“He thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God. … I think that’s very dangerous — for the other drivers.”

–Alain Prost

Some still swear that Ayrton Senna was the best Formula One driver who ever lived, or ever will. What is undisputed is that he electrified and agitated the global Grand Prix tour like no other, was persecuted blatantly, lashed out defiantly, died a death that was an earthquake to the system he so despised, and changed world motor racing in ways that resound to this day.

Pity Senna and Shakespeare lived 400 years apart. The bard would have been all over this story. A lot of us were on it, in the years leading up to Senna’s death in a crash at Imola, Italy, in 1994. We tried to chip away at the enormous enigma from Brazil, but we never cracked the code. Now the mystery has been laid wide open, the life of Ayrton Senna da Silva — who raced without his surname — displayed in full, in detail.

The documentary film “Senna” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. It will be distributed throughout the U.S. over the next three weeks as a joint presentation of ESPN Films, Universal Pictures and Working Title Productions. It’s hard to compare the life, career and style of Senna to those of any other racing driver, anywhere, anytime.

Better to imagine some hybrid of Mozart and St. Paul, and add the reflexes of a supercomputer — that supercomputer being God Himself along for the ride, Senna firmly believed. There are some analogies to Dale Earnhardt, another titanic figure whose death revolutionized safety standards and practices in his realm. Both took racing as a contact sport, going for gaps that might or might not have been there. Both were artists at payback.

Earnhardt would have relished sitting in on the TV interview, included in the film, in which three-time F1 champion Jackie Stewart confronts Senna with the notion that Senna in just three years’ time (1988-90) had made more contact with more other cars than all previous F1 champions combined, ever. And Earnhardt would have added a forceful “Amen!” to Senna’s answer that if you stop going for risky openings, you cease to be a winning driver. But Earnhardt understood and manipulated the politics of NASCAR. Senna never even tried with the FIA. He was constantly in revolt.

“He revolts me,” said his arch adversary (rival is too mild a word), Alain Prost, the little Frenchman we called “the professor” for the calculating style that won him four F1 championships and kept him under Senna’s skin for nine tempestuous years.

Blatantly, the FIA sided with Prost throughout the horrific feud. The film captures Senna’s shouting matches on race mornings with the most draconian FIA president ever, Jean-Marie Balestre, who happened to be French and happened to be a close friend of Prost.

“I was f—– many times by the system,” Senna says, quite correctly, in the film.

“He never wanted to beat me, he wanted to humiliate me,” says Prost. “He wanted to show the people that he was much stronger, much better. And that was his weakness.”

As McLaren teammates, they wrecked each other in the decisive Japanese Grand Prix of 1989. Senna came back from the crash to win anyway, in astounding fashion. But Balestre’s apparatchiks “excluded” Senna altogether from the results, claiming he’d missed a chicane, handing the world championship to Prost. Although video indicated Prost was at fault in their tangle, Prost went unpunished by the FIA.

When Senna became publicly defiant — “I was treated like a criminal, and that is totally unacceptable” — Balestre suspended Senna’s license for six months and fined him $100,000. Typical of Balestre’s reign, the suspension somehow evaporated in time for the next season.

Prost left McLaren for Ferrari, saying, “It becomes absolutely impossible to work with Ayrton.” Again in ’90, Japan was decisive. Senna was on the pole, with Prost alongside. Inexplicably, Balestre’s boys ordered the positions flip-flopped, so that pole-sitter Senna got the dirty side of the track, and Prost the cleaner, easier side.

In the moments before the green light, Senna reckoned that this race “has to be my way.” Into the first corner, Prost gave him a mirage of a gap that winked and went away immediately. Senna took it anyway, wrecked them both, and handed himself the world championship. Starkly in the film, the two men stand staring at each other in the sandpit amid the wreckage. They hadn’t spoken in years, so why start now?

“I wanted to punch him in the face,” Prost says in the film. “But I was so disgusted I could not do it.”

Not until 1991 did Senna finally win his home Grand Prix of Brazil. Even with his car stuck in sixth gear, he held off the charging Prost.

The most startling moment of the film comes as Senna crosses the finish line and, via team radio, lets out a scream — not the gleeful howl of a Daytona 500 or Indy 500 winner, but the blood-curdling, prolonged scream you’d associate with a man under terrible torture. The sustained shrieking is punctuated with phrases like, “F—— hell!” and finally, “Prost, you son of a bitch!”

Yet this was not out of character for the man who claimed that at the moment he clinched his first F1 championship, in 1988, “I saw God.”

He meant it. He believed he’d had a vision. Once on an overseas flight just days after Senna’s death, I encountered an attendant who had served Senna several times in first class. He said Senna would go for eight or nine hours “without saying a word, just sitting there reading his Bible.”

What you see time and again in the film is what I saw face to face — Senna always hesitating for several seconds, thinking, carefully considering, before answering a question. Often he sniffles, as if he has a cold or allergy. In 1992 came the most sophisticated racing car ever to touch tires to the face of the earth, the Williams FW14. In the garage, when engineers tested the active suspension, the car looked alive — like a manta ray moving at the bottom of the sea.

Senna never drove it. The rough-driving Englishman Nigel Mansell was winning in the FW14, almost in spite of himself, and there was a rumor that Senna had said, “even a monkey could drive that car.” He never said that. But he might well have thought it. Many of us thought Senna, still with McLaren, might have won every race that season if he’d been in the FW14.

Once I pressed him about it. What would Senna and the FW14 be like together?

He pondered, sniffled, thought some more, sighed.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s out of the question.”

I thought he meant that both contractually and for reasons of Williams secrecy, the McLaren driver could not be allowed even to sit in the FW14. The film yields the real answer: his contempt for the car itself and what it took away from the art of F1 driving.

“No matter who you put in the car,” he says, “the electronics will do the work, and not the driver.”

Prost the pragmatist jumped at the chance to drive the Williams in ’93. But soon, word got out that Senna and owner Frank Williams were in serious talks about ’94. Rather than risk being shackled to Senna again, Prost won his fourth world championship and retired, leaving room for Senna. But for ’94, the FIA drastically changed the rules, eliminating the electronic active suspensions run by the top teams. I have always believed that rule change is what ultimately killed Senna — not that he needed active suspension, but that the change threw the Williams team into a struggle to get its cars handling right under the new restrictions.

Senna also believed he was racing at a severe disadvantage to rising star Michael Schumacher. The film makes clear that Senna thought Schumacher’s Benetton team was still using the outlawed electronics — and there certainly were rumors to that effect at the time. On May 1, 1994, all the stars crossed for Senna. Rookie Roland Ratzenberger just the day before, in practice, became the first F1 driver killed in 12 years. Senna was sickened. Still he started on the pole, with young Schumacher in hot pursuit. Through the high-speed Tamburello corner, with its high concrete retaining wall, Schumacher first noticed that Senna’s car appeared “nervous.”

Next time through Tamburello …

“What did you see?” I asked Schumacher afterward, the two of us sitting in a café near Schumacher’s home in Monaco.

Schumacher’s eyes welled with tears and he gazed out the window.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, and continued staring out the window, staring at what he had seen when Senna’s car shot off the track and slammed into the wall.

An Italian magistrate concluded that the steering column on Senna’s car had cracked. I’ll always wonder whether the car somehow bottomed out, rendering it unsteerable — active suspension would have prevented that — and the steering column broke on impact. In the film, Dr. Sid Watkins, longtime chief medical officer of Formula One, recalls seeing immediately that Senna’s head injury was fatal. They got him out of the car, made an airway …

“And then he sighed, and his body relaxed,” says Watkins. “And that was the moment — and I’m not religious — that I thought his spirit had departed.”

With it departed all the panache and daring so long associated with F1. A safety revolution began in the FIA, much as one would seven years later in NASCAR with Earnhardt’s death. F1, as NASCAR, would restrict the cars more and more, so that they were no longer so electrifying to watch. What the film doesn’t show is the years of aftermath, as the pall of Senna’s death drained all the mystique out of F1, just as Earnhardt’s death sapped the mystique out of NASCAR.

What “Senna” does explain, if you’re a NASCAR fan, is how no feud ever fought by Cup drivers can compare to the absolute, long-running mutual loathing of Senna-Prost. If you’re a sports fan in general, this film makes the case that Prost versus Senna was as intense in its way, raging for nine years, polarizing Europe and South America, as Yankees-Red Sox or Auburn-Alabama. Those of us who failed to crack the enigma all those years needn’t feel so bad now. The film is a compilation of complete access the likes of which we never had. The full cooperation of the Senna da Silva family, and of the Formula One hierarchy, is evident.

It’s good that “Senna” will play first in theaters in this country. Director Asif Kapadia’s first 12 minutes are not for beginners on the subject of Senna, and mightn’t hold a general American TV audience. They’d likely click away before this piece develops into what is, on the whole, the best film ever made about any racing driver. Once word gets out of the rewards that follow, TV audiences will accept the opening. If you’re a connoisseur of Formula One in general, and the career of Senna in particular, this is a must-see with an asterisk. “Senna” simply cannot be digested in one sitting.

So treat the theater performance as an appetizer and then wait for the DVD release. I’ve watched it four times already, and, as with an opera or a symphony, find new and amazing elements with every sitting.

source: © espn.go.com