Back in 1989, I was a brash seven-year-old who drove my parents insane by always going a million miles per hour. I would never do anything slowly. Should my parents look away for a second, I would be gone in a flash.

It was with this in mind that, on my 8th birthday, I got a present they thought symbolised my approach to life.  The book: a pictorial review of the 1988 Formula 1 season. What was Formula 1? I had no idea. All I knew is that the book was full of great pictures of the fastest cars on the planet and that got little eight-year-old me pretty excited.

That season was a watershed year in car racing.  On one hand it was the most lop-sided competition in sports history (two cars won everything and no one else had a chance). Yet, it was also one of the closest sporting events in history as the two drivers in the cockpits of these cars were the fastest drivers on the planet. The drivers: Alain Prost from France, and Ayrton Senna from Brazil.

I was reminded of this season a few nights ago when my housemate and I attended a charity pre-screening of the Senna movie. Raising funds for the Sydney Children’s Hospital, a bunch of petrol heads filled an empty cinema and watched over two hours of raw footage documenting the life of Ayrton Senna.

What we witnessed was one of the most brilliant movies I have ever seen. The entire film uses raw footage from TV coverage, home movies, behind the scenes shots, and outtakes to give an outstanding and, at times, confusing insight into the man who was Ayrton Senna.

You see, the most interesting aspect of the film wasn’t the recaps of sports events. What was fascinating to see was the psyche, genius, faith and arrogance of one of the most polarising sports stars in history.

The film begins showing Senna’s entry into Formula 1 where he quickly showed his ability. On the calendar’s toughest circuit, the winding streets of Monaco, in the rain, Senna was much faster than anyone else on the track despite driving a much slower car.

The hero and villain are painted early on. This race was stopped at half distance after Alain Prost (who was leading the race) demanded a premature finish due to the heavy rain. The film clearly establishes Prost as the ‘professor’, someone who knew how to play the politics of sport and undertake whatever tactics were necessary to win at the end of the season.

Senna, on the other hand, is shown as a relentless driver. Someone who would go for any gap; try and go around any corner a bit faster; try and set a lap time quicker than anyone in history; because to him the thrill of driving was greater than almost anything else.

There is, however, a deeper insight the film offers: the influence Senna’s faith had on his driving. In Prost’s eyes, Senna was a madman who “thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God.”

Indeed, Senna would read his bible every day, pray every day, and acknowledge his skills as a racer as “gifts God had blessed him with”. This fuelled him with a confidence in his own abilities that ‘drove’ him around the circuit in a remarkable way. As such, he could do things in a race car others could not, particularly when the track was wet.

It’s only towards the film’s end when you start to see his faith wavering. Not his faith in God, rather, his faith in his skills. The 1994 season saw him behind the wheel of a car difficult to drive, and the footage of Senna despairing at his lack of control is quite chilling, especially knowing that, 48 hours later, he would die at the wheel of his car.

His sister notes that, on the morning of Senna’s death, he read a verse in his Bible which said God would give him the greatest gift of all – God Himself. He then lost control of his car, careening into a barrier at 320 km/h which ultimately claimed his life.

Why he lost control is still (remarkably) anyone’s guess, but perhaps the greatest element of this movie is that it feels equally like a natural finish to Senna’s story, as it does a tragedy that the planet’s greatest driver was snatched from us far too early.

The film is part tribute, part investigative journalistic piece, part sports review, and part anthropological study. It is an astonishing piece of cinema and will leave you pondering questions far larger than you may be accustomed to.

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    • nossy says:

      08:59am | 08/08/11

      Had the privelege in 1993 to be present at Adelaide when Senna won his last race Dylan - Prost second and Hill third - all world champs. Schumacher was still a lad but you could see he was good. Senna was a brilliant driver but he occassionally made silly errors like one year at Monaco where he was leading by a mile , lost concentration and collected the barrier and was out of the race - but he was good. However time moves on and today I believe in young Sebastian Vettell we have a champion of Sennas and Prosts ilk.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF2d92A0tVA

    • Dylan Malloch says:

      11:29am | 08/08/11

      Your comment:Nice, Nossy.  I would have loved to have seen him race in person.  I do remember watching that race though - I was actually more of a Prost fan until more recent times.  Thanks for the comment.

    • nossy says:

      12:09pm | 08/08/11

      @Dylan Malloch - yes he was a perfectionist Dylan - I have had the privelege of trvelling to many circuits on the calendar too - the next one coming up Spa in Belgium is my all time favourite - what a circuit- Senna was brilliant around there too.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bemeS7dpgzc

    • Kebabpete says:

      11:56am | 08/08/11

      Nice article Dylan. The Punch is often too political (even when its not the comments always head that way), and its great to see someone write about something I love… F1 racing.

      Senna really was the best driver we’ll ever see. He drove at that point in time when the cars were part old school mechanical clunker that required a skilled driver, and part high end space age technology that required a computer engineer. If he’d been 20 years earlier or later he’d still have been a champion.

      I havent seen the doco yet but can’t wait. I’ve seen quite a lot of footage from his carting days and the guy was a freak then. Watching him blitz 19-20 year old men when he was just 13, and in the rain too! The guy was a genius! Not just a fan or pundits favourite either, ask any professional race driver who the best of all time is and most will say Senna.

    • Dylan Malloch says:

      02:18pm | 08/08/11

      Thanks mate.  Definitely see the doco, though.  It’s phenomenal viewing.

    • Jimmy says:

      02:29pm | 08/08/11

      I had the pleasure of meeting Ayrton in 1989 at a closed testing session at Silverstone. No media present. I found him to be a genuinely humble human being who was happy answering my silly questions while he fooled around with his remote controlled planes while the mechanics worked on the car. It was a wet day and he was still very quick (the old Hangar Straight into Stowe was phenomenal). No one could dance on the throttle like Ayrton and to me he is the greatest driver of them all. can’t wait to see this movie

    • Dylan Malloch says:

      09:15am | 09/08/11

      You got to meet him?  Awesome!  And agreed - he was the master in wet conditions.

    • Blake says:

      09:33pm | 08/08/11

      Vettel will never be classed as a great unless he learns how to win ugly and start overtaking….he only ever wins from pole…

    • Simon says:

      03:14pm | 09/08/11

      I was 14 when he died so I only remember seeing him drive a few times but I can’t get enough of the footage of his career.
      Dylan is spot on about this film (although Senna deserves so much respect and reverence that I think the headline above should be changed). I watched it a few months ago when I managed to get it on dvd, a 2.5 hour version, and I was gripped by it from start to finish. It is by far the best film about sport or a sporting identity ever made, in my opinion. I have it on dvd but I can’t wait to see it on the big screen this week.
      It’s an amazing insight in to the psyche of an incredibly talented man, who is a very different and humble kind of person. The most poignant part of the film are the scenes at his funeral in Brazil, and the reaction of the Brazilian public when his body is returned to his country. He was their idol and to think that one man’s life can have that much of an effect on a nation is just staggering. You simply have to go to see this film.  Such powerfully emotional scenes.
      After seeing this film I really want to go to Imola to visit the monument to Senna at the track, and to Sao Paulo to visit his grave.

 

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