You hold a memory clear in your mind and then years later you meet someone who shared the experience with you, a family picnic, a wedding, whatever, but their remember it in such a way as to make you question your own memories, indeed your own capacity to remember. That’s what I felt watching the new documentary Senna (2011), which charts the meteoric rise and tragic death of Brazilian driving ace Ayrton Senna. People who already love Formula One and motorsports will need little convincing and will be amply rewarded with the behind the scenes footage and a commentary which is revealingly intimate.
Part of this is undoubtedly to do with the story behind the racing. Ayrton Senna was a middle class nice boy who never quite grew up. Full of charm and vivacity, his obvious skill and his love of winning him saw him progress from karting to Formula Three and finally launched him into the upper regions of the racing community. Senna’s bright-eyed innocence becomes sorely tested by the combined machinations of his one time team mate and then rival Alain Prost, who stands as the villain of the piece and the wider racing bureaucracy who kept moving the goalposts to Senna’s disadvantage and the endangerment of the drivers in general. The documentary is skilful and fast paced narrative made up entirely of retrieved footage.
Alongside the psychodrama of fratricidal competition between Prost and Senna, there is the sense of Brazil finding for the first time of figure of international standing. It helps as well that the period adds its own charm. Whether it’s Selina Scott delivering a waspish rebuttal to the flirtatious Prost or the fact that the personalities in racing far outshine the more intervening invasion of charisma free replicants like Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher, Senna delivers both as a tale of a time as well as one of achievement and ultimate loss.