It’s clear that, as an ardent F1 fan and geek, the Senna film would have to be catastrophically bad to disappoint.
We went to the special JAonF1 screening of the film and it’s fairly easy to come to the conclusion that it’s effortlessly on the top step of the podium of motor racing films.
Certainly if, like me, you can remember Prost vs Senna in the days when F1 coverage was slotted into Grandstand and the nearest equivalent to today’s constant stream of online information was Ceefax, it’s a heady mix of nostalgia coupled with what seems like the DVD extras of the era that we never got to see.
The film excels over a lesser conventional documentary by not having lots of modern day interviews in front of carefully gradiented backgrounds or blurry reconstructions of a dark haired man walking into rooms accompanied by a dour voiceover. All of the footage is real, from grainy local Brazilian tv interviews with a young Senna to seeing him discussing with Adrian Newey the problems of the car that would kill him the following day.
Enough time has passed in F1 that, aside from a clip with a young Barrichello, footage of a less feisty (but giant spectacle wearing) Eddie Jordan or the reminder that Schumacher was right on Senna’s tail in Imola 1994, this film is clearly of a previous era. The cars were racy, twitchy and on the edge, the politics of Jean Marie Balestre remind how Max Mosley came as a welcome relief. The TV coverage, press constraints and fashions of the time can often make this feel more like the seventies than the nineties, before F1 really came into its own in the immediate pre-internet era as Bernie started to shape it into the global brand we know today.
Any criticism of the film is the convenience of Prost (or Prowst as the main American commentary acting as narration constantly refers to him as) is painted as absolute pantomime bad guy. This is either a shocking retelling of history or (perhaps more shockingly) telling a truth that can finally emerge now the politics of the day have faded. Did he have Balestre wrapped round his finger?
My recollection of the time is him portrayed as a polite underdog to Senna’s bad guy. Certainly as a movie, Prost being the baddie is a perfect foil, but one can’t help but wonder if the extent of it is a stretch too far.
Either way it shows that politics, and more importantly the unseen politics, is and was as big a part of F1 as aerodynamics and driver skill, and a similar film of the Schumacher era would be just as enlightening.
The film reaches its horrifically inevitable climax at Imola 1994. And such an era-defining moment for the keen F1 geeks will be viewed in different ways. For me as a fourteen year old I remember watching it over roast dinner and actually cheering as he crashed, such was my hatred for the man who at the time I regarded as a great driver but a bit of a dick (Alonso anyone?). But the culmination of the calamity of events over that weekend feel almost unbelievable and perhaps brings home more than anything else that these aren’t just F1 drivers in photos and embroidered on caps, but people too.
The world of F1 that this film shows us is of a lost era, before the elaborate motor homes and dull-talking-press-release-drivers. The scenes of Senna in drivers briefings make F1 feel like any other job with disgruntled employees arguing over petty matters and the tensions of office politics.
But will this film work for non F1 fans? I think yes, it is much more about the man than the racing, the actual racing clips are cut woefully short for my eyes, but I (like most actual fans) would happily sit in a cinema and watch all his races back to back.
This film helps cement Ayrton Senna as a sporting great that transcends his sport, like a Pele or Ali. And that cannot be a bad thing.