Thursday, 2 June 2011


Asif Kapadia, 2010
BBFC rating: 12A

Documentaries examining motorsports, including their attendant tragedies, are popular this year, with Closer to the Edge still in cinemas as Senna is released. Sadly, this year's Isle of Man TT has already seem fatal accidents with a sidecar partnership both killed in practice earlier this week. Motorcycle racing is not the only dangerous sometime-road-based sport around, however. Last weekend's Monte Carlo grand prix gave us viewers a timely reminder that driving open-wheel sports cars round tight circuits at 200mph can be dangerous too. Sergio Perez's crash in the third qualifying session saw the first time since Felipe Massa's Hungaroring incident in 2009 that a driver remained in the car for minutes after coming to a stop with injuries of unknown severity - a tense scenario which fortunately had a happy ending on Saturday, as did Vitaly Petrov's less spectacular but still potentially nasty crash in the following day's race.

In fact anyone who pays any attention to Formula 1 will already know that Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian three-time champion, was the last driver to be killed in an F1 crash. Fewer people are likely to be aware of the internal politics and the macabre aura over that race weekend, and no-one had seen until this film the footage of Senna's backroom srguments with FIA bosses during pre-race driver's meetings, in which he pleaded for changes to be made to tracks to improve safety. In the post-screening Q&A at the preview I attended, the director said he saw footage of Senna criticising the specific corner on which his fatal accident later took place. However, he decided not to include that in the film - given the number of track features Senna remarked upon during his time in racing, he thought cherry-picking that footage would have added drama at the expense of authenticity.

I thought that was very admirable. And Senna is definitely authentic. The visuals are stitched together entirely from footage of Senna and, although there's the occasional snippet of interview voiceover to set context or explain what we're seeing, the story largely tells itself. The combination of previously unseen backstage footage and clips of classic F1 races on the big screen was for me entirely compelling. I thought the fact I found it hard to imagine anyone having a different reaction might just be down to my lack of imagination but surely not every reviewer who contributed to its 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating can also be a motorsport geek. In fact, even sport-hater Mark Kermode commended it on his 5Live show. Recommendations don't come much better than that.