The United States just has to do everything differently from everyone else. We’re the only ones left using imperial units; we play our own version of football instead of soccer; and we watch stock car racing instead of Formula One. And so it’s not a huge surprise that I’d never really heard of the Brazilian F1 phenomenon Ayrton Senna before seeing the documentary Senna. The problem is, now that I’ve seen it, I still don’t really care that much.
That said, if I were to start watching motorsports, Formula One racing is probably what it would be. The “stock” vehicles in NASCAR barely resemble real automobiles anymore, so why not go all out and design something that’s made for pure speed. And turning left all the time is boring too; Formula One tracks are twisty, and it takes some serious skill to navigate through a chicane without slowing down too much. The cars are lean and mean, and it takes a daredevil to climb into an overgrown go-kart and whip around curves at 5g to hit straightaways at over 220 miles per hour. And to ask many fans, the greatest of these daredevils was Ayrton Senna.
In his eleven-year Formula One career, Senna won three world championships — still the youngest to accomplish that feat. He holds the record for the most wins — six — at the Monaco Grand Prix, and is third in total lifetime wins. Until 2006 he held the record for the most pole positions — the best starting place, won by his speed in qualifying rounds. His life changed the sport forever.
Senna tracks his career mostly through archival footage from his start in 1984 with the Toleman-Hart team; the names being derived from the maker of the car’s chassis and its engine, respectively. They weren’t a particularly well-funded outfit, and their car wasn’t exactly the greatest in the world, and yet he almost beat Alain Prost at that year’s Monaco Grand Prix, and in the rain, no less. If the race had been completed, it seems likely Senna would have won.
The Senna-Prost rivalry only heated up further when they were teammates on the McLaren-Honda team four seasons later. The two almost literally sparred for first and second place in the world rankings, with the 1989 and 1990 championships each being decided ultimately by a crash between the two, preventing the trailing partner from scoring any ranking points.
Senna raced on the edge. Over and over we watch his tires roll up on one border of the track followed instantly by the other to shave precious centimeters off his racing line. Prost opined that since Senna believed in God, he thought he was protected from all possible harm, leading him to take unnecessary risks. Senna said he knew that he wasn’t immortal, but he also couldn’t stop himself from pushing just a little further, even in his final 1994 season with Williams-Renault when their newly-refit car kept showing signs of instability.
Senna shows us the arc of Senna’s career, not only on the track, but in what he came to represent for an impoverished and chaotic Brazil. And it’s a great story, but ultimately not one that feels like I’d be missing out not to know. The over-the-shoulder camera footage is intense, but I found myself wanting more than the film had to offer in the way of thrills — Days of Thunder this is not. It was a good documentary, put together well enough, but the great documentaries can kindle interest even in those who aren’t already into their subjects, and Senna failed to qualify.
Worth It: yes, if you’re a racing fan; otherwise, probably not.
Bechdel Test: again, if it applies to documentaries, fail.