Synopsis: It was June 1984, a Sunday at the Monaco Grand Prix. As the heavens unleashed a torrential downpour, one of the greatest line-ups in motor racing history took to the track.


No fewer than six current or future World Champions vied for the race that day, including recent World Champion Keke Rosberg; a stoic, fearless Englishman called Nigel Mansell; Austrian double World Champion Niki Lauda; the flamboyant double World Champion Nelson Piquet; and the man dubbed ‘The Professor’, Frenchman Alain Prost, who was on the cusp of being regarded by many at the time as the most complete driver ever. In 13th position on the grid meanwhile, attracting little interest in his un-fancied Toleman car, was a wiry, fiery young driver in just his sixth Formula 1 race.

As the engines fired and the drivers tore through the city streets, the man that started in 13th place ripped through the field, demonstrating virtuoso technique and jaw-dropping courage as he passed every car in front of him, taking Prost on line of the 32nd lap. That man was Ayrton Senna, announcing his arrival to the world of F1 with a spectacular drive.

As it transpired, Ayrton Senna did not win the race; he lost out on a technicality and the first-place passed to Alain Prost. At the time Ayrton Senna was not bitter, it was still his first podium finish, although what happened that day would set the tone for the young Brazilian’s future career; he would frequently win on the track, but would find himself defeated off the track, struggling against what he perceived as injustices in a highly politicised sport. Still, he overcame obstacles placed in his path, won three World Championships – his years at McLaren forging a fierce rivalry with team member and rival Alain Prost – and achieved superstar status across the globe. With the international press he proved a charming and dashing champion; to his native Brazilian media he was a humble and deeply religious man.

At the peak of his powers however, while tackling the Imola track in San Marino, disaster struck. It was the third race of the 1994 season and during qualifying Ayrton Senna’s protégé Rubens Barrichello crashed and hurt himself. A day later Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger slammed into a wall at 200mph, dying instantly. Ayrton Senna was shaken and wondered whether to continue racing. His great friend and F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins advised Ayrton Senna not to race on the Sunday. But Ayrton Senna’s pride, his sense of responsibility to his team and sport, and his absolute need to conquer his fear, propelled him on.

On the Sunday of the race, Ayrton Senna managed just two laps after the safety car pitted, before crashing on the high-speed Tamburello corner, his car hitting a concrete wall at more than 130mph. In 1987, Nelson Piquet had crashed at the same corner and emerged with a mild concussion; in 1989 Gerhard Berger came off at Tamburello and exploded in a ball of flames. He was hurt but survived. In 1994, when Ayrton Senna crashed, his car hit the wall at such an angle that part of the suspension flew back and punctured his helmet, causing fatal skull fractures. Medics found an Austrian flag in his car: he had planned to honour Roland Ratzenberger when he finished the race.

Ayrton Senna’s remarkable story, charting his physical and spiritual achievements on the track and off, his quest for perfection, and the mythical status he has since attained, is the subject of Ayrton Senna, a documentary feature that spans the racing legend’s years as an F1 driver, from his opening season in 1984 to his untimely death a decade later. Far more than a film for F1 fans, Ayrton Senna unfolds a remarkable story in a remarkable manner, eschewing many standard documentary techniques in favour of a more cinematic approach that makes full use of astounding footage, much of which is drawn from F1 archives and is previously unseen.

Ayrton Senna is made with the full co-operation of Ayrton Senna’s family, who have given permission for this to be the first documentary feature film about his life; Formula One, who gave permission to use previously unseen footage; and the Ayrton Senna Institute, the charitable foundation established after his death, which provides educational opportunities to millions of deprived Brazilian children.

Senna: The Beginnings
Producer James Gay-Rees had been inspired by stories his father told of Ayrton Senna from a young age when he was working for John Player Special, the tobacco company that sponsored Ayrton Senna’s black Lotus in 1985, and got to know him. “My dad would come back from these various races and say that there was something really ‘other’ about this young guy. ‘He was very unusual. He was not like the other young motor racing drivers. He was very sure of himself. He’d got very strong beliefs. He was very different and very intense.’ And so began his journey towards making a documentary on the legendary racing driver.

A pivotal date on this journey was March 2006 when Gay-Rees and writer and executive producer Manish Pandey had finally secured a meeting with Ayrton Senna’s family to bid for permission to make a film about their son. “My wife told me not to cry, because I get quite emotional, especially if I’m passionate about something, like I am with this project,” Manish Pandey begins. “She said to me, ‘You have got to be very professional, or they will think you are an idiot!'” Taking these sage notes on board Manish Pandey ran through his 40-minute presentation, a mixture of sounds, footage and stills, while keeping himself together. “Thankfully, I didn’t cry but everyone else in the room did,” he smiles. “For 40 minutes, Ayrton Senna’s sister, Viviane Senna, and the rest of the family, were just crying their eyes out. At the end, Viviane Senna stood up and gave me a hug and whispered in my ear, ‘You really knew my brother.’ We had never met but I think she got what we were trying to do.”

Buoyed by their successful pitch, they returned to the UK. “It was unbelievable. The only other feature project they had approved was a $100 million Antonio Banderas film in 1995 which never happened.” And yet with Manish Pandey and Gay-Rees, it was different. “The Senna family got in touch and said, ‘We really want to do it with you and James. We just loved what you brought to this and we think it is going to work.’ It took us two years to do the deal with them but while I think other people who pitched to the Sennas would dress it all up, the family could see that their projects would be just about the death of Ayrton Senna. We said from the outset that this would not be the case with our film.”

The filmmakers’ pitch had won over the family. “It’s all about trust,” offers Gay-Rees, “and making sure that everyone knows you are going to do the right thing.” That right thing was showcased in the presentation Manish Pandey delivered to the family, which was entitled ‘The Life And Death of Ayrton Senna’. The producers did not want to focus solely on Ayrton Senna’s tragic death; they wanted to explore his extraordinary, multi-faceted life. Ayrton Senna’s story is no rags-to-riches tale – he was born into an affluent family in Sao Paulo – but it is a dazzling tale, marked by his singular approach to life, his genius behind the wheel, and his own deeply entrenched spiritual beliefs.

“It is this spiritual thing that grabs a lot of people,” continues Gay-Rees, “because great sportsmen do operate in a zone that is slightly above that of mere mortals, and it is almost like they are channelling something when they are at the peak of their power.”

Manish Pandey agrees, recalling that race at Monaco in 1984 in the teeming rain, where Ayrton Senna drove such a staggering race. “In that car he should have been going like a skateboard around a bath. But what he did that day was just extraordinary, and it was the spiritual side of him coming through. It felt as though he wasn’t actually driving on a track. When he was driving, he was on some very spiritual plane.

“For Ayrton Senna it was not just about winning the race and getting a few steps ahead. He was trying to take himself and the car to a place that he could only really understand. I think Roger Federer said this three years ago; he had just blasted someone off the court and had said when he was playing that game he was ‘outside himself’; it was as if he was watching himself play. I think Ayrton Senna reached those zones very, very regularly. That’s why he did it.” Ayrton Senna’s drive, allied to his intense skill, makes him an engaging subject.

Telling the Story
For producer Eric Fellner, co-chairman of Working, Senna proved a true labour of love and added a new dimension to the company by being the first documentary it would make.

“I used to be a fan like a lot of people and then lapsed, but from this period in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, I was absolutely fascinated and intrigued by Formula One,” he says. “We had tried to develop a film about Hesketh and we spent a lot of time and money on it but couldn’t make it work. I just really wanted to make a film about that world and had met with Bernie Ecclestone to try to find to find a way in and couldn’t. We have never done a documentary before but this seemed the best medium to make a film about Formula One.

When the producers brought director Asif Kapadia on board, they knew they were hiring a talented filmmaker. The director of BAFTA winning feature ‘The Warrior’ and the thriller ‘Far North’, Asif Kapadia is a graduate of the Royal College of Art, and has an eye for exquisite composition.

“The most obvious way to tell a Senna story is to do ‘Three days in Imola’, the race where Ayrton Senna died, and that would have been a compelling movie, but a pretty obvious movie,” Manish Pandey says. “You would do Friday, Saturday and Sunday and would probably flash back to establish why the character is there. You would do it with cut-in interviews and you would definitely have a very powerful film, but maybe a film that misses the point of him. And that’s when Asif Kapadia walked in. We interviewed a lot of directors for this. There was a lot of interest to do this but when he walked in he got it.”

Asif Kapadia, while a sports fan, was not an F1 enthusiast and proved to have a completely dispassionate approach to the producers’ subject matter. “Before the film I had never read a book on Ayrton Senna, never looked at one website and never read a book on Formula One,” begins the director. “I had never been to a race. So that’s where I came in to it. I felt very much the outsider at the beginning of the process. What I find exciting is the journey, learning about the subject through the research and interviews. Having a fresh set of eyes on the material.

“I could see that Ayrton Senna was an amazing driver and had this deep spiritual side, which was really fascinating, and it became all about paring the film down to the bare minimum so that somebody who doesn’t like Formula One, or a person who has never heard of Ayrton Senna, will get the film, understand the character and actually be moved by his story.” He smiles. “It’s all about the character; we were trying to make a film about racing. I was directing a feature film with non professional actors.”

Asif Kapadia points to Ayrton Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, and his struggle against the racing authorities. “I am never really interested in people who are just ‘the good guys’,” continues the director. “There’s always something about Ayrton Senna that is a bit grey, there’s something about him also that I noticed when we started to spend more time researching the film; the outsider coming in. In my films there’s always something about outsiders and I can see a relevance here of ‘the outsider from Brazil’. Even though he is not a poor kid, he is coming into the European world, taking on the dominant drivers and administration that seemed to favour Alain Prost.”

In 1988, Ayrton Senna joined his French adversary at McLaren; Alain Prost was the reigning World Champion and the two became fierce competitors. “If Ayrton Senna thinks he can just walk into Alain Prost’s team and become champion,” Keke Rosenberg, whom Alian Prost had destroyed in 1986, said at the time, “he has a shock coming.” As it turned out, it was Alain Prost that had the shock. At the start of the 1988 season, commentators reckoned that while Ayrton Senna would regularly be the fastest driver, Alain Prost would win the title, and the early season results suggested their predictions would come true. At Monaco once more, however, four years after his dazzling drive in the rain, Ayrton Senna went 1.5 seconds faster than Alain Prost in qualifying, a vast margin in F1, and at a subsequent press conference bared his soul to the world’s media.

“Suddenly, I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously,” said Ayrton Senna at the time. “I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel… I was way over the limit but I was still able to find more.” His words conveyed just how he considered the driving experience being so close to the edge: it was a spiritual journey. And yet Ayrton Senna was still fallible and he lost the Monaco race.

Going into the Japanese Grand Prix in 1988, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were still battling for the championship and if Ayrton Senna won that race he would win the championship. As the lights turned green, however, Ayrton Senna’s engine stalled and 13 cars, including Alain Prost’s sped by. Once his car finally moved off, Ayrton Senna drove like a man possessed, scything through the field with a series of audacious, wondrous manoeuvres until only Alain Prost remained in front. Ayrton Senna hounded him lap after lap and as the heavens opened once more, he sped by. He was World Champion, and had beaten Alain Prost in a McLaren car specifically designed for the French driver.

The following season things heated up. Ayrton Senna appeared at the start of the 1989 season in high spirits with his superstar girlfriend Xuxa Menehgel, and at the Japan circuit, the Brazilian driver arrived for the penultimate race of the season, needing to win the race to keep his 1989 championship hopes alive. Ayrton Senna watched from pole position as Alain Prost sped by, but hounded his rival for lap after lap. So long as Alain Prost finished the race ahead of Ayrton Senna, the Frenchman would win the title. Ayrton Senna spotted the point on the track where he could overtake Alain Prost, a blind left-hander, but the latter drove a clever line, keeping Ayrton Senna at bay. Then, on lap 46, Ayrton Senna made his move. The two cars entered the turn at 160mph and Ayrton Senna lunged down the inside as they both slowed for the chicane. But then, as they crawled around the corner, Prost coolly turned in on Ayrton Senna as the latter made his move, nudging his car and causing them both to crash out.

Ayrton Senna raised his hands in disgust. Alain Prost climbed out of his car knowing that he had won the championship. Ayrton Senna, however, was not done. He urged the Japanese marshals to push start his car and he rattled into the pits for a new wing, and then went on to take the chequered flag against all odds. But then, just moments before he was due to take his place on the podium, Jean Marie Balestre, the French head of F1’s governing body, declared a technical infringement, stripping Senna of victory. Alain Prost was declared champion and Ayrton Senna was suspended. The Brazilian regarded this as a terrible injustice.

“His story is amazing and we have this great three-act structure to work with,” says Asif Kapadia. “You have his rise, his success, and then the challenges he faces when he gets to the top. There is the ‘comedy bad guy’, Balestre, the rival with four world titles, Alain Prost, and then there’s Ayrton Senna’s personal side, his family, his girlfriends, the relationship he has with Brazil, and there’s tension, drama, tragedy. It is absolutely what films should be, and it is all real.”

The story took yet another turn in the 1990 season. At the Japan circuit, the roles were reversed from the previous year. As long as Ayrton Senna finished ahead of Alain Prost, he would be crowned champion. Ayrton Senna had pole position although knew that the second place on the grid was actually a better starting point as it was the cleaner side of the track. He raised the point with officials who agreed to swap the positions over and Ayrton Senna took pole position in qualifying. Before the race, however, Ayrton Senna was convinced that Balestre had reversed the decision and Ayrton Senna had to start from the dirtier side of the track. The driver was incensed and 11 seconds into the race, on the first turn of the circuit, Ayrton Senna barrelled into Alain Prost at 150mph, causing both men to spin off. This time it was Ayrton Senna’s turn to walk away safe in the knowledge that he had won the title.

“If you had written this story as fiction, you would say that it is a clever piece of writing,” smiles the director. “One year Alain Prost crashes into Ayrton Senna at the slowest point of the track, in such a way that his own car was not even damaged. The following year, Ayrton Senna crashes into Alain Prost at one of the fastest points of the track, saying, ‘I don’t care what happens, I am going for it.’ It is very interesting how you are what you do and Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s characters are revealed by these two accidents.”

Balestre was livid but could not punish Ayrton Senna because there was no proof that he had caused the accident intentionally. The F1 community, however, censured Ayrton Senna, complaining about his high-speed manoeuvre and many drivers claimed that Ayrton Senna’s ‘dark side’ was a true reflection of his personality. Alain Prost even claimed that Ayrton Senna’s faith in God made him a dangerous driver. It was a stinging attack that simplified Ayrton Senna’s spirituality, but the Brazilian kept his own counsel.

“I think Ayrton Senna was shades of grey,” offers Pandey. “He was not purely white. When he took Alain Prost off at 150mph, Ayrton Senna could have waited until the end of the lap and done him on the same chicane that Alain Prost had done him, at a slow and safe speed. But that’s why I love him: because it is not cold blooded. It is so hot blooded with him, always. Everyone has kicked a dustbin or slammed a door at some point in their life. Well, that is how they kicked dustbins, and slam the doors, in these sports. Some might call the film a partisan treatment but this film is not ‘Ayrton Alain, Nigel and Nelson’. This film is Ayrton Senna.”

Indeed, with his remarkable rise, his crowning achievements as World Champion – he is widely perceived as the finest racer ever to sit behind the wheel of an F1 car – his battle with Alain Prost and Balestre and then his own untimely death, Ayrton Senna is a remarkable story. “We set up our character, we had ascendancy and then we had a turning point, which is him winning the championship,” explains Manish Pandey, “and you think the film is over but then you realise that politics come into it. And then for the next act, the whole of the second act is Ayrton Senna overcoming; no matter what you achieve it comes and hits you back in the face. And that is life.”

Just as Ayrton Senna reached the top, the technology in cars changed and the 1992 and 1993 titles went to Williams-Renault cars driven by Mansell and Alain Prost. In 1994, however, with Alain Prost and Mansell no longer racing in F1, Ayrton Senna secured the Williams drive and people predicted the easiest championship ever. But a young driver called Michael Schumacher had arrived on the scene in a Benetton car that seemed to have an unfair advantage.

“And then the third act is pivotal because just when Ayrton Senna has overcome everything, he finally comes up against the thing he can’t do, which is this modern world,” offers Manish Pandey. “It really is the death of the hero by machine. There is a car out there that hasn’t had the same restrictions and it is cheating and you know he is outraged. Ayrton Senna knows by this time his sense of fairness and justice is going to be outraged but there’s nothing he can do. He will never share that injustice publicly with the press because he understands that he will always lose. He was a very shrewd man.”

Gay-Rees concludes: “The great thing about this movie is the structure. You could not ask for a better structure. The rise and fall. Ultimately, it is the only possible outcome you could have.”

The Vision for Senna
An aspect particular to this documentary is the fact there are no talking heads. Many interviews were conducted but they run over the footage in voice-over form rather than being seen. Eric Fellner recalls that Asif Kapadia had always resisted the idea of the audience seeing the subjects and to his credit stuck to his guns.

“I think it gives it a slightly unique feel because most documentaries don’t have that. Yes, we had to cheat with some voice over but you never cut away from the period and you get a lot of Ayrton Senna,” Eric Fellner smiles. “You feel like Ayrton Senna is telling you the story all the way through and that was Asif Kapadia’s big thing and I think that helps the thrust a lot.”

Asif Kapadia explains: “Early on, Manish Pandey and I cut a ten minute short just from some YouTube footage and even from doing that we knew that this approach would work. I knew there was a brilliant film here, with a very powerful ending, very shocking and moving and a tragic ending. And then you have got his journey and then his rivalry, a beginning a middle and an end. What do we need talking heads for?

The interviews with other drivers – despite his rivalry with Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost was a pallbearer at the funeral and gave the filmmakers generous amounts of time – and commentators on the sport, along with the family, play out over the carefully selected footage.

“Everyone that we interviewed was brilliant and lovely but you look at the material, and it is Ayrton Senna’s passion and tension that shines through,” Asif Kapadia continues. “It wasn’t easy to persuade people to drop the talking heads, it’s the starting point for many documentary films,” he laughs. “I must say, there were a lot of very experienced people who were involved in the film and that was a difficult argument, but my gut was always saying we should just let the images do the work. The more I looked at the footage, the more I realised that it tells you the story.”

Eric Fellner laughs, “I was on Asif Kapadia Eriall the time saying, ‘When We Were Kings, When We Were Kings.'” The famous 1996 documentary telling the story of the Rumble in the Jungle fight between Ali and Foreman featured a fantastic performance by Norman Mahler at the opening, which drew those unfamiliar with boxing into the story. Eric Fellner wanted something similar with Ayrton Senna. “But Asif Kapadia resisted and I think he was right. The footage and the way it is put together in the film is fantastic.”

Within three weeks of meeting with Ayrton Senna’s family, Manish Pandey and James Gay-Rees were sitting in front of F1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone. Even at the outset, when the filmmakers originally planned to inter-cut their footage with talking head interviews, they would need access to the F1 archive at Biggin Hill, which would require Bernie Ecclestone’s assistance. Bernie Ecclestone owns every image shot on camera at a F1 meeting during the period covered in the film.

“Our first meeting at Bernie Ecclestone’s office saw Bernie Ecclestone come in and he didn’t even sit for the meeting,” recalls Manish Pandey. “His lawyer beat us up for forty minutes, and then he stood for a 17-minute meeting, told us that he thought the project was great, shook hands and we knew we had the deal. Then it was a question of paperwork, which took 18 months. But we got the deal. Bernie Ecclestone just grinned and said, ‘Give us all you can and we will see what we can do.'”

The filmmakers’ access to the F1 archive was unprecedented. “Thanks to Bernie Ecclestone, we got unlimited access to everything,” says Eric Fellner. And so the monumental task began of patiently looking through all the material. “We said that we should go back to the original material and keep looking, keep looking, do all of our research, sift through hours and hours of material,” explains Asif Kapadia, “because I don’t know the story inside out and I am looking at it with a fresh eye, as an outsider to the material and, saying, ‘Well, this is really interesting even though it is not in any of the books’ and, ‘This is in every book, and actually it is not that great’.”

With such a wealth of footage at their disposal, the filmmakers could afford to be highly selective. Asif Kapadia cites a famous lap at Donington Park at the 1993 European Grand Prix. “It is amazing when you look at his driving how he wins in such an inferior car,” he says, “but it is grey, it is pissing down with rain and no one is there. The camera work is awful too, even though they are driving at 190mph, it all looks so slow, so I chose not to make it a key sequence in the film. Visually, it was not good enough.”

And yet there are other moments, away from the track that proved absolutely riveting, including footage of the drivers’ briefings, and a particularly feisty episode involving Ayrton Senna and Balestre. “To me, with those drivers’ meetings, it felt like having a Ken Loach dialogue scene in the middle of an action film, where people are having an argument in a room about something complex and you just follow them. It is just real and that was the bottom line, that whatever happens, it is real.”

“Some of the footage we use is from YouTube, we have super 8 footage and some of it was shot on 35mm. That’s the range of our movie. For me it was always going to be a mosaic that we all put together. You look up close and you aren’t sure what you see, our film will never look technically perfect. You take a step back and it is beautiful like a piece of Gaudi architecture. I always approached it as a fiction film, a film with real life drama, real people . Documentaries are constructed, they have always used fictional techniques. Fiction films try all the time to be real. I wanted to find a new space or genre somewhere in the middle.”

As the movie progresses chronologically, the TV coverage of the races is noticeably more complex and sophisticated. During the 1980s, Western governments imposed stricter laws on Tobacco advertising and F1 received a massive injection of cash, as the tobacco manufacturers poured billions into sponsorship deals with the leading teams. As a result, the number of cameras increased, and the quality of the camerawork improved.

Eric Fellner explains, “With the basic races that have been televised, what we tried to do was to find angles. It sounds a bit nerdy, but we always tried to find the angle that hadn’t been broadcast. And then a lot of the stuff in the garage with Ayrton Senna, and the brilliant sequences of the drivers’ conferences, no one has ever seen that. Fantastic.”

“By Imola at the end of the movie,” Asif Kapadia explains, “Ayrton Senna has pretty much got 40 cameras on him everywhere he goes, so it became like cutting a drama. We could literally have a mid shot, a reverse, a two-shot profile and a high-angled helicopter shot if we wanted.”

When recalling their rare footage, both Eric Fellner and James Gay-Rees cite a moment that captures Ayrton Senna in the garage at Imola, the weekend leading up to his fatal crash. “It is amazing,” says Eric Fellner, “in the garage he is being shot from multiple angles and we were actually able, in real time, to cut from one angle to another. There are very few documentaries where you ever find that kind of coverage, which allows the viewer to feel like they are watching a film because the events are unfolding in a filmic way.” James Gay-Rees agrees. “The stuff that I think is pretty incredible is him in the garage on the last weekend when he gets more and more freaked out about what is going on. That’s pretty sensational.”

Along with the footage from the F1 archive, the filmmakers could employ the wealth of material recorded by Brazilian television. “It was following his every move from very early on, and he knew he needed his press to become successful,” says Asif Kapadia, who also used early footage supplied by the family along with several scenes from Brazilian TV channels.

“It is something that made this film doable the way we have done it,” concludes the director. “Very few people in the world have an amazing talent but on top of that everywhere Ayrton Senna went someone was filming him. He became huge in Japan, and the Japanese loved their cameras, so there was always someone somewhere. And then with F1, we got lucky that these amazing French cameramen were working at the time – most of the good camera work was shot by them – and they just happened to have a great eye.”

The spectre of Imola, of course, looms through the latter stages of the film, and the interviews and footage that relate to the story of Ayrton Senna’s tragic demise are very poignant. As the film shows, Ayrton Senna became increasingly concerned about his safety and his own sense of foreboding comes through. “Unfortunately, there was loads and loads of really good footage that we couldn’t put in the movie,” says James Gay-Rees. “For example, we have footage of Ayrton Senna standing at the corner at Imola a month before he died, during testing, and he is saying, ‘Somebody is going to die at this corner this year.’ But the point remains that people do like tragedy, under the right circumstances.”

Ayrton Senna’s story is an undeniably tragic tale, but such was his passion, tenacity and own God-granted self-assurance, it is also punctured with light. “He was a real superstar,” concludes Asif Kapadia, “and he was clever enough to know this long before other sportsmen. He had his own logo, own theme tune, and own skyscraper. This was a quietly interesting guy who knew how to have an image as a sportsman and to put that image to good use. It is only recently that Rodger Federer and Ronaldo have become brands. Ayrton Senna was doing it back in the 1980s. The man was a sensation and his story is just gripping.”

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