editors Chris King and Gregers Sall.

To take the thousands of hours of footage available and distill it down into a less than two-hour tribute so exciting and well done is an achievement to be celebrated.

If you've ever wondered what all the YouTube clips edited and distilled down into a perfect representation of what your favorite sportsman (or woman) should look like, now you have an example in Senna.

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