Monday, April 2, 2012


What's a Buddhist to say about Formula One motor racing? The question occurred to me last night as I watched Senna, courtesy of Apple TV. It's the life-and-death story of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian race driver who was three times World Champion of the sport, and who died doing what he loved in a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. His car simply failed to make the corner and ran head-on into the wall at enormous speed.

I lost my enthusiasm for Grand Prix racing when I left Europe in 1962. With no racetracks within reasonable distance--I believe that Watkins Glen, in New York, was the only one in the USA--and television more interested in NASCAR, the newspapers were the only source of information at the time. They don't afford the same thrill as the stands at the side of a race track where the roar of engines and the flash of motor cars traveling at incredible speeds send chills up and down the spectator's spine. NASCAR racing never quite made it as a substitute: going round and round the canted oval track, though faster, seemed a different and, to me, a less challenging task for the driver. As a teenager and a young man growing up in England, though, I was something of a fan, and would go to watch legendary drivers like Sterling Moss and Juan Fangio vie with each other in Italian racing red Ferraris and the short-lived, too frequently ill-fated British racing green BRM. Ah, those were the days.

These days, though the national colors remain the same, the roar of engines has been replaced with the high-pitched whine of the modern racer. They go much faster, too, and the gear shifts no longer require that manual effort or the deft manipulation of the clutch. It's a different skill set, but the sheer courage and the emotional and athletic stamina required of the driver is unchanged. It's not that they are fearless. They have learned, I think, to channel their fear into intense, unswerving concentration. A driver like Senna, as this documentary about him shows, is a remarkable human being--driven, yes, but capable of extraordinary purposefulness and control, and possessed of a strong ego and determination to be the best.

The documentary--a multiple award-winner--is compelling from start to tragic finish. Its story focuses on the fierce competition between the charismatic Senna and his chief rival, the ever-cunning Frenchman Alain Prost, who comes off as the villain of the piece until the end, when he joins the international mourners at Senna's funeral and becomes a trustee of the Instituto Ayron Senna. While the epic battle between the two men and the animosity it engenders give the film a dramatic narrative edge, we also experience from archival footage some of the thrills of motor racing, and some of the tragedy incurred by the power and speed of their incredible machines. With an ample resource of interview and TV news material to draw on, the documentary's director Asif Kapadia assembles a rich and complex portrait of the young race driver--privileged, certainly, but possessed of an extraordinary charm and of a sense of responsibility toward those less fortunate than himself. His institute has done much to provide educational opportunity for the impoverished, slum-dwelling children of his country. That he became a national hero results not only from the pride and joy he brought to a severely struggling country at the time, but also from the love he had for it.

So what about Formula One racing? Is it foolhardy? Without a doubt. Is there a "Zen of motor car racing"? I suspect there must be a still, focused center in the driver's mind, a deep concentration not unlike the meditative state. At one point, Senna spoke of driving in a state of pure, thought-less awareness, almost an ecstasy. Is it harmful? Certainly, the potential for grave harm is there. The sport's thrills derive in good part from danger--the risk to the driver's life and limb, the imminent possibility of a dramatic, fiery crash. In part, too, they derive from the sensational power and speed of the machines themselves; and from the competitive spirit that pits both drivers and machines into a life-and-death battle with each other. It's why the Romans flocked to see the chariot races: the frail human body put to the ultimate risk. We project ourselves, perhaps, into our heroes, and experience through them some truth about our own vulnerability and mortality.

So I'm honestly not able to answer the question I started out with. I'd need to get to a far more specific situation or event to mull over if I wanted to find something approaching an answer with falling into pomposity or sententiousness. Enough to say that I found much in the movie that told me more about the aspirations of the human spirit, and about the immeasurable potential of a single man. I can choose to leave aside the bigger, unanswerable questions and be satisfied with that. I'd have no hesitation in recommending "Senna," even to a Buddhist!

1 comment:


Hi Peter,
But hang on a moment, despite the thrill of Formula 1 and all other car and m-bike racing, is not speed the thrill of all young people with their hand on the wheel and the fatal factor killing and maiming so many. Who to blame!