How elegantly circular sport can be. The elevation this week of Bruno Senna to a seat at Williams echoes the moment 18 years ago when his celebrated uncle underwent the same rite of passage.

In the case of the great Ayrton, already a triple world champion by 1993, the move was one of expedience, reflecting a need to forsake the nurturing hand of Ron Dennis for what was then the fastest car in Formula One. But for his nephew, the switch is laden with symbolism, as the 28 year-old steps inside a machine still emblazoned with the evocative family name.

Ever since Imola, where the sport’s greatest talent died in a horrific crash at the Tamburello turn, Sir Frank Williams’ cars have carried the Senna insignia. The Brazilian started just three races in Williams colours, winning not a single world championship point, but the impact of that terrible Sunday in San Marino remains memorialised for a lifetime. It is the task of Bruno, son of Ayrton’s sister Viviane, not to wilt under so heavy a heritage.

By neat coincidence, Senna, the wonderful Asif Kapadia documentary on the late driver’s life, received three Bafta award nominations only hours before Bruno’s appointment was announced. It served as a reminder, two months before the start of the F1 season, both of how profoundly Senna’s accomplishments permeate the sport and of how mythic his status has become.

Kapadia’s film, beautifully elegiac in tone, deserves every last drop of acclaim. For it performs the trick, rare in works of this genre, of enabling the subject to speak for itself. Eschewing the conventional voiceover, or any cutaways to talking heads, it merely layers its compelling archival footage with family tributes or insights from the foremost Senna-ologists, such as ESPN’s John Bisignano and The Guardian’s Richard Williams.

The result is a tapestry of F1’s halcyon era, as the defining Senna moments – the maiden victory in the rain at Estoril, the mastery of every corner at Monte Carlo, the mounting antipathy with Alain Prost – are revealed with jolting immediacy.

It helps, of course, that Senna is so effortlessly cinematic a character.

The camera accentuates his features in the way it would those of a young Paul Newman. In every shot, he smoulders. When a Japanese reporter declares her affection, he kisses her twice. When one of Brazil’s TV presenters, Xuxa Meneghel, asks what he would most like for Christmas, he flashes a lascivious smile and replies: “What I really want, I can’t say here. Censored.” These are roguish flourishes of which even James Hunt, F1’s Casanova-in-chief, would have been proud.

Such indulgence is offset by the strength of his religious conviction. Here is a man who, upon his F1 baptism in 1984 with the Toleman team, declares: “I think God gave me this chance, which I have been waiting for so long. Now He is helping me stay calm, relaxed, tranquil.”

Of his staggering performance in Japan to claim the world title in 1988, when he stalled on the grid before rallying from 16th to win, he reflects: “I thanked God. With all the anxiety and tension, I felt His presence. I visualised, I saw God.” Prost, as the bête noire with whom he so memorably tangled at Suzuka the following year, was inclined to dismiss such statements as mere pieties.

“Ayrton has a problem: he thinks he can’t kill himself, because he believes in God and things like this,” said the Frenchman, whose froideur with Senna hardened into outright hatred after their first-turn collision at the 1990 Japanese grand prix.

Here lies the film’s most arresting sub-plot, as the Senna-Prost rivalry descends into the acrimony one might expect of two such jarringly discordant personalities. Senna, the maverick genius who pushed every car he handled beyond its design capabilities, was never likely to sit comfortably next to the professorial Prost, a remorseless points accumulator who would often rather settle for fifth than risk the pursuit of victory.

The venom between them is raw. “I wanted to punch him in the face,” Prost says after the Japan crash. “But I was so disgusted, I couldn’t do it. He revolts me.” And yet the glamour of the duel is inescapable.

Both men cultivate a playboy air when the occasion demands it: Senna by his appearance at the Rio carnival, and Prost by a hilariously flirtatious interview with Selina Scott on the Wogan show. “You know Alain, if only somebody would teach me how to drive a car, a racing car, then I might be able to give up this job,” Scott simpers. With the leer of Depardieu, he shoots back: “There is nothing important I could not teach you.”

The Senna film reminds us, somehow, of how people fell in love with F1 in the first place. It is a fitting legacy for the incomparable Ayrton but a daunting one, in this more sanitised age, for Bruno and his breed to carry forward.

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