Senna Brings an Obscure Legend to Light

Drove Fast, Died Young: A new documentary about Formula One racer Ayrton Senna.

ayrton senna 1 Senna Brings an Obscure Legend to Light

Professional car racing, like any dangerous sport, tends to attract people who are daring, confident and skilled. Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver who died at the age of 34 during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, was no different. Strikingly handsome, charming and ambitious, Senna makes for a captivating screen presence—an ill-fated matinee idol striding purposefully toward his untimely death in endless, fuzzy clips of archival footage. But while he lived quite literally in the fast lane, the new documentary about his life, which won the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance in January, drags. Senna’s accomplishments are impressive, but his story seems more suited to an ESPN special than a feature-length film. As long stretches of reverent but irrelevant footage unspool onscreen, it’s hard not to wonder, Why now? Why him?

Senna was born in São Paulo into a wealthy family. Naturally athletic and gear-headed, he began go-kart racing at age 13. But director Asif Kapadia doesn’t dwell on these early years, leaping instead to the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix that established Senna as a rising star of the Formula One franchise. In driving rain, Senna recovered from a slow start in “a car that was not going to win races” to pass every competitor on the track, including frontrunner Alain Prost—although a red flag caused final positions to default to an earlier lap, in which Prost was still leading. Senna took second place in Monaco, but went on to win six Grands Prix over the next three seasons, after which he joined Mr. Prost on the McLaren team (in Formula One, drivers partner with car manufacturers, sort of like baseball franchises, except that in racing members of the same “team” are still in competition with each other).

In the case of Senna and Prost, the competition was particularly bitter, and a good half of the film is devoted to the rivalry between the two racing stars. At the 1988 Portuguese Grand Prix, Senna almost forced Prost off the track, resulting in a warning from the FIA. The following year, at the Japanese Grand Prix, the two men collided on an escape road after Prost cut off his teammate on a sharp turn. Senna rejoined the race and won, only to be disqualified by the FIA for skipping a small portion of the track in his attempt to get his car into the pit for repairs. His license was suspended for six months and he was forced to pay a $100,000 fine. The footage used in the film strongly suggests that this disqualification was a direct result of a complaint by Prost.

The diminutive Frenchman certainly looked the part of the antagonist, even if his motives fell short of true malice. Standing a good six inches shorter than the strapping Senna, with a crooked nose and sad, watery eyes, Mr. Prost had no chance of upstaging the handsome Brazilian no matter how many races he won. But despite Mr. Kapadia’s best efforts, the rivalry never reaches the dramatic heights necessary to justify the amount of time he spends recapping it.

It doesn’t help that Senna appears to have had no other struggles on or off the race track. He loved his family, dated a string of models and generally enjoyed the adoration of the masses. He gave money to help poor children and continually expressed his deep faith in God. There were no injuries, no arrests, no drugs, no torrid affairs—none of the kinds of things that celebrity documentaries feed off of. And while Senna’s early death certainly qualifies him as a tragic, almost mythical hero, there is simply not enough material to make a compelling movie, even though Mr. Kapadia appears to have used every last frame of footage from the Formula One archives (there is, literally, not a single second of Senna that takes place in modern day, as interviews are presented as voice-overs, often, and to somewhat confusing effect, with subtitles).

A few sequences almost make up for the rest of the film’s lack of momentum. First, Senna’s emotional hometown win at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991 is made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that, thanks to painful muscle spasms, he can barely lift his trophy over his head. And the extended build-up to his fatal last race on May 1, 1994, finally jump-starts the dramatic tension that Senna so desperately needs—over an hour too late.

The days leading up to the crash seem overwhelmingly ominous in retrospect. On April 29, Rubens Barrichello, a fellow Brazilian driver, crashed during a qualifying session, breaking his nose and arm. On April 30, in another qualifying round, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed when his car careered into a concrete wall. Senna was visibly devastated by these accidents, and his then-boss Frank Williams (of Williams-Renault, the team to which Senna switched after McLaren) recalls in a voice-over that he told Senna to quit and go fishing.

In footage from the day of the crash, Senna looks troubled as he gets into his car—he clearly had reservations about going through with the race—and knowing what comes next makes it hard to watch. Point-of-view footage taken from inside Senna’s car is used throughout the film, but when Mr. Kapadia uses it here it is particularly disturbing. As the car whines down the San Marino course at breakneck speed, there is nothing to do but wince, preparing for the moment of impact.

If only the rest of the movie were half as gripping.

Running time: 106 minutes

Written by Manish Pandey

Directed by Asif Kapadia

Starring Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams



  1. Reinaldo says:

    It was not Frank Williams that asked Senna to Stop and retire, It was his friend Dr. Sid Watkins. Dr. Sid, head of the Formula One on-track
    medical team and Senna’s friend, recounts a conversation with Senna in
    which he tries to convince Senna to quit. “Let’s go fishing,” he says.

  2. Zeotropus says:

    Silly review. Una was not paying attention while watching the movie, which is pretty much the only demand on a film reviewer. No other way to miss the person of Sid Watkins who was a crucial character in Senna’s life.  The live footage from behind the wheel is thrilling and she was probably dozing to have missed it. It seems she is more interested in  ‘drug arrests and torrid affairs’. In which case she should stick to TMZ and leave real cinema alone.

  3. Masonjar90 says:

    It’s a very good movie.The whole story is very interesting. An ESPN special?!  ESPN has never done anything even a quarter as well done as this film is. It transports you back to the late 80’s early 90’s and it is a trip well worth taking.The version I saw had the interviews presented in full on screen and I was riveted for the almost 3 hour runtime.

  4. Nick says:

    Has some disgruntled film student-intern from NYU been assigned to review this movie? What pathetic disconnect from emotions. A waste of interweb space. 

  5. Zeus says:

    I think this Una lady has some aversion to aports, or maybe just can’t move past her few core interests. Which is a sad state for a film critic.

  6. Bruno says:

    they used every last of frame to do the documentary??????

    You dont know nothing about SENNA……

    with you knew what the guy did you knew that the movie didnt show not even 20% off his achivements….. they left out the 92 and 93 seasons, where with a very inferior car SENNA did things that even GOD doubts….. search in youtube Monaco 92, Brazil 93 and the greatest lap of all times in Donigton 93…….  not to mention hungary 91 and 92, phoenix 90, monza 90, canada 88…………………………………………………….

  7. Fast cars, good colors, hot hot HOT engines. Perhaps her pony won’t prance? Can-Ams disqualified Hall and his blazing fast vacuum chaparral. Amazing what can be done when new thought(s) trample old line or outdated stereotypical thinking. Sing loud, long and be ready to put foot thru turbo when mood strikes. Granted 143mph on calif freeway WAS over the top. Stuff happens and occasionally there IS a reason. zoom zoom lol.

  8. ryikanin says:

    this women is ridiculous, i dont even know where to start

  9. michael says:

    Isn’t an obscure legend an oxymoron?    The United States is about the only place where he would be considered obscure.  Of course, sports writing is dominated in this country by people who think driving a race car is something they could do with about an hours training and thus gets no respect.  Anyway, I have yet to see this movie so I won’t comment until I do, but most reviews have been more favorable.

  10. RB says:

    I am trying to be as objective as I can here. Una Lamarche, I am guessing is a movie reviewer, and not well educated on motorsports. This is the only way I can begin to comprehend what I have just read. The column about the “..Obscure legend…” (contradicting words) seems to be an assignment that fell in someone’s lap that would have rather been watching tv or hanging out with their friends.
    A few points:
    -No, every last frame of footage did not come from the F1 archives. That is actually what made this so special. If that were the case, then all the footage could have been watched on Youtube.
    -No, it was not Frank Williams that told him to retire.
    -Yes, you are correct, none of this takes place in “modern day”. There is a sad reason for that. That observation or critique in your case, seems to highlight your ignorance. Documentary defined:
    -doc·u·men·ta·ry: Movies, Television  based on or re-creating an actual event, era, life story, etc., that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements
    -The reason it focuses on only certain moments and seasons is because the list and examples of  his achievements and skills are too expansive to cover in one film.

    Hopefully, your next assignment won’t be such a waste of your time and be better suited to your interests. Which also shows that as a critic you do not possess the skill to be truly objective, as a proper critic should be.

    I’m sure Michael Bay will have a budget blasting coming out soon. Or Linsay Lohan will get arrested AGAIN.

  11. Kisii says:

    Obscure? Did you see his funeral? It was in the movie. How obscure were the millions? Just because you didn’t care about the subject matter beforehand, and still don’t care about it after the movie does not mean that the film is bad.

  12. Anonymous says:

    A movie about the greatest racing driver ever and it gets 2/4 stars?  I’ve seen this documentary and was totally in awe of this man.  No, he did not lead a typical celebrity life of drugs, and scandal.  That is not what this movie is about.  This is about the meteoric rise and fall of this legend.  This is a glimpse into the back story behind hid prolific racing career.  A chance to see the man, not the driver, and is succeeds magnificently.  I was not a Senna fan before learning about this movie, but the things Senna accomplished on a track when F1 cars were monsters with barely any  aerodynamic tracking and engines pushing 12oo hp was just awe inspiring…And I don’t even like Formula 1.  Sorry there were no drugs, or arrests, or scandal to make this a good movie..there’s always Hollywood.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Uhh..  I don’t think I watched the same “Senna” as this lady.  The one I watched was both riveting and poignant.  We sat glued to our seats for the ~3 hours of the extended version.

    (disclaimer:  I actually OWN a car, and enjoy driving it. )

  14. Jen says:

    I think her Huffington Post bio says it all:

    “Una LaMarche is a writer, editor, and karaoke enthusiast living in Brooklyn. She is the managing editor of The New York Observer and her writing has appeared in BlackBook, Strut, and Gotham, among other publications. When she’s not trolling the internet for celebrity blind items or bidding on old Sassy magazine issues on eBay, Una documents her life, pop culture obsessions, and red carpet fashion throw-downs on her blog, The Sassy Curmudgeon.”

  15. Raghu Patibandla says:

    Lame review,  instead of giving credit for making a compelling documentary out of  original yesteryear footage, reviewer talks about lack of  “modern” footage. Not gripping??? I watched with a bunch of enthusiasts couple months ago, and it was the best movie I ever watched period. 

  16. Terjay says:

    “Obscure legend”? Pardon my french but fuck the right off.

  17. Mehmet Demirci says:

    I couldn’t care less that Ayrton Senna’s life lacked “the kinds of things that celebrity documentaries feed off of.” What a dumb criticism. This is not a fictional script, nor a reality TV show. This was real life. You are also presenting the lack of lengthy interviews as a weakness whereas this choice made the film much stronger. It is dumbfoundingly lazy to crap on a documentary because it didn’t fit the nice little template in your head about how documentaries should go. I recommend E! to you, you would love their documentaries and maybe then you’ll spare us the nonsensical drivel.

  18. HIRISC says:

    Ms Marche,

    The subtlety and dimensions of F1/ F1 driver of Senna’s stature (in the 80’s-90′) elude you.

    I hope your misguided review doesn’t deter anyone from watching this amazing documentary.