IN the high-speed world of Formula 1 racing, German driver Michael Schumacher is considered by many pundits to be the greatest athlete on four wheels, winning the World Championship a record seven times.
His dominance began in 1994, but that season will be remembered less for Schumacher taking the championship ahead of Damon Hill after they controversially collided on the track in Adelaide, and more for the loss of Formula 1’s arguably greatest and most unpredictable talent.
On Friday, April 29, that year at the San Marino Grand Prix, Rubens Barrichello was badly injured in the Friday qualifying session and the next day, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger lost his life navigating the Villeneuve curve at high speed.
During the main race on Sunday, three-time champion Ayrton Senna’s car left the track after the Tamburello corner, colliding with a concrete wall.
He died soon after.
Made with the blessing of Senna’s family and the co-operation of Bernie Ecclestone, Asif Kapadia’s documentary pays glowing tribute to this handsome and charismatic sportsman.
Painstakingly constructed from hours of race footage, photographs, interviews and archive material, Senna celebrates the life of the Brazilian Formula 1 driver, whose death sparked a radical overhaul of safety procedures.
Kapadia’s film opens in the late 1970s with 18-year-old Ayrton burning rubber in a go kart.
He quickly moves up divisions, making his debut in a Formula 1 car in 1984. Senna comes second in Monaco in appalling conditions and would have overtaken leader Alain Prost, had the race not been called off.
Thus begins an intense rivalry with the Frenchman, the reigning champion, who reacts angrily to one tactical collision: “Ayrton has a small problem. He believes he cannot kill himself. That’s a danger to everyone.”
Those words resonate chillingly as the film accelerates with sickening inevitability towards the tragic events of Sunday, May 1, 1994.
Equally moving is archive footage of Senna confiding, “There is a lot still to do in my life. I don’t feel happiness today, but I have plenty of time to achieve that too,” unaware of his impending date with destiny.
The love and attention lavished on every frame of Senna are apparent, from the intimate home movies of the family together to the candid testimonies of the people who were there, including the trackside doctor who watched Senna take his final breath.
“He sighed and his body relaxed. I’m not religious, but I thought that was the moment his spirit departed,” the medic recalls.
Adrenaline-pumping footage from the cockpit of Senna’s car in Monaco is a stark reminder of how close drivers have to steer to the crash barriers.
Our nerves are in tatters, and our eyes glistening with tears.