Sporting Narratives – Senna:
The tragic icon of F1

Sporting Narratives is InsiderSport’s opportunity to explore a time in which a gripping tale from the sporting world was portrayed through the unmistakable medium of cinema.

This edition looks at Asif Kapadia’s award winning documentary Senna (2010), which tells the story of how a man from Sao Paulo became a national icon and one of Formula 1’s greatest ever drivers, Ayrton Senna

The documentary begins with Senna’s arrival into the sport. Starting in 1984 and briefly covering his time with both Toleman and the Lotus racing teams, the production focuses on the Brazilian’s time at McLaren where he won three World Championships and was subsequently launched into the global spotlight. 

It is during his time with McLaren, between 1988 and 1993, where he forged one of Formula 1’s most volatile rivalries with team mate Alain Prost. The documentary, which is edited and comprised entirely of newsreel material from the F1 archives as well as home videos provided by the Senna family, includes footage previously unseen by the outside world which provides the audience with a front row view to incidents such as the infamous title deciding clashes between both drivers during the 1989 and 1990 championship seasons.

The BAFTA award winning picture is also enriched by newly recorded journalist voice overs and professional collaborators, as it continues to document Senna’s journey after McLaren, where we see him embark on the final lap of his career with the Williams team.

It is here towards the conclusion of the documentary where we are given an eerie insight into Senna’s final living days during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

In a devastating weekend for the sport, which saw an injury to Rubens Barrichello and the death of both Roland Ratzenberger and Senna, we see the Brazilian struggle to cope with not only his car, but also the loss of his fellow driver as he appears tense and overcome by stress. 

The 106 minute insight into the rise and eventual death of Ayrton Senna was received well by audiences around the world, with the film being rated 7.9/10 on the Rotten Tomatoes review website and picking up the best documentary award at the Sundance Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Adelaide Film Festival and the BAFTAs. It was also awarded the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

With this being said, Prost, Senna’s team-mate and rival for the majority of the documentary, was highly critical due to the lack of clarity portrayed on his friendship with the Brazilian during the final months of his life:

“I hate the Senna movie. I really hate it. They could have made something fantastic. But it would have been a different story. It’s really a shame that after hours of interviews with many of the people involved, something like that came of it. In the end it portrayed me as bad and Senna as good, and that’s a pity.”

Nevertheless, the film offers a glimpse into the mind of one of F1’s greatest ever drivers. The way the production is put together by the use of archive footage allows the viewer to see the inner workings of an elite sportsmen who will do anything to win, whilst the home footage provided by the Senna family provides an insight into the driver’s private life and helped to further humanise the already likeable serial winner.

His death and subsequent funeral provides the conclusion to the story and it is here more than ever where his status as a national icon and sporting legend becomes apparent. The Brazilian government declared three days of national mourning with the footage allowing you to witness how 200,000 Brazilians lined the streets of Sao Paulo to say their final goodbyes to Senna who was eventually laid to rest following a 21-gun salute and a fly over by the Brazilian Air Force.