He always raced best in the rain.
Brazilian car racer Ayrton Senna was probably the greatest F1 formula racer in history, having won the F1 world championship three years in a row. No one can really pinpoint exactly his style, only to acknowledge that everything he did, he did faster than all the other racers. He was an intensely focused man, who would always be more concerned with the straightforward act of racing than he was with any sort of sponsorship or politicking. Like any great athlete, he was preoccupied with maintaining purity in his sport.
This is not to say he wasn't prone to bouts of pride. Senna famously had a rivalry with the French racer Alain Prost, which involved quiet press conference barbs off-track, and a few rather dangerous collisions on-track. The rivalry started out playful, but eventually evolved into something more personal. After an infamous collision in 1985, each party blamed the other for the mistake, and accusations and bad blood remained floating in the air for years. Collisions in F1 racing, by the way, are hardly common; this is not a chest-thumping NASCAR party. This is car racing that resembles actual athleticism, and professional engineers are involved. Senna was famously accused of having more car-on-car contact than any other racer in F1 history. Senna, outraged, rejected such claims, asking instead that you focus on his accomplishments.
Senna was also a deeply spiritual man, and explained in interviews that when he reached a certain speed, and the track merely started to dictate to him how fast he needed to go, he could casually pull away from the other drivers, and reach a trance-like state that resembled meditation. Racing, it seemed, was a form of prayer for him. Because of his fights for racing purity, his open prayer, and his pride in his home country, Senna was something of a legendary hero in Brazil. He appeared on Brazilian TV often, and, in one hilarious clip, is seen guest appearing on Xuxa's television show. The way the two interact, it's pretty clear that Senna and children's show superstar Xuxa were having an affair. It's actually kind of cute.
Senna eventually died in a crash in 1994. A year previous, the racing commission had banned the use of special on-board computers that would regulate tire spin, and let the F1 cars stay more stable on sharp curves. After the computers were taken away, collisions saw a huge increase, and drivers were injured far more frequently than in the past. Senna fought strongly fro the reinstatement of the computers, and was crestfallen each time a car spun out and put a driver in danger. Was it this very glitch that caused his death? No one knows for sure. After he died, though, the stabilizers were reinstated.
Asif Kapadia's documentary film Senna hits DVD this week, which is something of an event, as the film caused a minor stir when it was released last summer. The film is tight and objective and presents some of the best documentary filmmaking possible. No re-enactments, no talking-head interviews, Senna focuses clearly and sharply on Senna himself, and constructs itself using only found footage from the '80s and '90s. There is no protracted when-he-was-a-child introduction, there is no insufferable philosophizing from the subject as he looks back on his life. There is only the immediate moment. We do hear the voices of relatives and sport commentators talking about Senna's accomplishments, but we get more from the frustrated and joyous expressions of Senna on and around the track. Here was a man who knew racing better than he knew anything, and who lived deeply in the world. He did not have a life of off-track antics. In many Hollywood biopics, filmmakers tend to give all people a kind of heroic arc of fall and redemption. Senna, by contrast, sees only the intensity of one man's talent and interest.
Odd that I, who ordinarily have no interest in car races, should be so wrapped up in this man's life. Kapadia brought us right up close to the man, and it's hard to stay separate from his hard eyes and his joy upon winning. Well, maybe not joy. Senna says in one interview that when he wins, it's no so much a victory as it is a relief. He has returned to Earth with his victory. For a brief moment, he touched God.
The DVD of Senna has few features, but there is an hour of talking-head interviews that acts as a fine supplement to the film. He finally get to hear more from his peers what Senna did to the world of racing, and why he was such an important figure. In the film, we get to see how he was a local hero. In the interviews, we get to see a passionate but more technical side to his life and career. As an additional meditation, the DVD also includes a few minutes of Senna's home videos. Commentary tracks have always seemed dubious affairs to me for documentaries, but and this one – with the director, the writer Manish Pandey, and the producer James Gay-Rees – eschews the usual production struggle stories, focusing instead on more Senna stories. They're fun to listen to, but I didn't have to listen to much; the film speaks for itself.