07 July 2011

And death shall have no dominion.....

Have just watched the superb documentary Senna, it's probably time to cogitate on how a premature passing away gives undue weight to the legacy of someone whose death is somewhat unexpected. Not only prompted by two old schoolfriends who had seen the film in the less than salubrious environs of Basildon, I felt it essential to watch this film, and I was intrigued by what I saw.

For those of you unfamiliar with my fascination, I must confess to a degree of annoyance with George Monbiot, , the main North Korean agent/'Global warming' sympathiser in the Guardian who has called for Formula 1 to be banned on what appear to be increasingly spurious environmental grounds, thus denying enjoyment to the tens of thousands who attend the sport over the globe, and the millions of followers on Television. However, the misanthropy/inadequacy or communist bent of the bulk of the environmentalist movement is not really the purpose of the post. The film comprises an amalgam of 'live' footage and contemporary interviews both with Ayrton Senna himself, and his principal rival of the late 1980s/early 1990s, Alain Prost , alongside others. As a mere Schoolboy in those far off days of 1986 to 1994, the film brought back many memories for me, and for that reason alone, I would presume anyone with even a vague interest in Formula 1 is likely to have seen it already. If not, I would recommend it unhesitatingly.

It would be very wrong to suggest that the film is without flaws, however, and these flaws are symptomatic of a wider tendency for society in General to perhaps magnify the virtues, whilst diminshing (or indeed ignoring altogether) the faults of people who have died prematurely or in tragic circumstances. To put the film into context, Formula 1 in the period 1970 to 1986 was an inherently dangerous Sport. 14 drivers lost their lives but prior to the fateful weekend in San Marino in May 1994, the last fatality had been Italian driver Elio de Angelis , killed during a testing session in France in 1986, primarily due to a scandalous absence of any safety marshals, an oversight rectified all too late for the talented veteran. Despite several major incidents in the succeeding seasons (two stick in my mind, Austrian Gerhard Berger in 1989 and Irishman Martin Donnelly at Jerez in the following season, which is mentioned in the film) until 1994 Formula 1 had been fatality free. Part of my interest in the sport during the years 1988 to 1994 was also the profusion of what can only be described as slightly shambolic teams at the back of the grid - such doyens of mediocrity and ineptitude as Rial, Zakspeed, Onyx, AGS, Osella/Fondmetal, Eurobrun, Coloni and both Giroscoper's and my all time favourites, Life (all showcased at the excellent F1 rejects site )which made qualification for the grid a somewhat more arduous process than is the case in the much reduced current Formula 1 field.

From that perspective, I had a keen interest in the period showcased in the film, and can recall quite vividly many of the races focused on and the titanic battles between Senna, most definitely portrayed as the film's protagonist and the more cerebral Prost, who is made to appear as the moustachioed (or in this case curly-haired) villain. Whilst there is an element of truth to this portrayal, the film take various liberties with the truth. The first error is to deliver the assertion that Prost's nickname 'The Professor' is because he would settle for fifth place if that was all that was required, in contrast to Senna, who would continue to race to win even if he had the Championship in the bag. This is a near travesty of the truth. Prost, an exceptional driver who held the record for race wins for the better part of a decade, was given the name due to his focusing on car set-up, enabling him to overcome people who were arguably a faster car-driver combination through judicious reduction in tyre wear or skilful driving. The film then focuses on the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix a race stopped 32 laps in due to heavy rainfall and dangerous conditions with Senna actually overtaking Prost just after the race had been 'red flagged' to indicate its cessation. This is then spun to imply that Prost 'could not handle the rain'. It conveniently ignores the fact that Prost, in Formula 1 for four seasons prior to Senna's arrival, had seen three good friends,Gilles Villeneuve ,, Patrick Depailler , and Didier Pironi killed or seriously injured, and as a result was understandably keen not to suffer the same fate.

I'll return to the treatment of Prost and could probably have lived with the near-libelling of one driver, but the film really annoyed me when it considered the 1992 and 1993 Formula 1 seasons, as well as the races prior to the fateful Imola Grand Prix in 1994. The 1992 season in which the Williams of Briton Nigel Mansell reigned supreme, is presented as being 'stolen' from Senna by electronic chicanery, and Williams having such a superior car that Senna could not touch it, in spite of being the best driver. This is the kind of false prospectus that in some less Liberal states could land the perpetrator a custodial sentence. Both Mansell, (the '92 champion) and Prost were exceptional drivers, as anyone who watched the sport would testify, and I would argue only hideous bad luck at Canada prevented Mansell from challenging in '91 when an admittedly brilliant Senna won his third title. Then, when considering 1994, the season of Senna's death, the film skates over the fact that Michael Schumacher had won convincingly in the first two rounds, attributing it once more to technical chicanery, and implying that the Benetton team of that season had somehow cheated by retaining some of the electronic aids from the previous season.

This diatribe may dissuade people from watching this film,which is not the intention - but as the book 'Senna versus Prost' by Malcolm Folley points out (and I would also recommend it), Prost is still around to account for his actions at the time, whilst premature death lends a halo to Senna that the Director of the biopic, Asif Kapadia seems unable to examine more critically. In his defence, the untimely death of someone does lend their achievements a gloss that prevents at time their achievements being forensically looked at. I was going to illustrate with three contemporary Labour Party figures - John Smith, Mo Mowlam and Robin Cook, but the point is brought home by arguably the most famous assassination victim of all time , John F Kennedy, and the First president of the Irish Free State, Michael Collins. Kennedy was instrumental in setting up increased American commitment to Vietnam, and his dubious connections with criminal elements would surely have led him to the same unfortunate defea0t in 1968 that his far more worthy Successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson suffered. Collins was a bloody, violent enemy of democracy, arguably only redeemed by the fact that his Republican enemies were if anything even more extreme. Nevertheless, their reputations remain enhanced by their premature passing. Let's hope nothing happens to Ed Miliband in the immediate future!

1 comment:

Hal Berstram said...

Ah yes, Life... "the revolutionary W12 engine" which didn't work properly and ensured that the team was not able to make any race starts at all, wasn't it? Great days. I used to love Formula 1 about 20-25 years ago - nowadays I wouldn't have a clue. The film sounds good, though.