I never saw Ayrton Senna race.
I cried 17 years later when I saw SENNA – the documentary that revealed Senna as so much more than just the driver – this now at 22.
Do the math and had I seen the accident at the time, aged 5, I don't know if my passion for this sport would have increased or ended completely.
To me, Ayrton Senna was a myth.
One of the first things I learned from family members growing up watching the sport was how Ayrton Senna was a god among men.
Someone with a drive so innate to push himself to a level no one could equal. Someone who found tenths of a second in the most remote places on circuits. Someone so focused on winning, not just for himself, but his home country of Brazil in a dire period.
But most of all, I always read and heard he was the greatest driver who had ever lived. Sure, Gilles Villeneuve was revealed much in the same light – a gifted specimen taken far too soon and with a masterstroke of genius in extracting the maximum out of inferior machinery. But he wasn't Senna.
SENNA, at which I was one of more than 140 people treated to an early screening thanks to Mazda, shows exactly that “god among men” mentality. Yet, at the same point, Senna the driver is still humanized. That's largely thanks to the active partnership of the Senna family in making the picture, Formula 1 Administration and FOM releasing hours of footage, and director Asif Kapadia and his crew editing and putting the pieces together.
On track, Senna was often ruthless, cunning and determined to win at all costs. At one point in the movie, Senna confronted Sir Jackie Stewart when asked about his aggressive nature and his propensity for getting into accidents.
He replied he had won the most races within the three-year period from 1988 to 1990 and those first two World Championships; what he was doing was the essence of motor racing and competing to win.
It revealed much more about Senna to go toe to toe with Stewart, whose own legacy in this sport is the duality of his three World Championships and a push for greater safety from the especially dangerous days of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
He survived a period where a lesser caliber of driver or human, for that matter, might have folded under the political firestorm from 1989 through 1991. The period depicts Senna's arch-nemesis on track, Alain Prost, and a Prost ally through those three seasons in FISA, President Jean-Marie Balestre.
I find it stupefying that Prost turned into Senna when taking the chicane at Suzuka in '89 and was done on the spot, yet Senna was penalized following the aftermath.
After resuming with a broken wing, pitting, and then catching and passing Alessandro Nannini for the win, the post-race stewards meeting would condemn Senna's actions for resuming without taking the chicane.
Senna admitted he was, to put it mildly, “compromised” by the stewards, but fought on. Drivers listened and took notice when he raised the concern about tire barriers at chicanes later on, much to the dismay of Balestre and Roland Bruynseraede, the F1 race director at the time. Balestre's line of “the best decision is my decision” verged on being undercut by Senna's undeniable clout.
Fighting through the political battles, Senna overcame it all to capture a two-year period of success with back-to-back championships in 1990 and '91. Certainly Japan 1990 was “Senna's revenge,” yet to me it doesn't seem nearly as wrong as the injustice posed a year earlier.
The film really reveals what a miraculous effort it was at Brazil in '91, winning his home grand prix for the first time driving with only sixth gear. I haven't seen anything of that magnitude since I started watching in '96.
The game changed in 1992, when on the surface, the machines eclipsed the men behind the wheel. Electronics took over the game, particularly the 1992 Williams FW14 with active suspension highlighting its technical package as the most advanced car of its generation.
It began a 20-year-period where car exceeded driver, and suddenly, the level of performance one achieved in poorer equipment was much more magnificent.
That was Senna in 1993. For me, I wish more of that year had been shown in the film. It was by all accounts, one of the most fascinating seasons I've read about while studying.
Prost came back, Senna was stuck with customer Ford engines at McLaren while this young German called Michael Schumacher had factory Ford support at Benetton. It was Rubens Barrichello's first year in the sport, the last man besides Schumacher on the current grid to race against Senna. It was the last time without refueling until 2010.
And the drives Senna put in that year – in the rain at Donington Park, of course, along with Monaco, Brazil, Japan and Adelaide – were the final testament to his greatness.
In 1994, it shouldn't have gone so all wrong once the best pure driver joined the team that had produced the best car, in theory. Everyone in the theater knew how it ended, but I was still sick when it came to that point in the film.
Just seeing the words “San Marino Grand Prix” in 1994 flash across the big screen, I sunk in my seat. I wanted it to end. I couldn't stomach watching any of it – Barrichello's accident on Friday or the fatal crash Roland Ratzenberger had Saturday included.
Modern Formula 1 has changed the game where safety innovations are paramount and the drama has changed. We waited in the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix to pray Robert Kubica had survived his savage crash, which he not only did, but was back in a car within three weeks. Most importantly, there hasn't been a fatality in F1 since.
The field today has its share of incredible talent, no question, and is among the deepest in the sport's history. You wonder if any of them will reach the same mythical status, 20 years from now, that Senna achieved.
Some are close. Lewis Hamilton resembles him to a point – fiery, an overtaking demon, emotional and passionate – but has his detractors. Fernando Alonso has galvanized Ferrari around him just as he did with Renault in the mid-2000s, but hasn't always emerged cleanly from the political tussles of the modern era.
Together they came closest to mirroring the Senna-Prost days with the malaise of the 2007 season. The inter-team dynamics completely blew up with the end result of the “Spy-gate” controversy a massive fine, exclusion from the Constructor's Championship, and being defeated to the Driver's title by ex-McLaren man Kimi Raikkonen – for Ferrari.
The Hamilton-Alonso rivalry is close, but not on par with Prost-Senna. His current teammate Jenson Button can maximize his tires more than anyone on the grid, but the contrast between these two is in their styles, not outright hatred or internal war.
Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel? Same problem. So far, machinery has defined the difference more than natural ability; if anything, the tying link is Adrian Newey having designed the Red Bulls for more than half a decade after joining the team from McLaren and, of course, Williams before that.
In his career, Senna defined the word polarizing. Still, the documentary reveals his brutal honesty, passion and devotion to both the sport and the country he loved.
Behind the wheel, at his finest, was the mastery of the tighter and less safety-driven circuits of his era. Seeing the on-board footage, grainy, choppy and bouncing around from the ‘80s and ‘90s – particularly at Monaco – revealed the genius in its truest form. Just pure driving, a man who was greater than his machine, a driver determined to deliver victory, a kindred spirit driven by both his faith and his passion for his country. All while extracting the maximum from his car when it shouldn't have happened.
Twenty years from now will anyone make a similar documentary film about the current era, and who will rise up as the star on the same pantheon as Senna?
Simply put, SENNA is much more than a movie. It's a history lesson that celebrates all that can be right about the human spirit, and how a racing driver who I never saw personally can vault to icon status.
The film validates the myth.