The verdict that so-and-so is “a legend” is passed too frequently and glibly these days. Once probed, there is often scant evidence to prove the case. But, after watching Asif Kapadia’s engrossing (if ten minutes too long) documentary, Senna, it is clear that there is an abundance of evidence to justify Ayrton Senna’s place in the pantheon of sporting legends.
Kapadia presents a chronological biography of Senna using dramatic footage not only of Senna racing, but of the politics and arguments behind the Formula 1 scenes. As the film unfolds, the Tamburello corner that took his life comes into view. With little commentary or talking heads to colour one’s opinion of the man, the footage is allowed to speak for itself and the audience (especially people like myself who know little about F1) are allowed to come to their own conclusions about Ayrton Senna. There is something uncomplicated and refreshing about this approach.
There is all the drama of Senna’s rivalry with the taciturn Frenchman, Alain Prost. There is remarkable footage of Senna racing and when racing in the rain, doing so with an inspiring fearlessness. There is Senna speaking his mind and standing up for what he believes in. There’s Senna the playboy and symbol of hope for the people of Brazil. But, as Simon Barnes, points out:
Senna’s response to the separation imposed on him by his gifts was humility. It was not he who was great, it was God. His talent was both burden and gift. His great rival, Alain Prost, openly scoffed that Senna’s problem was that he believed he was immortal, but that was not the case.
Senna never saw himself in messianic terms. He saw himself as a vehicle, a strange thing for a driver, but he was a vehicle for God’s power on earth. After one particularly brilliant drive, he said in wonder: “I saw God.” For him, there was far more to sport than victory. Such things are just stations on the way to a greater revelation. Sport reveals truths – about humans and their relationship with the world, about God too, if you will – that are far greater than two-nil or three sets to love.
It is clear that Senna was no mystic in a yellow racing helmet. The film makes clear he enjoyed too much the sensual pleasures of life. However, Senna does appear to have had a sense that he was set apart, that his remarkable talent was pure gift from something that transcended his own abilities and finiteness. For him, that something was God.
His was a talent that pushed him beyond ordinary human limits, to levels unimaginable and previously unseen. He could see the gap that no one else could see and take the risks (often with his own life and sometimes with others lives) that no one else would. It wasn’t just his expertise in a car, pushing it to the outer edge of its limits, that people admired but his mental stamina in achieving this. Senna manages to capture this – the flair of an incredible sportsman and the inner world, with its own chiaroscuro, that can turn a man into a legend.