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Senna film combines racing thrills with raw emotion

* Film features unseen footage on and off track
/ Source: Reuters

* Film features unseen footage on and off track

* Driver's brilliance behind wheel matched by charisma

* Great rival Alain Prost cast in less positive light

By Mike Collett-White

A new documentary on the late Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna combines the thrill of high speed racing with a touching portrait of the man behind the wheel, using unseen footage from on and off the track.

"Senna," which hits British theatres on Friday, paints a picture of a man who was passionate about his sport and sure of his talent but also frustrated at what he saw as political meddling in a world where money and technology had taken over.

Already a world champion and global star, he longingly recalled his days as a karting driver in the late 70s and early 80s, telling an interviewer that racing in those days was pure.

For British director Asif Kapadia, it was his first full documentary in which he eschewed talking heads and focused instead on Senna -- in the car, at the track, in feisty drivers' meetings, surrounded by screaming fans or at home with family and friends in Brazil.

"I felt there was something very special about this person," Kapadia told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Senna combined a deep spirituality, close relationship with his parents and professional integrity with the life of a global pin-up boy, and by showing his emotion during the good times and the bad he endeared himself to millions.

"If you don't know about him, then you should do," said Kapadia, who made the film for everyone, not just racing fans. "His life was thrilling, exciting and inspirational: he fought the system and corruption and stood up for a lot of good things.

"He was a special guy and what he stood for away from the track was almost more impressive than his genius in the car."


Reviews have been generally glowing.

"Sometimes a documentary will unexpectedly reach out and grab you by the throat, not giving you a second to breathe. That's the way it was with 'Senna,"' wrote Kenneth Turan in the LA Times earlier this year.

The success of the project hinged on the cooperation of Senna's family and Formula One commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, both rich sources of previously unseen footage.

Viewers are taken behind the scenes as Senna argues his case for safety measures at a heated drivers' meeting and storms out of another when he feels fellow drivers have turned on him.

We also see him relaxing in luxury boats with family and girlfriends, hear him discussing social inequality in his native Brazil and learn from his sister how he sought strength from the Bible at the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix of 1994.

In the dramatic denouement, Senna was clearly unhappy with his car at a time when teams were experimenting with new engineering, and his sense of foreboding only increased when Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying.

Formula One medic Sid Watkins recalled suggesting to Senna that he withdrew from the event, only to have to rush to the scene of the Brazilian's fatal crash on race day. Senna was 34.

Much is made of his fierce rivalry with French champion Alain Prost, with whom Senna frequently clashed and who is cast in a less positive light -- a fact some viewers criticised.

The documentary portrays Senna as the racing purist, whose instinct was to win at all costs, while Prost was a colder, more calculating driver who accumulated points and kept powerful figures at the head of Formula One on his side.

Kapadia said his aim was not to make a balanced, journalistic portrait.

"I was making a movie and I needed to follow a point of view," the director said. "I went in open-minded. As a film maker I think we've told an honest story. We're not picking on anyone, although this was never going to please the Prost fans."