Published: July 29, 2011

When Ayrton Senna died at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola on May 1, 1994, the BBC racing commentator Murray Walker predicted that the Brazilian driver would become “a legend which will grow and grow as coming generations appreciate his achievements.”

With Formula One preparing for the Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend, 20 years after the second of Senna’s three victories at the track outside Budapest, Walker’s words are more pertinent than ever: A film about Senna’s life has become the third-most successful documentary at the box office in Britain.

Entitled “Senna,” the film was directed by Asif Kapadia, a British art-house film director who had never made a film about sports before. He had made films about outsiders in extreme situations, though, and since “Senna” was released in Britain in early June, it has grossed nearly £3 million, or nearly $5 million, behind only the 2005 nature documentary “March of the Penguins” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” of 2004.

In release throughout the world this summer, the film has demonstrated its appeal beyond sports and Formula One fans everywhere. While this success no doubt reflects the quality of the filmmaking, it also reflects the man it portrays.

Compared to today’s generation of drivers, who are careful of how they speak and act and afraid of controversy in the global business that the elite racing series has become, Senna’s behavior was rich in humanity.

Senna came from a wealthy family in São Paulo. His father wanted him to run the family business, but supported what he thought was his son’s whim to go race in Europe. When Senna refused to return to the family business, his father backed his racing career.

But as Richard Williams, a sportswriter for a British newspaper, The Guardian, says in the film, Senna did not buy his way into the sport. What little he lacked in talent, he made up for in hard work.

His legend began at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1984, his first season, when he drove an inferior Toleman car up the pack in the pouring rain to second position and what would have been victory had the race not been stopped prematurely for safety reasons. Alain Prost, the French driver who would later become Senna’s rival and teammate, won the race.

Senna went on to win the world title three times, and held the record of 65 pole positions until Michael Schumacher broke it in 2006 and now holds the record at 68. Senna won 41 races, which is third on the all-time list, with Schumacher leading with 91, followed by Prost with 51.

But the Senna legend was not made on statistics or achievements alone. It was about personality, character and his part in one of history’s greatest sporting rivalries, with Prost.

“He never wanted to beat me,” Prost says in the film, “he wanted to humiliate me. He wanted to show the people he was much better.”

Their battle ran from 1988, when they were teammates at McLaren and combined to win all but one of the season’s races, to 1993, Prost’s last year racing. It was explosive, acrimonious and politically charged.

“All drivers go for their limits,” Senna says in the film. “My limits are different from Prost’s.”

Kapadia tells Senna’s life almost entirely through footage from the time, including archival film from the Formula One promoter; Fuji television in Japan; Globo television in Brazil, and television in France and elsewhere throughout the world. Senna’s brother, Leonardo, provided home movies that had not previously been seen publicly.

“I wanted to do something where I didn’t have control over the look of the film, I wanted to do a film where in a way I didn’t care what it looked like,” Kapadia in an interview recently. “Emotionally, if it’s right for the character, even if it is YouTube, we are going to put it in the film.”

“So for me it was a big challenge to take myself out of the comfort zone of the films that I had been making for many, many years,” he added.

Kapadia, 39, has directed several award-winning films, including “The Sheep Thief,” and “The Warrior.” “Senna,” won the World Cinema Audience Documentary Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

“Because he was so famous, you could make a film about him, but I don’t think you could make it about many people in the world,” Kapadia said. “He’s so famous in Brazil, he’s so famous in Japan, he’s so famous in a particular sport that literally cameras are always there, whenever he goes to work there is a camera there. So you have his work and his career and his death all on camera.”

“He is not performing for the camera,” he added. “He is being honest because that cameraman is someone he has known all his life, he travels to every race. These guys ignore them, they are there the whole time.”

The film was written and produced by Manish Pandey, a British orthopedic surgeon who is a lifelong fan of Formula One, but also of Senna.

“When I saw his post-race interview,” Pandey wrote of Senna winning his first title in 1988, “he said of winning the championship, ‘It feels like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.’ It felt like a weight off mine, too.”

Not surprisingly, the film got some poor reviews in France, where the public had largely favored Prost, their compatriot, over Senna. The film presents the clash almost entirely from Senna’s point of view. But that was Kapadia’s intention, to let Senna tell his story.

The Senna-Prost rivalry was also about an opposition of two different philosophies of life, the spiritual and the cerebral. Prost was so cerebral that he was nicknamed, The Professor. Senna, however, was a spiritual man, functioning intuitively, by gut-reaction. That generally made him a more appealing character to the public.

Prost’s evaluation of this tendency proved tragically prophetic, not for other drivers, as he suggested, but for Senna himself.

“Ayrton has a problem,” Prost said, “he thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God. I think that is very dangerous for the other drivers.”