On Friday night I went to see the documentary Senna, the story of Brazilian race car driver Ayrton Senna. Many say that Ayrton was the greatest F-1 driver of all time.
I didn’t know much about Ayrton before the movie – although I knew the ending – so I was excited to learn more about him. I suppose some people don’t think documentary-watching is a great way to spend your Friday night, especially a documentary about racing. But I looked forward to it all week — dinner and a movie with friends, watching thrilling racing and the story of a hero? Sounds good to me.
It was one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in quite some time. After reading this article-“In Senna, a new formula for documentaries”– I can see why it never lost my attention — the entire movie was free of “talking heads” that would take away from the action. All the interviews were voiced-over live footage.
The entire movie was live footage — so you were with Ayrton the entire time. Whether you were riding along with him and his parents on a boat in a home movie, sitting in a driver’s meeting, or on board in his race car in the rainy streets of Monaco, you were by his side during the whole movie.
And that’s what made the end of the movie so startling, even though you knew what was going to happen on that sixth lap of the San Marino Grand Prix.
On that day, May 1, 1994, thirty-four year-old Ayrton Senna, the hero of Brazil, three-time F-1 champion, died from severe head injuries after his car struck a concrete barrier while he was leading the race.
No driver has died behind the wheel of an F-1 car since Ayrton’s death, thanks to increased safety measures. But it gave me a lot of food for thought that night. His death was actually the second death of the weekend– Roland Ratzenberger died the day earlier after a wreck during the final qualifying session. (The nurses found a small Austrian flag in Ayrton’s sleeve — he had intended to unfurl it after winning the race to dedicate his win to Ratzenberger.)
His crash couldn’t fail to remind me of the racing accident I had witnessed in person, the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. So I was forced to ask myself after the movie: is it worth it?
How can these men risk their lives in the name of sport?
It’s a question I’ve wrestled with before, particularly when people criticize my love for the sport. I usually try to remind them that cheerleading has also been known to kill people, and that the cars we drive on the road are probably far less safe than these race cars. But the thought remains — these men are putting their lives on the line — for the thrill of winning a race.
Ayrton Senna was a devout Catholic, and the movie doesn’t attempt to hide this — it actually emphasizes it. He was a man who had given $400 million dollars to Brazilian children’s charities by the time of his death (and continues to give after his death, in the foundation set up by his sister). He was a superhero in the eyes of his destitute countrymen who had given up hope.
At a time when Brazilians needed a hero, Ayrton Senna gave them hope. He gave them someone to rally behind. He gave them something to be proud of, something to look forward to, something to show the world. And they responded to him.
The Brazilian government declared three days of mourning after his death, and over three million people lined the streets for his funeral.
So perhaps this man wasn’t putting his life on the line just for a sport. Perhaps he was risking his life for his country.
It’s something I’m still trying to sort out in my head.