I’ve never liked formula one motor racing; a tedious, ear-splitting pseudo-sport in which pampered millionaires compete in oversized, petrol guzzling cigarette packets. It was with some surprise, then, that I found Senna to be among the most thrilling sports films I’ve seen.

Asif Kapadia, the film’s director, largely succeeds in countering the prejudices of those uninitiated with formula one. The British filmmaker sifted through 15,000 hours of footage of Ayrton Senna’s life a to create this 106-minute documentary. What emerges is a picture of a flawed and complex man competing in a sport he seemed to love and loathe with equal measure.

Senna almost quit formula one in disgust in 1989 when his great rival, Alain Prost, convinced officials to deny him the championship on a technicality. Nicknamed “The Professor” for his cold and calculated approach to competition, Prost provides a perfect counterpoint to the Brazilian’s fiery Latin temperament and also offers an insight into the politics and ruthlessness of the sport.

Rather than quitting, Senna adjusted to become just as unyielding as his French rival. He would often force a life-threatening crash rather than concede his position on the track. However, he also worked behind the scenes to improve the safety of the sport and was clearly deeply affected when other drivers came to harm. Similar inconsistencies are also evident in his personal life. We watch Senna living the life of a millionaire playboy yet discover he anonymously donated more than $80 million to helping underprivileged children in Brazil.

Senna’s talent behind the wheel is never in doubt. We are treated to an over-the-shoulder view as this driver that many rate as the greatest of all time makes his car dance with the track.

The film does give short shrift to Ayrton’s critics; it would be fascinating to hear more from those who considered his driving wildly dangerous. There are also several episodes in his life not mentioned in the film, including an altercation with Eddie Irvine that led to him punching the Irish driver in the face. But this is a spectacular sports documentary. It succeeds in shedding light on an enigmatic sporting genius and, by highlighting the best and worst of what formula one has to offer, will change more than a few minds about this most divisive sport.

The details: Senna is playing in selected cinemas nationally.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey