Senna

James Hunt driving a Brabham BT21 in the Guard...
James Hunt driving a Brabham BT21 in the Guards Trophy F3 race at Brands Hatch, 1969. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So because it was on ITV last week, I finally got round to seeing the Senna documentary that everyone was raving about when it came out.

I wasn’t disappointed, because I had no real expectations. I’m too old to ever be swayed by what reviewers write. A lot of people made the claim of the film that it was “even” enjoyable for people who were not Formula 1 motor racing fans. I think Kermode said something like this, and he said something similar about the recent Ron Howard movie concerning the Hunt/Lauda thing. I think this kind of statement is misleading. It may be that, if you know “absolutely nothing” about Formula 1, films like this are more enjoyable, because you’re learning something new. It may also be, if you’re familiar with F1 and its history that films like Senna are less enjoyable.

I grew up loving F1, but fell out of love with it over the past 15 years or so. This is not a falling out of love with the modern version and a preference for the past. This is a falling out of love with the whole thing. Anyway, I didn’t enjoy the film much. Partly this is to do with my habit of two-screening. Having something on with subtitles can be an irritant if you’re doing something else at the same time as watching. In the end, though, I’m not all that interested any more in the subject, and I wasn’t a fan of the man. Nothing in the film made me like him more. A bit of a god-botherer, which is a dangerous thing when you’re put in charge of machinery.

I’ve particularly gone off F1 now I live near Silverstone. In my previous job, too, I encountered proper F1 fans, up close and personal, and they were all wankers.  Formula 1 is a mechanical version of fox hunting, complete with the super-rich tally-ho VIPs and the forelock-touching hunt followers in their camper vans.

One thing you can give Senna, the person, which he had in common with James Hunt, and Jackie Stewart before him, is that at least he stopped and tried to help when people around him were dying in accidents. Some of the most shameful footage of motor racing is the sight of other drivers weaving through the wreckage and smoke, and continuing to drive around and around, even though something catastrophic has clearly happened.

Hunt and Stewart were driving in the immolation by fire era, dealing with cars which seemed to burst into flames if someone kicked a tyre. By Senna’s time, the cars were no longer routinely combusting and the drivers were instead dying of broken necks or being impaled.

But here’s the thing, and it’s something in the character of these drivers that has become evident from all the various documentaries I have watched over the years. While they might, like Senna and Hunt, stop to help a friend in need, and then wrestle with their conscience afterwards about whether to continue with this dangerous career, they always decided to carry on. And that, in the end, is what gets me. They’re like the pregnant character in a Hollywood movie, who might wrestle with the notion of a termination, but in the end always decides to have the baby. These drivers give the outward appearance of caring about their dead friends, but in the end, they’re not much different from the ones who weave through the smoke and wreckage and carry on.

After all, there had already been one death on the weekend that Senna himself died. Think about that. Everything carried on as normal. People object more when a horse is shot after the Grand National.

Jackie Stewart did end his career relatively early, and I remember him trying to persuade Graham Hill to retire before he was killed, on the basis of his strong belief that, the longer you stayed in the sport, the more certain you were to die. Hill carried on, and did indeed die, albeit in a plane crash on the way back from a circuit.

In the end, what disturbs me about F1 is the sense that it was always designed to provide human sacrifices to the machine god of speed, still worshipped by so many. The blank-eyed determination of drivers like Senna to continue in the face of all that death is like the thousand-mile stare of the heavily drugged sacrificial offering. The modern sport makes less of a feature of fiery death, but its reputation as a spectacle is built on the shoulders of deceased drivers. The current global festival of corporate hospitality is a meaningless exercise in historical re-enactment.

On top of that, winners? Really? The win-at-all-costs mentality does nothing for me. Senna, the film, made a bad guy out of Alain Prost, simply because he objected to reckless behaviour. It also made a bad guy out of Jackie Stewart, for daring to question Senna about his habit of driving other people off the road. Then along came Schumacher, who was exactly the same. This was also the era, in a different sport, of Lance Armstrong.

Nobody wins unless everybody wins.

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