Tom English: 'Ayrton Senna demands a place alongside immortal story of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman'

Time was when you could never envisage a sports film that would rival the epic that is When We Were Kings, the dramatic and beautiful story of Muhammad Ali and his fight with George Foreman in the jungle of Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. As a piece of film-making it is perfect. It captures Ali in all his complexity; the greatness and the darker underbelly of the man. It utterly nails the ferocity of Foreman and his outrageously intimidating presence.

It's easy to see why a writer, director, producer might shy away from making a documentary about a sporting icon because there must always be a nagging anxiety that, however good your material, it could never be as good as the classic Kings.

On Friday, a documentary about the life and death of Ayrton Senna hit the screens and its extraordinary achievement is that it already demands a place in the pantheon alongside the immortal story of Ali and Foreman. Senna is a gob-smacking piece of work, a visually stunning, fast-paced masterpiece about one of the most intriguing individuals professional sport has ever known.

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The other day I spoke to the film's director, Asif Kapadia, a Bafta-winning Londoner from Hackney who has an eye for the outsider in his work. Before he got involved with Senna, he had no interest in Formula One but that is the genius of his film; it is the study of a man and what he does to survive in an extreme world. The fact that the world is motor-racing has not lessened its impact on those who have no interest in the sport.

"We're finding that people that had never even heard of Senna have fallen in love with him since watching the film," he says. "He had that power somehow."

"Was he a contradiction?" I ask.

"Yeah, he was super-confident and yet quite vulnerable. He was the toughest on the track and yet he cared most about everyone off it. In so many interviews you look at him and he looks like he is crying, or about to cry. Not many world champion sportsmen at the drop of a hat get tearful. Whenever his mother started talking he'd start crying or whenever he talked about going home to Brazil or when he spoke about what Brazil meant to him he'd start crying and there would be moments when he'd talk about God and he'd start crying.

"It's impossible to sum him up in a few lines. He had many layers."

"Senna and his rivalry with Alain Prost. The Ali v (Joe] Frazier of the race-track?"

"It was bitter between those two. In any sport you have psychology, but in F1 it really is a big part of it. You had two drivers who used whatever tools they had to get an edge. F1 drivers are intellectually on another level, they're fighter pilots making decisions at 200 miles per hour, they're doing things that we could not fathom, their bodies are experiencing G-forces that we could not imagine.The idea of questioning one another became a part of their history and it got very bitter."

"Prost said Senna's faith in God made him dangerous, right?"

"Right. But, no, I don't think it made him dangerous. It's a big part of the story. Coming from a religious background doesn't make you dangerous. Senna said himself, 'Just because I believe in God does not make me immortal'. He answered it head-on. Senna is saying, 'He cannot keep up with me, I can take my car to limits that he cannot go to. Instead of trying to raise his limits he's trying to question me, attack me. I know I can die, I'm afraid to die, but I have limits I can go to that are higher than anybody else, I can push that car around the corner faster than anybody else so if you're not prepared to go as fast as me then get out of my way'."

"Faith is a major part of the Senna story, then?"

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"A huge part. He used to talk about God in English in his press conferences but he stopped because the British press were hard on him for doing it. He'd do a press conference in English and it would be boring, then he would do a 45-minute interview in Portuguese and there is this amazing material. He wins in Brazil for the first time in 1991 and it's an incredible sequence in the film. He talks about God giving him the win. It still makes me cry when I see it."

The guesstimate is that Kapadia and his producers sifted through 15,000 hours of tape before making their final cut. They had footage coming in from all over the world. They were the first team ever allowed into the F1 archive, which is owned by Bernie Ecclestone. They were the first people who connected with Senna's family, who were trusted to such an extent that Senna's younger brother, Leonardo, handed over home movies that had all the beauty of gold. As much as 90 per cent of what we see in Senna has never been seen before.

"We showed it to the Senna family a year ago in Monaco and that was a pretty nervous time," Kapadia recalls. "You forget sometimes you are not making a drama. This is real. There are real people involved. There's a family still in mourning. There were a lot of tears in the cinema that day. In the darkness you could hear the sobbing."

It's been 17 years since Senna's death, a chilling fact to those of us who remember where we were when we heard of his passing. It still seems like only yesterday. For 105 minutes on the big screen he comes to life again. And what life he had.

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