By Dave Woodhall.

Cards on the table time – I don’t like Formula One. It always seems a vulgar display of excess, brutal in its environmentally unfriendliness and attracting the sort of followers who regard Jeremy Clarkson as a ‘good bloke’.

SennaThat meant I wasn’t over keen on the thought of 1 hour 45 minutes watching a documentary about a racing driver, albeit one who was on his way to becoming the greatest of all time before his death during the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994. And of course I was wrong, because this is one of the great sporting documentaries ever filmed.

It begins, as you’d expect, with shots of the young Senna learning his trade racing karts, and moves onto his decade-long Formula One career accompanied by comments from his contemporaries. These are placed over footage of Senna on and off the racetrack and as such add to the feel of the film. Director Asif Kapadia manages to portray a real sense of watching a home movie as we follow the man, originally the underdog from Brazil, through his battles with arch-rival Alain Prost to become three times world champion and a deity in his home land, the struggle made all the more poignant because we know there will be no happy ending.

Formula One doesn’t do rags to riches – Senna was born into a well-to-do family – but there are enough brushes with both authority and other drivers to show that here was a true maverick with the charisma to have carved a career in any walk of life he chose. It was this rebellious streak that was to prove his undoing. Prost once said, “Ayrton has a small problem. He thinks that he can’t kill himself.” Sadly, Ayrton was wrong.

Reading about Senna’s life it seems that some unsavoury incidents have been glossed over. Whether this is right or not I don’t know, but I didn’t feel the film would have been improved by showing he was capable of losing his temper away from racing, or how he might have been a bit more gallant to the women he attracted.

I was surprised to learn that no-one has been killed in Formula One since the fatal May weekend at the Imola circuit that has been called the blackest time in motor racing history. That weekend at Imola had also seen the death of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger and serious injury to Ruebens Barrichello, incidents which had ironically led to Senna reviving the Grand Prix Drivers Association just hours before his own fatal accident. As a result of this move track safety has improved immeasurably, careless driving is more easily punished. Safety is paramount, but so is commercialism, and now more than ever the richest teams will win. The maverick’s death made it even more difficult that there ever will be another like him.

And a film as good as this will be just as hard to make. Watch it if you have the chance.