Senna, the documentary detailing the life and death of one of sport’s most extraordinary characters, is the human story of a divine man, says writer Manish Pandey.
Of the many biographies and documentaries detailing the life and death of Ayrton Senna, it is perhaps the 2010 film which resonates most with those outside of the Formula One bubble. Senna, the work of a British director and writer, is not so much about a racing driver as it is about a man’s life, albeit one with divine status.
It may be 21 years since the Brazilian’s car skidded off the Imola track’s dilapidated Tamburello corner at 191mph, but his legacy as one of sport’s most courageous, vulnerable, electrifying superstars burns as brightly as ever. And it is that combustible mix that is perfectly reflected in Senna, a compelling and heartbreaking examination of a man who transcended his sport and lifted a nation.
“I remember when he died, like a lot of people, as if it was yesterday,” says Manish Pandey, the film’s writer and a self-confessed Senna fanatic.
“It was a blazing hot Sunday. I was moving flat and didn’t want to watch the race after what had happened with Roland (Ratzenberger, who was killed during qualifying the previous day). “When I saw the accident it was really obvious that something horrible had happened. Later, I was in a taxi and I heard the words ‘Senna, clinically brain dead’. I remember crying in the backseat.”
It was not until a decade later that a film dedicated to Senna’s last days was first mooted, when producer James Gay-Rees pitched an idea to Working Title Films to document that fateful weekend.
“I went to meet James in the October and it was a compelling idea – the death of a champion and the last few days of his life,” recalls Pandey, 46. “But I grew up with Senna, I didn’t miss any of his races, and I said I don’t think that will work because to understand Senna’s death, you need to understand his life and then when you add his death to that, suddenly you realise what you’ve lost.”
With the film’s scope now broadened to include a dazzling Formula One career and an examination of racing’s most complex protagonist, there was an anxious two-year wait before Pandey was able to meet the Sennas in Sao Paulo.
“Viviane Senna (Ayrton’s older sister) is the guardian to Ayrton’s legacy and she is the one who runs the foundation (Instituto Ayrton Senna). It’s an amazing NGO. They raise a hell of a lot of money every year and it all goes into educating children in Brazil. The thing about Viviane is they have Senna’s image, his legacy and that’s it. It is a big, big thing to be trusted with.
“I put together a presentation, which was 40 minutes long and was ten sequences, one for each year of his time in Formula One. There were only seven people in the room. At the end of it, everyone was in tears. It was one of those amazing moments in life – Viviane got up and gave me this big hug and said ‘you really knew my brother’. It still brings a lump to my throat. And then she said ‘we’re doing the film with you’.”
After negotiations, Bernie Ecclestone, president and chairman of Formula One Management, agreed to grant Pandey, director Asif Kapadia and Gay-Rees unprecedented access to Formula One’s own archives, much of it previously unseen. They spent a month pouring over the raw footage, searching for the key moments and conversations from Senna’s career. Thanks to the quality of the material obtained from Ecclestone and the Senna family’s archive of home movies, they were also able to dispense with ordinary documentary conventions of talking head interviews.
“I created a script, a massive document, that was in black if I knew footage existed – like the crash between Senna and Prost.
“I knew how important Donnelly was (Martin Donnelly was seriously injured during practice in 1990 at the Jerez circuit in Spain). He was a key chapter (the crash had a huge effect on Senna, who began to ponder retirement) and he had been written about so much, so I would write ‘Senna sits alone in garage, Donnelly’s mangled body on the circuit, Senna is contemplating what to do’. That was green – so we knew it had happened but we didn’t know if the footage existed.
“What it means is you are completely forearmed so when you trip over this stuff, it isn’t another bit of meaningless footage and his words aren’t meaningless lines. Suddenly they come alive.”
The first 80 minutes of the film encompass the ten years of Senna’s F1 career but when the story reaches the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, the pace suddenly slows. The next three days are covered in 25 minutes.
“We had an ambition – I said if the film is working, what should happen is you should forget at some point that he died. And the corollary of that is that when you’re reminded, when the word Imola comes up, it should bite you really hard.” While the footage of the crash is still difficult to watch, Senna’s death is handled with great tenderness and sensitivity. As The Telegraph’s Tim Robey wrote in his review of the film, “to emerge unmoved is just about inconceivable”.
The person that made the ending palatable – and he became a friend of mine – was Professor Sid Watkins (the F1 doctor),” said Pandey, himself an orthopaedic surgeon. “He made the journey work – his beautiful voice, his wisdom, his caring, his complete love of Senna. But the more you hear that voice, the more you realise the end is going to come. It was wonderful that interview he did with us, it was beautiful. He was the most special human being, a great man.”
It is one of the most remarkably special moments in the film as Professor Watkins recalls telling Senna on the eve of the San Marino Grand Prix: “You’re a three-times world champion, you’re the fastest man in the world and you’ve got nothing to prove. Why don’t you quit and I’ll quit and we’ll both go fishing.”
In May 2010, six years after work on the project had first began, the film was complete. The first to watch it were Viviane and her daughter, Bianca.
“I made a promise to Viviane because she said ‘we are really going to trust you with this’. I said ‘I promise you we will do this right, we won’t do it 90% right, we will do it 100% right’.
“I sat between Viviane and Bianca in this little cinema and we played the film to them. They were laughing and they were crying and as we got to Imola I whispered in Bianca’s ear, ‘can we swap places because you ought to sit next to your mum now’. They were in absolute floods of tears. It was very hard to watch. “Afterwards, in the foyer, Viviane said ‘congratulations, you did it, you got the perfect combination of the genius and the man’ and that was a wonderful thing to hear. The film was him: the other worldliness, the kindness, the rage, that cocktail of stuff boys fall in love with.”
There is a moving clip towards the end of the film, a brief interview with a mourner at Senna’s huge funeral staged in Sao Paulo to honour the city’s beloved son. A sobbing, middle-aged woman says: “Brazilian people need food, education, health… and a little bit of joy.” That theme of Senna as the standard-bearer for Brazil, a man of hope, not just speed, runs throughout the documentary.
“The gods of the world bring people together,” says Pandey, “they show people that there is something bigger than their own office job, or money, or swimming pool or girlfriend, and he really was that because whether you were the richest Brazilian or whether you were the poorest, you would turn the TV on at 4am and if he won, who cared whether there was a national debt?”
The film took more than $11m at the box office and scooped a host of awards, including recognition at the Baftas. But for Pandey, Kapadia, Gay-Rees and editors Gregers Sall and Chris King, Senna was much more important than industry gongs and commercial success.
“Someone said to me never do a project on your heroes because you won’t like what comes out of it. It’s quite the opposite,” says Pandey, who will be in Imola on May 1 to mark the anniversary of his hero’s death.
“I had a kind of exterior appreciation for the man but I had never been in a Formula One paddock, I had an appreciation for the Brazilian hero but I had never been to Brazil, I had an appreciation for what it must be to be one of the two people who represent 200 people at home in a factory but I had never been to McLaren or Williams. And when I did all that, I realised, my god he was something much greater than I could have imagined or idolised.
“Senna was the first ultra modern racing driver, yet he had this wisdom. And the fact he came from a developing country also gave him that incredible depth.
“He came out there in the most technological sport, the most physically demanding sport, a sport that also demands incredible personal courage and he was the best of all time.
“I think the film is a very simple way of portraying a very complicated man for his humanity. And I think that’s what every frame is about.
“You see this faceless machine and this yellow helmet, but within five minutes of the film you know there’s a human being there and I think that’s what it is – a very human story about a very divine man.”