Senna examines the prodigious, controversial, and ultimately tragic career of Brazilian Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, a three-time World Champion who died while competing in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Asif Kapadia’s film offers a gripping and stylish meditation on sport stardom, the values that motivate elite athletes, and the cultural logic that transforms sports figures into legends.
Senna was born to a wealthy Brazilian family with the means to support his childhood passion and talent for kart racing. The film opens with footage of Senna during his first international competition, a 1978 kart race in England. It pairs these images with audio footage of Senna waxing nostalgic about this early race: “It was pure driving, pure racing. There wasn’t any politics.” From these first moments, the film depicts Senna as a cerebral and spiritual man who valued above all the beauty of sport and believed he could gain enlightenment through athletic competition.
In 1988, after making the transition to Formula One racing and establishing himself as a rising star in the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Senna joined McLaren, FIA’s best team. He shared the spotlight with Alain Prost, McLaren’s number one driver who was nicknamed “The Professor” because of his meticulous attention to detail and tendency to win through careful strategy. Fueled by their shared competitiveness and divergent styles, the teammates developed an increasingly bitter rivalry that spanned the remainder of Senna’s career.
Kapadia uses the tension between Senna and Prost to highlight his subject’s characteristic qualities, trace his career arc, and build dramatic tension by situating his adversary as a conniving establishmentarian. The rift between Senna and Prost is most clearly demonstrated in the film’s discussion of the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix. Senna needed to win the race to stay in the running for the FIA World Championship. Prost, in contrast, was guaranteed the title as long as Senna did not win this race. In a somewhat suspicious incident, the two were involved in a collision that sent Senna’s car off the course. Despite the time he lost because of the crash, Senna made it back on the track and miraculously won the race. Regardless of Senna’s brilliant recovery, he was judged to have illegally rejoined the race. Kapadia emphasizes the event’s embodiment of the differences between Senna and Prost by editing together footage of Senna making his comeback with video of Prost protesting the legality of his actions to race officials. Although technicalities ultimately disqualified Senna and secured Prost’s World Championship, Senna’s style and determination earned him a moral victory while solidifying his reputation as the world’s most exciting racing driver.
The tension between Senna and Prost reflected Senna’s broader animosity toward FIA. He found FIA restrictions inconsistent and felt the institution favored conservative and docile drivers. Indeed, only hours before his final fateful race Senna protested new [End Page 530] FIA restrictions that limited the use of electronic suspension. The film later implies that these rule changes may have contributed to Senna’s crash and death.
While Senna’s rivalry with Prost and disdain for FIA provide some of the film’s most engaging moments, Kapadia sometimes sacrifices measured examination for drama. Prost, for instance, served as a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral and is now on the advisory board for the Instituto Ayrton Senna, a charity organization for Brazilian children that Senna was developing prior to his death. While this may simply evidence Prost’s political maneuvering, I suspect their relationship was more complex than the film suggests. Furthermore, despite Senna’s complaints about FIA safety regulations, his passionate driving style and competitiveness produced what some critics considered to be reckless behavior on the track. The film hints at this but ultimately prefers to paint Senna as a visionary victimized by an unjust system too obsessed with technicalities and wrapped up in petty politics to appreciate the beauty of the sport it governed.
While the film is never outwardly critical of Senna, it does not simply place...