Monday, December 19, 2011

Senna

Over the weekend I finally had an opportunity to check out "Senna", the documentary on the life of the late Ayrton Senna that was released over the summer to very good reviews.

I have to say the movie was excellent. As someone who has never followed Formula 1 racing all that much, I thought it was a good look into the life of a very complex man. On the racetrack, Senna was intense, fearless and brilliant, while off of it he could be very charismatic in public, but also quiet and introspective when alone or with friends and family.

He loved racing, but hated the political crap that went along with it, and like many drivers, time and experience exposed him to his own mortality and though he sometimes questioned why he should continue racing, he knew he had to because it was who he was.

Much of the film details Senna's time in F1, from his stunning runner-up finish to Alain Prost at Monaco in the rain in 1984 to his death in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy. Senna's numbers as an F1 racer are just insane: in 161 Grands Prix starts he won 41 times, sat on the pole 65 times and had an amazing 80 podium finishes.

Senna didn't just drive race courses, he attacked them, finding an edge to his car that few were able to match. By the time he joined Prost with the powerful McLaren team in 1988, he was on top of his game, and it showed as he won the world championship in three of the next four seasons.

That stretch of his career made for the most fascinating point of the movie. Though Senna and Prost, who also won three world titles, were able to somehow get along in the beginning, their competitive streaks and opposite personalities (and driving styles) quickly led to plenty of strife, much of which was unfortunately settled on the track in a way that at times seemed to leave both of them very conflicted.

Any working relationship they had went over the line in Japan in both 1989 and 1990, when blatantly deliberate racing incidents between the two at the series' penultimate race in Japan ultimately decided the world championships in each year. Prost wrecked Senna in 1989 in what he thought was a move to protect his series title, and when Senna was able to return to, and win the race, Prost protested the result and Senna was disqualified.

The next year, Senna returned the favor to clinch his own championship. It seemed like in both instances their actions went completely against what they stood for, but they held their noses and did what they needed to do in order to protect their own self interests.

In the end, I think Senna and Prost were more alike than they would have cared to have admitted, but were unable to see it because of the circumstances surrounding their lives. Really, if Senna were alive today they might be great friends, and in fact Prost is a trustee with Senna's foundation that assists in the education of Brazilian children, something that was very dear to Senna's heart.

Of course, we all know how the movie ends, but even so it is very difficult to watch. That particular race weekend was one of utter tragedy, and marked a turning point for Formula 1. Senna, who had moved to Williams in 1994, was driving a balky car that had been stripped of much of its technology after the team's dominant performances in the previous two years, which saw Nigel Mansell and Prost, respectively, capture titles.

He hadn't finished the first two races before coming to Italy, and became even more frustrated in practice as the car would not cooperate. Senna's angst grew even deeper when Rubens Barrichello, a fellow countryman and protege, was involved in a crash that sent his car into a catch fence before rolling upside down.

Barrichello walked away from that accident, but the next day Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying. The footage captured Senna and his team watching both accidents on television, and he was deeply affected by them. In fact, despite putting the car on pole for the race, many on his team were worried that Senna might not show up the next day.

In a way that only racers can do, Senna did show up the next day and was in the lead and in front of Michael Schumacher on lap 7 when something broke in the steering column of his car and it jumped sideways and into a barrier at 135 m.p.h. Senna suffered fatal head injuries and was declared dead a short time later. Amazingly, the doctor who attended to him said that Senna had no broken bones or bruises, and had the suspension pieces that struck his helmet and provided what many feel were the mortal blows missed him, he would have walked away.

The movie ends with his funeral, which was preceeded by a procession through the streets of Sao Paulo that was attended by almost three million people. Senna of course leaves a great legacy as a racer, and in fact is considered by many to be the finest Formula 1 driver ever. But much like Dale Earnhardt and ultimately even Dan Wheldon, his greatest contribution might be the improvments in safety that followed his death.

Today the Formula 1 series has one of the best safety records in racing, and to my knowledge has gone the longest of any major racing series in the world without losing a driver.

In all it is just a great movie, and well worth its 105 minute running time. Though primative compared to today's standards, the movie uses lots of in-car camera footage, which captures even more his skill and talent. He was a fascinating man and I feel like this movie captures him well.

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