Angel or demon, the Brazilian legend lives on in a new documentary, writes Garry Maddox

According to the clock at the Ayrton Senna Memorial Museum website, it is precisely 17 years, 108 days since the charismatic and controversial Brazilian driver died in a high-speed crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy. That the clock exists – counting the passing hours, minutes and even seconds – reflects how idolised the three-time world champion was when he was racing formula one cars with rare speed and skill.


Senna remains so popular that more than $100 million worth of memorabilia – model race cars, T-shirts, posters, toys, pens, watches, replica helmets – still sells every year. And now, just as he was when he was the fastest, most aggressive driver on the formula one circuit, he is being talked about again.

The documentary Senna, which opened in cinemas this week, has attracted the kind of enthusiastic reviews the driver received himself when he raced spectacularly through the field – overtaking car after car from 13th position – to almost win the Monaco Grand Prix in his first season.

The Sun-Herald gave the film a rare 10-out-of-10 rating; many other reviewers, including the Herald’s Paul Byrnes, have given it at least four stars out of five. As during the great driver’s life, there have been detractors too.

Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair has slammed the documentary for portraying Senna as an angelic genius while his great rival, French driver Alain Prost, comes across as calculating and devious. ”People aware of F1 and Ayrton Senna’s history know that the documentary is unbalanced almost to the point of dishonesty,” he wrote.

Why should we care all these years later?

It’s certainly true that with approval from Senna’s family and access to 15,000 hours of archival footage by formula one boss Bernie Ecclestone, director Asif Kapadia’s documentary shows the Brazilian champion in a very favourable light.

But during his career, Senna went way beyond being just another overpaid, handsome sports star with glamorous girlfriends – and an ex-wife not mentioned in the documentary. He was intelligent, deeply religious and talked thoughtfully about the spiritual – almost mystical – dimension of driving.

”And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously,” he once said. ”I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.”

If Senna was sensitive and compassionate – the film shows how troubled he was by the accidents that injured Rubens Barrichello and killed Roland Ratzenberger in the two days before he was killed – he was also aggressive, single-minded and combustible.

The shock of his fatal crash, a Princess Di moment for fans around the world, encouraged improvements that have made formula one racing safer and made him more celebrated in death than just about any other recent sports star.

As one writer noted when that museum clock reached 10 years, ”a man who habitually bullied opponents out of the way and was not above double-crossing his teammates has been transformed into a figure of almost angelic innocence”.

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