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I used to watch a lot of Formula 1 when I was a boy and a teenager, it is the right kind of tv amusement on a Sunday afternoon. There is speed, there is competition, and the two combined provide for looming mortal peril, which makes the thrill of watching any kind of high-speed competition. Many would deny that, but I strongly believe that this denial is strongly driven by the unpleasant realization of one’s own voyeurism.

“Senna” relies on this voyeurism. Its hero, Ayrton Senna, has made a career and a fortune playing to it, making race-car driving more competitive and fierce, playing the young vigilante outsider card against the European-dominated Formula 1 establishment, and producing great media drama for the few years his career lasted. What separates him from today’s almost forgotten heroes of similar achievements like his rival and team mate Alain Prost, or his compatriot Nelson Piquet, or so many others of similar qualities, was that as a young Brazilian overachiever, he has reached semi-God status in his home country. And he crowned and manifested that status by dying in an almost inevitable crash at age 34. Someone in the film (Prost, probably) considers what it means that this saviour of his country’s pride had achieved all that and completed it by his own death at such a young age (“we Brazilians need food, education, health care and joy. Joy has died now.”). You can never imagine him other than powerful, handsome, young and energetic. You will never have to deal with the sobering news of his old-age or illness-induced death. He has become the Mozart of racing, in that respect.

However: when watching the film, I could not help but feeling very non-Brazilian about this. Great driver, very successful for some years, charming and charismatic, but the special status, the level of divinity awarded to him also through the interview partners is almost inappropriate and slightly embarrassing to watch. The size of this personality is a product of the race establishing successful media partnerships, and through perennial background stories and personality profiles has the greatness of the Great One been narrated into the audiences the same way that the greatness of the next Great One, Senna’s successor wunderkind Schumacher, has been built. There is little to be found that is truly extraordinary about the story other than its abrupt and violent end.

“Senna” as a film is interesting in evoking the memories of what some call the great racing days, it is also successful in finding an interesting format (by using only archive footage in the cinema version – there is an extended version where talking heads are inserted amateurishly and with wrong sound levels). It does not manage, however, to explain to me that we witnessed anything but a regular human doing his job very professionally and successfully for a limited time. A job that always implied the serious possibility of getting  the gladiators killed in the course of amusing the crowds. At least Ratzenberger’s and Senna’s death in Imola probably saved some others’ lives through the increased safety standards that followed that doomed weekend.

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