Dr Sid Watkins with the late racing car driver Ayrton Senna (right) in a still from the documentary on Senna's life.
Dr Sid Watkins with the late racing car driver Ayrton Senna (right) in a still from the documentary on Senna's life. Drive

The fast life of Ayrton Senna

''BE CAREFUL, you still have so much to do.'' Ayrton Senna, on May 1, 1994, acknowledges the advice of his good friend and formula one doctor Sid Watkins with gravitas but without the awful foreknowledge of audiences watching the documentary that carries his name.

As one among the millions around the world who closely followed Senna's brilliant but temperamental career with a mixture of awe and amazement, you just want to reach up and through the big screen and shake the intense Brazilian superstar by the shoulders. To tell him on that fateful day at Imola in Italy to give in to the sense of foreboding that so disturbed him following the death the previous day of fellow driver Roland Ratzenburger. To abandon his steely determination to succeed at all costs. In short, you want to tell him not to get into that Williams F1 car on that day.

He did, of course, and history reflects that the triple world champion's life ended when - leading the race following a safety car restart - his car went straight ahead at the high-speed Tamburello corner and slammed into a crash barrier.

It was a big hit but surprisingly not as big or ugly as one that fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello had walked away from with minor injuries just two days earlier.

A highly religious man, Senna always believed God was looking over him. But at the age of 34, it turned out that even his faith could not protect him from the broken suspension component that flew through the cockpit at the precise height and angle to pierce his helmet and inflict fatal head injuries.

Senna - the movie - deals sensitively with the shock that reverberated around the racetrack and through the motor racing fraternity that day and around the world in the days following the tragedy. In his native Brazil, where unemployment and homelessness were rampant, he was beyond a hero. The outpouring of grief was unprecedented in that country.

The early part of the film uses a fabulous array of footage to paint the picture of Senna's meteoric rise. Director Asif Kapadia, who won two BAFTA awards for his first feature, The Warrior, was granted unfettered access along with producer James Gay-Rees (The Real Howard Spitz, Exit Through the Gift Shop) to the sport's archives by F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula one pit garages are typically bastions of secrecy where drivers, engineers and mechanics confer in hushed tones over the latest mega-expensive widget. In a world where races and world titles can be won and lost in hundredths or even thousandths of a second, keeping your rivals in the dark is crucial.

That's what makes some of the fly-on-the-wall camerawork in Senna so special. Much of it was shot in the days when cigarette advertising flooded the sport's coffers, so Kapadia and Gay-Rees discovered an embarrassment of riches when it came to sifting through the footage.

''By Imola at the end of the movie, Senna has pretty much got 40 cameras on him everywhere he goes, so it became like cutting a drama,'' Kapadia says. ''We could literally have a mid-shot, a reverse, a two-shot profile and a high-angled helicopter shot if we wanted.''

Working Title Films co-chair Eric Fellner says the array of material meant they could be highly selective. ''It sounds a bit nerdy but we always tried to find the angle that hadn't been broadcast,'' he says. ''And then a lot of the stuff in the garage with Senna and the brilliant sequences of the drivers' conferences, no one has ever seen that.''

The production team also had access to some fabulous in-car and aerial footage. Early in the film, they dwell lovingly on the day in 1984 - a decade before his death - that the then-unheralded Brazilian tore through the rain-soaked streets of Monaco. He passed six former or future world champions on the way to what should have been his maiden victory but, amid scenes of confusion, the rain-halted race was instead awarded to Frenchman Alain Prost.

There are the three world titles, of course, and perhaps most poignantly, his first victory on his home track in Brazil in 1991.

An intensely patriotic man, Senna was so determined to win before his home crowd that he drove the final part of the race with his car jammed in sixth gear. The effort took such a toll that he passed out after crossing the finishing line and his hands had to be pried from the steering wheel before he could be assisted from the cockpit.

Every good story has a villain and Senna has two - racing rival Prost and FIA boss Jean Marie Balestre. Perhaps because he hailed from outside the sport's European stronghold, the intensely competitive Brazilian soon made enemies of the two Frenchmen, who were among F1's most influential figures.

The headbutting between Senna and Prost directly affected the outcome of at least two world titles, with the pair deliberately ramming each other at pivotal moments. ''I wanted to punch him in the face but I was so disgusted I could not do it,'' said Prost after one collision.

It was well known, even to race fans watching on television from the other side of the world, that the animosity between the pair - teammates at the dominant McLaren outfit for much of the time - was palpably real both on and off the track. It clearly was not just a PR-manufactured rivalry to promote the sport or the team.

''It had to be this way,'' Senna is heard to say after deliberately crashing into the little Frenchman, crushing any hope Prost had of snatching the 1990 world title, gifting it to the Brazilian.

It is a statement that says much about Senna's almost maniacal will to win and haughty self-righteousness and is one of a number of moments that demonstrate Senna to be anything but the saint his legacy might suggest.

The ongoing stoush with the feisty Frenchman ramps up the drama but also provides a poignant postscript in the wake of Senna's death. Prost not only acted as one of Senna's pallbearers but also works to this day as a patron of a charity established in Senna's name.

Prost, like his rival, is shown at times to be calculating and ruthless, both on and off the track. But his magnanimous gesture, a mark of respect to Senna's family, is a warming moment in one of the sport's chilliest rivalries.

One wonders if Senna would have extended the same courtesy had the positions been reversed. Perhaps his strong faith may, too, have led him to forgiveness.

Balestre's role is a small but important one as the authority figure that no amount of Senna's talent nor pig-headed stubbornness could overcome. Senna believed the French administrator favoured countryman Prost - a stance guaranteed to rile the feisty Brazilian.

Late in the film, a talented young driver named Michael Schumacher plays a cameo role as the target of Senna's finely honed animosity by winning races in a Benetton car that many - including Senna - suspected was bending the regulations, on his way to the first of his seven world titles.

Perhaps it was that perception of cheating that so enraged Senna that he felt compelled to drive that day at Imola, when he was clearly conflicted about doing so.

One answer the film is not prepared to give - nor even delve into - is the issue of why Senna crashed. It has been established that a steering column failure occurred, although various engineers have questioned whether this caused the accident, or happened during it. The debate still rages 17 years later and was probably considered too fraught to be even cursorily touched upon.

Even lacking that punctuation mark, Senna remains real, raw and relevant, laying bare the soul of a talented but flawed genius and leaving you to be the judge of his place in the pantheon of the sport's greats.

  • Senna screens during the Melbourne International Film Festival (July 21-August 7), opening nationally on August 11.

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