That mad Brazilian bastard sure could drive
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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