The race weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was one of the blackest race weekends in the history of Formula One. The weekend started to go wrong when Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan took off over a kerb, violently smashing into the top of a tyre wall. Incredibly, Barrichello suffered only minor injuries, despite his car being destroyed and rolling over. But if that was a lucky escape, others would not be so fortunate. The following day, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenburger suffered fatal injuries in a high speed crash during qualifying. The race weekend continued, but even from the start, accidents continued. J.J. Lehto stalled his engine at the start of the race, and fellow driver Pedro Lamy was unable to avoid driving into the back of him, sending car parts and tyres flying, and resulting in several fans being injured. Later in the race, a tyre came loose from a Minardi car in the pit lane, injuring four mechanics.
But earlier in the race, a devastating crash changed Formula One forever. Ayrton Senna, driving for the Williams team, crashed off the track at the high speed (190mph) Tamburello corner. The race was red flagged as medical staff and race marshals rushed to the scene. Senna had suffered fatal injuries to his head.
Formula One had lost one of its greatest competitors, aged just 34.
Asif Kapadia’s strong documentary begins as Senna joins the Toleman team for the 1984 season. A memorable performance at that year’s Monaco GP marked him out as a real talent (he finished 2nd behind Alain Prost, who was in a much better car), and he joined the more competitive Lotus team for the 1985 season. Over three seasons, Senna won 6 races, before joining the McLaren team for the 1988 season.
It was at McLaren that Senna’s career would really take off. Alain Prost was McLaren’s star man, having won two of the previous three World Championships, and although he and Senna were regarded as the two best drivers in the sport, their relationship became strained as they battled it at the top of the standings. The film is unashamedly pro-Senna, and portrays Prost as somewhat of a pantomime villain, as he questions Senna’s motivations and beliefs, and is shown flirting with Selina Scott during a chat show interview.
During his time at McLaren, Senna became angered by politics in F1 and believed he was being unfairly treated. And it certainly seemed as though FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre favoured his fellow countryman Prost over Senna as the Brazilian was harshly disqualified from the Japanese Grand Prix in the 1989 season, which allowed Prost to become World Champion. Prost left McLaren for rivals Ferrari in 1990, and the pair again fought it out for the World Championship.
Senna won his third and final World Championship in 1991. At the end of the 1993 season, he left McLaren to join the Williams team for the 1994 campaign.
The film ends at that year’s fateful San Marino Grand Prix. Formula One owner Bernie Eccleston opened up the vaults to allow Kapadia to pick and choose from hundreds of hours of footage and the coverage he uses of that race weekend is as tense and dramatic and unsettling as any fictional story could ever be. Senna is shown watching footage of the Barrichello and Ratzenburger crashes and is visibly unsettled and disturbed. His friend and F1 doctor Sid Watkins tells him he should retire instead of race, but Senna refuses and starts an F1 race for the final time.
Asif Kapadia’s is a wonderful tribute to the man still regarded as one of Formula One’s greatest ever and is enthralling for F1 fans. It shows the passion Senna had for racing, but also for life, and what he meant to Brazil, a nation united behind one man at the pinnacle of sporting achievement. But it will also appeal to those who have little time for the seemingly more predictable and unexciting modern day racing, and perhaps re-ignite a passion for the sport for those that have lost it.