Monday, January 31, 2011

Ayrton Senna Documentary Wins Top Honors at Sundance Fim Festival

Ayrton Senna was the greatest racecar driver of all time. He occupies a singular place at the pinnacle of Formula 1 racing, above the greats of the sport, from Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark to Gilles Villeneuve and Formula 1’s winningest champion, Michael Schumacher. In Brazil Ayrton Senna stands shoulder-to-shoulder with PelĂ©, the world’s all-time greatest footballer and FIFA’s athlete of the century, in legendary stature.

And what a legend he was. Ayrton Senna’s awesome talent was off the charts. A racing writer who had considered Gilles Villeneuve to be the best and “most spectacular” racecar driver ever changed his mind after watching hours of film of Senna’s races. He realized, he said, that Senna was “spectacular all of the time.” Yesterday, the documentary Senna received top honors in its category at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Here’s a review. It seems to be an exceptional film about an exceptional man.

Ayrton Senna pushed the envelope to its very limit. He redefined pushing the envelope. He stepped outside it and took one, two, three … four steps beyond where anyone had ever gone. Or could go. It’s been said there is no more intense human activity short of war than Formula 1 racing. Or at least the Formula 1 racing of the 80s and 90s when Senna reigned supreme over rivals Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, and fellow countryman Nelson Piquet.

There was one memorable confrontation between Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet during the Hungarian Grand Prix that recalled that famous scene in Rebel Without a Cause in which the two rivals play a game of chicken by drag racing to the edge of a precipice. Whoever brakes first “chickens out” and loses the game. Piquet was in the lead going into the straightaway with Senna fast on his tail.

Nelson Piquet had the better team, the better car, Williams, and was vying for the world driving championship, which he would go on to win that year. Senna was the young gun driving for Lotus, the legendary team of  hat-tossing Colin Chapman. Lotus had seen better days with another famous Brazilian racer, Emerson Fittipaldi, and then Mario Andretti at the wheel as they steered its striking ‘John Player Special’ black-and-gold cars to world driving and constructors championships.

As Senna zoomed up behind Piquet, drafting and dancing in his mirrors — which did not faze the unflappable Piquet, famous for having the lowest heart rate in the drivers community and snoozing in his car during a race start delay — he was piloting an inferior Lotus racecar which had won its last Grand Prix races, back-to-back, earlier that year at Monaco and Detroit, owing to Senna’s prodigious talent.

They raced down the straightaway flat-out, sparks flying as the cars bottomed out on the rough Hungarian track. Piquet had the lead and the inside line. Then Senna made his move. He swung outside and pulled up alongside Piquet. They were racing wheel-to-wheel toward a hard-braking sharp right-hand turn at the end of the straightaway. Senna was supremely confident of his ability to outbrake anyone going into a turn and still maintain control of the car. Piquet knew it. He knew that if he braked too soon he would be overtaken by Senna. Too late and he would be forced to overcompensate, losing his line and taking a wide outside turn. He knew Senna would shoot the inside gap and have him, either way. So Piquet took the only option left to retain the lead. He dove into the corner “hot” braking late and hard, going into a controlled skid. Piquet’s rear end waggled momentarily, but then his tires gripped asphalt and accelerated out, holding his line, with Senna’s black Lotus boring in and riding up his tail.

It was racing in its purest form. Nelson Piquet had the better car, yet had to summon every trick in his arsenal to hold off the hard-charging Ayrton Senna. It was a risky maneuver, but it probably saved Piquet the championship. I remember thinking, “Yo Senna, cut your compadre a break; he’s got enough troubles handling teammate Nigel Mansell without you giving him a hard time.”

But that’s not how Ayrton Senna thought. He finished second that day, behind Piquet, and looked none too happy about it. Senna once said about losing: “Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose.”

Senna had many memorable quotes:

“Racing, competing,” he said, “it’s in my blood. It’s part of me, it’s part of my life; I have been doing it all my life and it stands out above everything else.

And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.

And suddenly I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.”
Having seen Ayrton Senna drive at the peak of his Zen-like performance, it once occurred to me that the phrase “in the zone” could have been conjured up with him in mind. After several unsuccessful attempts to capture this ethereal quality, because he was too fast for my camera’s shutter, I think I got close with this shot of Senna on his way to winning the 1988 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. It’s not a camera trick or Photoshop. Everything around him is a speed blur. But Senna’s famous red and white McLaren stands out in high relief, as if floating within a bubble of calm. Not too bad for an amateur photographer:

That was Ayrton Senna, in the zone. Some of those performances were so amazing that he’d take the lead and keep increasing it until he had lapped almost the entire field and was nearly a minute ahead of his closest competitor. That is unheard of. Senna lost a few races this way, such that once having eliminated his competition early, he raced against himself trying to top his own personal best. With fewer than ten laps remaining, he didn’t fail but his car sometimes did, breaking down mechanically. It was frustrating to think that if only he’d eased off he could have coasted to victory. But that wasn’t Ayrton Senna.

On compromise, this is what the uncompromising Ayrton Senna had to say: “You must take the compromise to win, or else nothing. That means: you race or you do not.” (President Obama must have channeled Senna when he was criticized for compromising on taxes with the Republicans.)

Ayrton Senna had a sense of fatalism about how he lived his life. Four months before his death, he said: “If I’m going to live, I want to live fully. Very intensely, because I am an intense person. It would ruin my life if I had to live partially.”

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