Paul P. Mealing

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Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Ayrton Senna, the movie, the life, the man

Notice that I didn’t say the legend because that would be so unfair, not only to Senna, but to the people who made this movie.

I saw this movie at a mid-morning session in mid-week at what is called a ‘babes in arms’ session, where mothers can bring their babies. So I was the only bloke in the cinema who didn’t have a baby, and I was surrounded by mothers with strollers and the odd father as well. Not surprisingly, the cinema was far from capacity to the extent that I expect they made no money for that viewing.

I need to make a confession: I’m a closet petrol-head, which, for most people, means that I’m one of those blokes who never grew up when it came to cars, motorcycles and anything else that goes fast. I didn’t review Eric Bana’s great autobiographic movie, Love The Beast, but this one is different. And you may well ask: how can you write a philosophical post about a racing car driver? Well, watch me.

For a start, Senna was a deeply complex person: very sensitive, which means that he was also passionate and temperamental. In this respect, I could identify with him on a personality level, albeit superficially. Senna was a person who could never hide what he was feeling. His temperament was more akin to an artist’s than a sportsperson’s. He strived for an authenticity that was very existential, despite his deeply and candidly held religious beliefs. In his early successes, he claimed it was because of his belief in God, but in truth, it was his belief in himself.

I’ve said many times that I don’t judge people for their belief in God (or not) and I don’t try to rationalise it either. But, in Senna’s case, his belief was part of what he was. God was as much a part of Senna’s makeup as his passion for racing cars (where ‘racing’ is a verb in this context). I’ve also said before (on this blog) that a belief in God can lead someone to extraordinary hubris or extraordinary humility. From what I read about Senna in the mainstream press during his Formula 1 career, I thought he was egotistical as most driven people are. But the film painted a different picture: more than one person spoke of his humility, including the F1 doctor, who became his friend, and, coincidentally, tried to talk him into retiring on the eve of his last fateful race. I think Senna’s humility was purely a result of his belief in God – it put the entire world into perspective for him – that there were things greater than him, greater than F1 championships, greater than life itself.

One cannot discuss this movie without discussing Senna’s genius and I don’t use that word lightly. If genius is defined by the ability to do what no one else can do then Senna qualifies in spades. On more than one occasion he produced performances that were considered ‘impossible’ under the circumstances. Watching his early races, he could make the car skate through corners, reminiscent of past masters like Nuvolari and Fangio. He demolished the opposition as if they were driving cars with half the power. In the wet he was unbeatable and in the dry he drove the car like he was driving in the wet. He was one of those rare drivers who could actually drive a car beyond its limit – to his limit and not the car’s.

The film is dominated by his career-long rivalry with Alain Prost, which became very personal and bitter. In 2 successive Japanese GPs, they put each other out of the race when the GP championship was hanging in the balance (on the first occasion they were driving for the same team). It goes without saying that Senna was loved in Japan, though not as much as he was loved in Brasil. Senna was loyal to his roots, both national and familial – it was part of who he was. He made it clear that he wanted to set up a fund to give under-privileged children an education. After his death, his sister Viviane fulfilled that dream and Prost is one of the trustees. Prost was also a pall-bearer at his funeral.

Senna also had a testy and, dare-I-say-it, openly confrontational relationship with F1’s boss at the time, Jean-Marie Balestre (FIA President). There is one scene in the ‘drivers’ room’, prior to a race, where they have a stand-up and heated argument. Balestre manages to save face but Senna gets his way because the other drivers support him. Many might argue that the film is unfair to Prost and I suspect that another version would give a different perspective on their ‘war’.

This is a sport where death is much closer than other ‘gladiator’ contests we see in the modern world but it would be wrong to assume that racing car drivers, and Formula 1 drivers in particular, have a callous disregard for life. Senna talks honestly and candidly about this aspect of his sport in one interview, after Prost claimed that Senna’s belief in God made him ‘dangerous’ on the circuit.

We see 3 deaths in this film, and everyone is clearly and deeply affected by them, none more so than Senna. There was a death during practice at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy (Austrian, Roland Ratzenberger) and Senna was deeply affected by it. It was after this incident that F1’s Chief Doctor, Sid Watkins, suggested that Senna retire and they go fishing together. In fact, after this incident it was unsure if Senna would even take his place on the grid. There was also an earlier incident in practice when newcomer and fellow Brasilian, Rubens Barrichello, had a nasty accident, and Senna climbed a fence to be by his compatriot’s side. And then there was an incident at the start of the race itself when JJ Lehto’s car stalled on the grid and was rammed by an un-sighted Pedro Lamy. There were more injuries in the crowd, however, (8 fans and a Police Officer) than on the track, caused by this incident.

In 1993, the previous season, the Williams racing team had changed F1 racing by adding electronics to many components of the car, including the suspension. This made them unbeatable, though Senna won the last 2 races in Japan and Australia. I didn’t know this, until I saw the film, but Senna won his last race and his last podium finish in Australia.

After Williams’ technological domination, F1 changed the rules for 1994 but not before Senna had changed teams from Mclaren to Williams. What was obvious straightaway, is that without its electronic ‘magic’, the Williams’ car was rubbish. This was evidenced by the fact that the best driver in the world struggled to keep it on the track. It was obvious from body language more than words that Senna was frustrated and stressed by his inability to get the car ‘balanced’ on the track.

On the morning he died, his sister claims that Senna asked God a question, which I fail to recall (go see the movie). The answer, according to her, was that he opened his Bible and read the passage that ‘God would give his greatest gift, and that was God himself’. Obviously people can read into that what they want.

At the end of the day, Senna died in a freak accident. He came off the track on a corner, that someone claimed no one should come off. People claim that his car ‘broke’ – in particular, it’s speculated that his steering failed. Watching the incident it appears that way: the car just spears off the track as you would expect if the steering suddenly failed at high speed (refer Addendum below). Even then, Senna should have survived except that a suspension arm flew up and hit his helmet. He had no broken bones and no bruises to his body. His friend, Sid Watkins, was with him when he died. He could tell from his injuries that he wouldn’t live and he claims that he’s not a religious man but when Senna sighed and gave up his life he felt like his spirit had left him. I have to admit I’ve had that experience myself, though only once.

I should inform you that much of the film, if not all, is poor quality video, but neither this nor the occasional screaming baby could distract me from being fully and emotionally engaged by this biopic. And I concede that it glossed over some of Senna’s questionable behaviour both on and off the track: for example, when he punched rookie driver, Irishman, Eddie Irvine, for ‘unlapping’ him in the 1993 Japan Grand Prix. Having said that, when he won against Prost in the 1990 Japan Grand Prix after colliding with him, it was obvious that he took little pleasure from the win.

But perhaps the most telling piece of video is not in the main body of the film but in the credits at the end. The filmmakers show bits of video of Senna enjoying himself with his family and clowning with his friends. In the midst of this ‘fun’ they show a clip where Senna has to drive around a car, recently crashed. It’s what happens after that that really shows what Senna’s priorities were, because he stops his car on the side of the track and runs back whilst other cars are still dodging the accident to check on the driver.

After his death, Senna’s friend, Professor Sid Watkins, became head of F1 safety and whether by fate or good management or both, Senna was the last F1 fatality as I write this.

Addendum: Here is an explanation of Senna's crash, the veracity of which I cannot confirm, but it gives the impression that it's based on 'black box' data.

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