Senna, the documentary, came out around two years ago, but I somehow didn’t get around to watching it until today. Recent conversations that veered around F1 would inevitably turn to this brilliant film, and I’d admit with mortification that I hadn’t seen it yet.
I didn’t know much about Ayrton Senna, except that he is widely considered the finest F1 driver ever, and that he would go to any lengths to win. He was loved and respected for his humility, but also criticised for his fiercely competitive nature. This documentary has helped put things into perspective. I knew of Senna’s rivalry with Frenchman Alain Prost, but footage from the 1989 and 1990 seasons really brought the acrimony to life. The discomfiture between the McLaren teammates was evident and the decisions taken by FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre seemed questionable. Senna’s championship victories didn’t come to him on a platter. He fought tooth-and-nail for them, and as the young upstart on the grid, he was obviously not going to make many friends. He doesn’t seem to have been manipulative or political- he let his driving do the talking.
Footage of Senna limping to victory at the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix in a car with a jammed gearbox is proof of his determination. He had wanted this home victory for a long time; the interviews explain how much it meant to his people. Sport always has the capacity to be that one bright spot that stands out in a relentlessly bleak stretch, and I’ll vouch for it. Watching the Brazilians revel as Senna brought home three Drivers’ Championship crowns, and then mourn his loss after the horrendous 1994 San Marino crash, I realised- dramatic as this might sound- how much of a support F1 had been to me during certain dark periods of my own.
I started following F1 racing in 2001, the year after Michael Schumacher took his first title with Ferrari. When my father watched the races on TV, I didn’t care much- all I knew was that the man in scarlet at the post-race press conferences was Schumacher, and the one in silver was Mika Hakkinen. I can never watch any sport without taking sides, so for some absurd reason I chose Hakkinen over Schumacher that year. But Schumacher won the championship, Ferrari regained the constructors’ title, and my fickle support shifted sides.
I saw bits of the last race of 2000, the Malaysian GP, and the entire podium celebrations- oh for the red wigs, the champagne and the delirious madness of the Ferrari heyday- and read the race report in the newspaper. Before I knew it, I was hooked to the sport and waited eagerly for the 2001 season to begin. From then on, it has been an unbroken decade of fanatical attachment to the sport. As I prepared for my engineering entrance exams and the pressure mounted, I would eagerly look forward to the F1 races, for the few blissful hours when nothing else existed, but the cars and a spectacular circuit. These were tense moments too- I’d follow qualifying keenly, guess at fuelling strategies, be heartbroken at a Ferrari loss or a Schumacher retirement (which, thankfully, were very few in number during those years of effortless-looking domination)- but all the sweaty nervousness was made up for by the sweet music of the German and the Italian anthems, and the signature Schumacher leap on the top step of the podium.
A girl in the documentary spoke of collecting newspaper clippings featuring Senna. I’ve done something similar too- I collected every scrap of Schumacher-related information I could lay my hands on, pictures, pages a friend tore out of her brother’s copies of the Sportstar, posters. The walls of my room were once plastered with F1 posters and newspaper cut-outs. I’d wear one particular skirt and a maroon tee on race Sundays because I believed they somehow aligned the stars for a Ferrari victory. (Call me hubristic, but to this day, I believe that Ferrari win only when I watch, and any other victory is an aberration.) The biggest ambition of my life was to watch an F1 race live at a circuit- one I did achieve at the 2009 Singapore GP, but with quite a few strings attached. Luca Badoer replaced the injured Felipe Massa after Michael Schumacher almost made a comeback- it was one of the largest disappointments of my life- and then Lewis Hamilton went on to win the race.
But this is mere fanaticism- what sports fans ‘suffer’ doesn’t come anywhere near the trials of sportspersons. The kind of passion that they need to be able to go out and perform under tremendous pressure, and yet enjoy what they do, is remarkable. Which is why it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, perhaps, that Casey Stoner has decided to retire from MotoGP. There probably comes a point when many sportsmen stop enjoying the sport because the pressure of expectations takes the carefree zest out of it. Would Senna have succumbed in similar fashion? Schumacher and Senna racing against each other must have been extremely exciting to watch, and possibly led to immense on-track battles: but we’ll never know.
As I watched the documentary, I couldn’t help thinking how different things would have been if the 1994 San Marino GP had been called off. After the death of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger on Saturday, should the interests of the sponsors really have been put in the forefront? More recently, the Bahrain GP took place in the face of protests against human rights violations, bearing testimony to the mercenary motives of the sport. Something drastic needs to happen for effective action to be taken. Senna looked clearly uncertain before the race- did he take the wheel with a premonition, knowing that this one fatality would help pave the way for a revamp of the safety regulations and save several other lives? Again, we’ll never know.
I have a newfound respect for Senna- for his sublime skills in the rain, his humility and his loyalty to Brazil. His story isn’t necessarily an inspiration just for F1 followers. I would have loved to watch him race live, and to bring his unsullied passion to the races. Schumacher is a driver much in Senna’s mould; their heir will have gigantic boots to fill.