The Senna film: as seen by a Prost fan

Published: 20 June 2011

I finally got around to seeing Senna, the critically acclaimed, must-see film for F1 fans.

Senna the film was always going to be a challenge for me. Over the years since Ayrton’s tragic demise, he has become a legend – national hero of Brazil, virtuous man of faith, supernaturally gifted racing driver. As news of the film leaked out and the motoring enthusiast community began reappraised Senna, the acclaim has only grown louder. To be a Senna fan is a badge of honour for everyone from Lewis Hamilton via Clarkson down to thirtysomethings like me who watched Formula One as adolescents in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If you weren't a Senna fan you were doing it wrong.

Like I apparently did. You see, in spite of the popular surge in support for the late, great Ayrton Senna, he wasn’t my favourite F1 driver at the time. Alain Prost was.

Senna vs Prost

Actually, it was a close-run thing between Prost and Mansell, which makes me even less cool. But in the Senna vs Prost years of 1988-1990 I supported Prost, and that sentiment continued through to ’93 when Prost retired from Williams with his fourth world championship. The Professor was relatively calm, methodical and was one of those drivers that made driving fast look effortless. I liked that, and supported him, in spite of his questionable taste in haircuts, unfortunate nose and that cultural friction that occasionally occurs between the French and, well, the rest of the planet.

Senna in contrast was an intense, enigmatic figure who seemingly cared about nothing but winning. I respected his undoubted gift at driving through the dynamic limits of his racing cars and his astonishing pace in wet weather, but I never warmed to him as a personality. That made me a fairly uncool kid amongst F1 viewers at the time (even if they didn’t like Ayrton’s tactics many found him beguiling), caused bewilderment amongst Japanese friends when I lived there (he was Honda’s hero and beloved in Japan almost as much as his native Brazil), and puts me on the wrong side of history in Senna.

In Senna, Ayrton’s racing career is repurposed as the life of a tragic hero, and my favourite driver Prost cast as a calculating schemer, undermining the hero’s noble quest for honourable victory.  It certainly didn’t seem that way around to me at the time.

Films: skewing history?

In spite of excellent work editing period video footage and voiceovers together for Senna it still doesn’t feel that way to me now. In truth the film is lacking in the kind of depth an F1 geek would like to see in more detail – three pro-Senna F1 commentators propel the narrative, and a supporting cast of family and friends share their largely uncritical views. I would have been happy to have some of the conventional documentary ‘talking head’ interviews from a wider range of people. But of course I would, since I’m not a Senna fan. 

That isn’t to say I hated the man or his film by any means. The footage will take you right back to those years in F1, and was a tremendous nostalgia-trip for me. Much of the racing footage is fascinating stuff. Although I didn’t need to see Ayrton Senna frolicking in the surf in speedos, I’m sure his many admirers will be delighted.

Watching him argue with FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre at drivers’ briefings on the other hand was compelling, and I wish there had been more on the behind-the-scenes conflicts in F1 at the time, and less of the family home videos which said very little beyond Ayrton was a beloved son and brother, and knew how to have a good time. Typical Prost fan, I know… wanting a boring film about details instead of an exciting one about a folk-hero, 

We also know how the film ends, and here I must admit to finding the footage from Imola on that fateful weekend in 1994 depressing viewing. There’s no joy to be had watching racing drivers die, (don’t forget poor Roland Ratzenberger, whose demise is also shown in this film) whether you were a fan or not.

I didn’t like Senna much then, and I’m still not a fan now. But after watching Senna, I do miss him more.

>> Are you in the legion of Senna fans, or did you have a different favourite F1 driver in the '80s and '90s? Share your thoughts in the comments section

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