by Allan Fish
(UK 2010 166m) DVD1/2
Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose
p James Gay-Reese, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner d Asif Kapadia w Manish Pandey ph Jake Polonsky ed Chris King, Gregers Sall m Antonio Pinto
In the introduction I recall mentioning how up until a certain age movies didn’t mean much to me. As a youngster, sitting down to watch anything for over two hours meant it was either a football match, a Saturday afternoon’s racing or a Formula One Grand Prix. I’d grown up with it. I even used to do my own commentaries, amusing myself for hours using bits of card with the drivers’ names on. Invariably, one driver always won…Alain Prost. He had the same name as me, after all, and he was called The Professor.
There were two camps, of course; you were either for Senna or for Prost. At the time I was for Prost. Prost had retired in 1993. By that time, I was beginning to move away from watching Formula One. Schumacher was emerging on the scene, Mansell had retired. Yet if someone were to ask me what turned me away from Formula One to the point where I no longer watch it at all and haven’t done or a decade, it’d be the events of 1st May 1994. I don’t really remember where I was when Prost won any of his four World Titles, but I remember where I was when the news of Senna being declared dead was announced; at my grandmother’s an hour or two later.
The death of Ayrton Senna, at the peak of his powers, at the age of 34, and the outpouring of grief displayed during his Sao Paolo funeral, which was like Eva Peron’s on a more spontaneous level, affected us all. It’s difficult to put into words, but even if Don Bradman had been taken from Australia in the 1930s the grief would still have paled into insignificance. This wasn’t adulation but worship, and his death seemed to do what the death of the equally seemingly invincible Jim Clark had done a generation earlier. Everyone began to think ‘if Ayrton Senna could be killed, we all could be.’
Kapadia’s film, which improves markedly in this hour longer version, follows Senna from his beginnings karting in the late 1970s as a teenager to his death and virtual deification in his homeland. It takes in the miraculous early drives for Toleman and the then dwindling Lotus, the glory and infamy years at McLaren and the final dance of death with Williams in a car with all the stability of Bambi on ice. The interview footage with Prost, Ron Dennis and other who knew him was priceless enough, but the real fascination goes into seeing behind the scenes, the sense of camaraderie that was felt among the drivers, the nerves and tension and the almost guesswork that went into experimenting with the car often in the racing environment. We get insights into Senna from both sides, and while both he and Prost possessed inflated egos and the politics of the sport were as draconian as ever, one can find oneself changing loyalties from incident to incident. The final fatal chapter isn’t gone into in any real detail, and rightly so, for this is not a post mortem but a celebration of a man and his time.
Back in the late eighties and early nineties, the final glory days of Formula One (which now sees drivers not so much driving the cars as sit in them), of the Turbo-engined beasts, the sport quite literally transcended barriers. The rivalry between the two greatest drivers of their generation, the yin to the other’s yang, was unprecedented in sport. Just as McEnroe was nothing without Borg and Connors, as Coe needed Ovett, Senna and Prost and their fierce fights, on and off the track, and their reconciliation just before Ayrton’s death, symbolised the end of an era. There has, touch wood, been no fatality in Formula One since, and in some ways with it went the romance and the ghosts of not only Clark and Graham Hill, but Jochen Rindt and Gilles Villeneuve, went into the night bearing Senna with them like Doug Fairbanks at the end of The Iron Mask. The most telling remark perhaps comes from Ron Dennis, who observes that even if he’d known and had a premonition of his death, Senna would still have gone out and embraced it as he had life. Kapadia, his editors and composer Antonio Pinto have made the film worthy of the subject.