Why the pointless Prost-bashing does Senna movie no favours

| 19 Nov 2013

Silverstone has never been the most charismatic of places, but I retain a certain affection for it following my visits to the British Grand Prix in the days before attendance required a second mortgage. Each summer from 1988-'91, Dad and I made the trip across the Cotswolds – up to Cirencester, then Bibury, Burford, Deddington and Aynho – to watch practice.

In 1989, we sat in the queue on Friday night while Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA played on the tape deck in Dad’s Citroën Visa GTi. Once in, we met friends who had been spectating earlier in the day and raved about the speed of the gearchange on the semi-automatic Ferrari.

The following year, we watched Nigel Mansell’s phenomenal pole lap from the inside of Stowe – this being the old ‘perimeter road’ layout, of course – and I will never forget how much faster he looked through the 180mph right-hander than everyone else.

I drove past Silverstone only the other day, and with exquisite timing Springsteen came on the radio. My thoughts turned not only to Mansell, but also to Ayrton Senna – my boyhood hero.

There are many ways to start an argument in the C&SC office. You can suggest that hardtop should be written hard-top, or 4 Litre R should be 4-litre R. Perhaps the easiest, however, is to mention the recent film about the Brazilian legend.

When it was released, I wrote a review saying how disappointed I was with it. Frankly, it was so flawed that I was surprised that the specialist press had been positively gushing about it. This is where the debate starts – me criticising, others raving – and it tends not to finish until David Evans arrives with a soothing cup of tea.

With this in mind, I borrowed Clements’ DVD copy last weekend – just in case I had been too harsh first time around. After the first hour or so, and with my blood pressure rising, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t.

The biggest irritation is that the main theme is the rivalry between Senna and Prost, but we arrive at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix with no explanation at all of how the relationship had fallen apart.

There’s nothing about Senna forcing Prost towards the pitwall in Portugal in 1988. Nothing about him breaking an agreement not to overtake into the first corner at Imola in ’89. Nothing about the lengths to which Ayrton pushed him before the Frenchman – who had actively encouraged McLaren to sign Senna because he thought it would strengthen the team – decided that enough was enough.

There are smaller frustrations, too. The story of Senna’s mesmerising display during practice for the 1988 Monaco GP, for example, is introduced over onboard footage from the following year. 

Also, in attempting to explain why Senna drove into Prost at the start of the 1990 Japanese GP, the old argument about pole position being on the wrong side of the track is raised. Film is shown where Senna is discussing the grid layout with FIA official Roland Bruynseraede, the latter promising to look into it and the inference being that this was subsequently overturned by higher powers. Only the footage is clearly from Hockenheim, not Suzuka...

And, with all due respect, why is American presenter John Bisignano quoted to the extent that he becomes the de facto narrator? Where are the contributions from Senna’s pals Gerhard Berger and Thierry Boutsen, or Nigel Mansell, or McLaren confidant Jo Ramirez?

But then the film moves on from the hopelessly lop-sided Prost-bashing, and I’ll admit that I softened somewhat. It does a good job reflecting Senna’s popularity in Brazil, a sanctuary to which he fled at every opportunity, and shows how absurd a figure FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre was.

Then, of course, comes that tragic weekend at Imola, and the heart-rending account from the late Professor Sid Watkins, who had to attend to his friend at the scene of the accident. The last 20 minutes or so are both powerful and moving.

I watched it all on TV at the time, of course. I remember Steve Rider giving an update in which he said that Senna’s condition was “very grave”, and the camera capturing Johnny Herbert’s reaction as the stricken Williams arrived back in the pits on the back of a low-loader. I remember, too, the quiet, measured tones of Murray Walker in the immediate aftermath – so different from his usual delivery.

No driver has ever captured my imagination like Ayrton did, and I will admit that I haven’t felt quite the same about Formula 1 since his death. Even if it works better as a feature film than a documentary, Senna does at least give an idea of what a unique person he was – intelligent, outspoken, charismatic and gifted. It’s just a shame that Alain Prost isn’t treated with the same respect. 

Cue the arguments…