My introduction to Formula One racing was made during my friendship with Jackie Stewart.
In the late '70s, shortly after he had retired, Jackie and I would hang out when I lived in Hollywood. He was quite dapper. I remember inviting him to dinner parties with Andy Warhol and laughing with Jackie and Dudley Moore.
Stewart loved to laugh. He loved celebrity. He was the Andy Warhol of the F1 racing set. His eyes moved quickly and he had a wicked wit. Always kind, he was a pleasure to be around. It has been said he spoke almost as fast as he drove.
He was proud when he told me he almost raced with Steve McQueen, but McQueen could not get insurance.
In 2001 I cheered when Stewart received knighthood. Today Sir Jackie Stewart’s legacy as safety advocate in motor racing is as great as his legacy as a championship race winner.
“I would have been a more popular world champion if I had always said what people wanted to hear. I might have been dead, but definitely more popular,” he once said.
So when Jackie Stewart, now an ABC racing commentator, confronted arch rival Ayrton Senna in the upcoming documentary, I paid close attention to what Stewart had to say and to his reaction to Senna. It was a heated exchange in which Stewart said that Senna had bumped more cars in three years than most Formula One drivers do over the course of their careers.
Senna became defensive and said, “How can you say that I’ve been in more accidents than anyone?” Stewart’s lips move in a response which we do not hear because the camera quickly focuses on Senna to protect him from Stewart's retort. Senna never loses his temper or composure though his words are filled with angst.
I wanted to hear more of this dialogue between Stewart and Senna because this film glorifies Senna almost to a fault. It deifies.
More of Stewart's comments would have given depth and balance to this documentary, which is directed by BAFTA award winning director, Asif Kapadia. Nevertheless Senna was awarded World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary at Sundance.
Senna, who was born in 1960, was from a privileged background. Even when he was very young he knew what he wanted. He began racing go carts and loved recalling these years. In 1984, his second year in Formula One, he won the Grand Prix. He went on to 41 wins and three World Championships which earned him the reputation of being one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all times.
There is endless footage of one race after another. Footage from Italy, Japan, England, Sao Paulo, Rio, all over the world. But I longed to know more about Senna, the man.
We do learn he believes in God. About a race he says, “Somehow I got closer to God and this was very important to me. I visualized and saw God who is a part of me.” When reflecting about why he loves racing, he says, “I think God gave me this chance.”
He does stands up to his rival France’s Alain Prost with whom he had been friends until 1989. Prost says, “Ayrton thinks he can’t get hurt.”
Senna responds, “Just because I believe in God does not mean I’m immortal. I know I can get hurt.”
Ayrton Senna was movie star handsome. His eyes slanted like a big cat about to spring. Two of his front teeth were slightly crooked which added to his charm. His lips were full and perfectly shaped. (No collagen here). And his nose was pointed aristocratically so that in profile he looked distinguished. One heard Bossa Nova rhythm when looking into his face. He was Brazilian. The heart and soul of Brazil. Born in Sao Paulo. Ayrton Senna was a sex symbol.
Despite Senna’s smoldering good looks, there is little footage on him with his girlfriends. I was curious as the sexuality of formula one race car drivers is fascinating and incendiary. Their sparks ignite interest in their personal life, but this film keeps a lid on that part of Senna. I wanted to hear from his women.
Footage indicates that he lived the life somewhat of a playboy in that we see him sailing and riding a motorcycle with a beautiful blonde and on a bizarre Brazilian Christmas show clowning around with one of his girlfriends, Xuxa.
Then we are told he is a philanthropist who has united Brazil and given millions to charity for children. It is apparent that the people of Brazil loved him.
Ayrton Senna died in 1994 at the age of 34 in a crash due to a mechanical failure of his Formula One car. On his last race a camera was strapped on the car and functioned through his fatality to record that footage.
Not long before his last race, his doctor said to him, “You’re a three times world champion. You like fishing. Why don’t you quit and we’ll just go fishing. Isn’t that enough?” Ayrton Senna replied, “I can’t quit. It’s in my blood. I must go on.”