Why the pointless Prost-bashing does Senna movie no favours

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Author: James PagePublished:

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…

Comments

BigYalie

I find the weeping over Prost rather odd since Senna lost a world championship due to a clearly biased decision by Ballestre (the French head of the FIA at the time). Curious how Mr. Page neglects to mention this detail which was one of the key points made in the film.

However, Mr. Page is correct in assailing the general weakness of the Senna documentary. The failure to interview many of the leading drivers and personalities of the time is a grave failure on the part of the filmmakers. It is also surprising that Bernie Ecclestone was not interviewed given that he was very close to Senna and at least would have explained the crash that killed Senna properly which the film failed to do. Senna was killed because his steering column broke after Williams had changed the height of the wheel to accommodate Senna's preferences by re-welding the column which then cracked under the stress of the race. Upon crashing into the barrier, a piece of carbon fibre suspension splintered and then pierced Senna's helmet above his eye and killed him. It was a freakish event and any authoritative documentary would have explained what happened.

The film also highlights one key difference between Senna and Prost - speed. The sequence showing Senna destroying his competition - including Prost - by fearlessly driving on a wet track (I forget the race, my apologies) where others were spinning off or otherwise driving much more slowly - is a clear demonstration of Senna's unique brilliance on the track. The greatest driver ever, period. Ecclestone will tell you the same and I can send you my interview with Bernie where he confirms as much.

Don Callum

Senna's brilliance doesn't forgive his major character flaws nor does it detract from Prost's talents.

None of the previous greats like Fangio, Stewart etc, in my admittedly imperfect recollections ever approved of Senna' s behaviour towards his teammate.
To most it detracted from fully admiring a man so abundantly blessed with talent. He was like a spoiled rich kid at times which saddened me.
I remember quite clearly where I was that Sunday and my wife calling me to confirm the worst.
My son and I watched F1 races together from the time he was old enough to sit up on the couch. He has been urging me to view the Senna film, but now John Bisignano's name is mentioned as part of it and I have again lost interest.

pimlo59

Oh for crying out loud!, when are allegedly grown men going to stop this infantile "my favourite driver is better than your favourite driver" tripe.
There is no such thing as the best driver ever any more than there is the best golfer or ping pong player ever otherwise what would be the point of spectating or taking part?
I agree with Mr Page the film was a disappointment and it was one sided, but it didn't come as any surprise to me, the clue was rather in the title, never the less it was entertaining because it had cars in it and it was nostalgic and it harked back to the very last days of when F1 was an exciting sport with characters.
Senna was one of them, and a very good driver, even a very gifted driver but one of very many past, present and to come, but he was also arrogant and petulant and only brilliant when he had the best car and got his own way
I personally prefer your "grafters" and you can make your own minds up who that refers to.
As to the gentleman who suggests I should take the word of a senile megalomaniac with "small man syndrome" who has destroyed the sport of F1 whilst making it a global phenomenon, I don't think so!

Chris Martin

Page is spot on here, and it is a shame some people don't read the full story before they rev up and let their own prejudices get in the way.
Senna was great, no doubt about it, one of the best ever. But, he was also flawed and liked to 'spit the dummy' now and then; never mind Bernie, ask Eddie Irvine!
Or anyone at McLaren.
Or whoever worked with him.
The film as it was, portrayed a young ambitious driver who made it all the way to the top, and then met a tragic end.
Nobody is disputing his talents, skills and reputation as one of the greatest drivers. We all have our favourite Senna memories; some would say Donington '93, others one of his Monaco victories, for me standing on the outside of Copse for quallies in '87, Mansell balls out flat, and sort out the mess over the kerbs later, Senna, one could hear modulating the throttle ten or more times through the corner, to find the limit, but still retain control.
No, Page was right. Senna was one of the greats, so was Prost.
But !
The movie was totally one-sided, and in doing so, and making Prost the villain, devalues Senna's own role in the game.
Like Lauda and Hunt in '76 (see Rush for how to tell a balanced story) Senna needed Prost (and maybe Mansell) as a benchmark to beat, and likewise, Prost became great because of the quality of the opposition.
To imply everything was rigged in favour of the Frenchman is to distort the truth and sell both men short.

 

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