On May 1 1994 Ayrton Senna was killed on the track at Imola, on the seventh lap of the San Marino Grand Prix. He was 34. In Brazil three days of national mourning were declared – three days! – and a million people lined the streets of São Paulo for his funeral. His reach was long – even people not interested in motor racing talk about Senna in a proprietorial way.

He had an unknowable quality, and enormous charisma in a sport that is short on charisma. He was eloquent and ethereal, and his driving was poetry: aggressive and beautiful at the same time. He was the Cormac McCarthy of motor racing.

Senna Movie

“There was a tranquillity about him that was almost priestly,’ says his friend Professor Sid Watkins, the former head of the Formula One medical team. ‘He was a very tranquil person. Except when he got in a car.”

“I am not designed to come second or third,’ Senna once said. ‘I am designed to win.’ In F1 more than any sport you are hampered by not having the best equipment, but Senna could always rise above the car’s limitations. The three-times world champion Niki Lauda called him the greatest driver ever, and the team owner Sir Frank Williams said of him, ‘He was an even greater man outside the car than he was in it.”

In his book The Death of Ayrton Senna Richard Williams notes that such complexity of character and technical skill rarely co-exist within a single human being. As a driver, Senna’s secret was his extraordinary dedication and focus. He seemed propelled by a desire to find more within himself.

“On many occasions I have found satisfaction from beating my own achievements,’ he said. ‘Many times I find myself in a comfortable position and I don’t feel happy about it. I feel it is right to slow down, but something inside me, something very strong, pushes me on, makes me try to beat myself. It is… an enormous desire to go further and further, to travel beyond my own limits.”

Senna was not flawless, but his simple belief in himself as the best spoke more of innocence than arrogance. And he was Brazilian, and proud to be so, even though his country was going through a terrible time. After every win he would take his lap of honour waving the Brazilian flag, and it really meant a lot to all layers of society in Brazil.

Watching the tragedy unfold at Imola was 26-year-old Manish Pandey. ‘I watched every grand prix since I was 13 on television; I was hooked. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, and this was the closest thing to that you could do in sport. Ayrton Senna was my first and only hero. I loved him. I had a sense that he was special, and watching his career unfold, in real time as it were, I was aware that he was a genuinely great man. Intelligent, fearless, strong, determined – and an outsider who could take on the establishment and win.’

Pandey abandoned his ambition to be a fighter pilot and instead became an orthopaedic surgeon. And he had a passion for films. In his spare time, he wrote scripts for romantic comedies but he never lost his devotion to Formula One, and when his wife, Natascha Wharton, then the head of development at Working Title, heard that the producer James Gay-Rees was interested in making a documentary about Senna, she put them together. Gay-Rees had grown up hearing about Senna because his father used to work for John Player Special, sponsor of the Lotus team that Senna drove for.

Pandey presented his first treatment to Gay-Rees in 2004. Two ingredients were essential: permission from the Senna family, and the endorsement of Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One supremo. In 2006 they got the green light from Viviane, Senna’s sister. For years the family had been besieged by people wanting to make films about Senna, but they were uniquely impressed by Pandey and Gay-Rees.

“I had grown up with this man and I knew the date of every race and every lap time, and I think they respected that,’ Pandey says. The directors Oliver Stone, Renny Harlin and Michael Mann had been interested in a making biopics – one starring Antonio Banderas nearly got off the ground – but in the end there wasn’t enough American interest to raise millions of dollars in a country that doesn’t watch Formula One.

The Sennas contacted Ecclestone, who owns the entire F1 film archive, asking him to help. Pandey was on holiday in Tobago with his wife and 11-week-old son when he got a call saying, ‘Bernie needs to see you in London right away’ – so he rushed back for what turned out be a 17-minute meeting. ‘Bernie didn’t even sit down but he shook our hands and said, “Give us what you’ve got and we’ll see what we can do.”

They made a deal for five days’ access to the archive – thousands of tapes from every grand prix, including race footage, press conferences, pit action and drivers’ meetings – but ended up with twice as long. The director Asif Kapadia came on board in February 2007 – ‘I loved The Warrior, everybody loved The Warrior,’ Pandey says – and even though Kapadia was neither a motor racing fan nor an obvious choice for a documentary, he got the story straight away, he understood Senna and brought his own brand of epic storytelling to the film.

“I didn’t want to make a film with lots of people telling their story to camera – every one of these guys has been interviewed thousands of times, and the one person I couldn’t interview was Ayrton,’ Kapadia says. The call was made very early on: ‘Only if we can show the footage will we put it in the film.”

They didn’t need talking heads. Eric Fellner, from Working Title, the film’s co-producer, thought they were mad. ‘I didn’t fight it, because I always like to believe in the director’s point of view, but I didn’t agree,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t until we got very near the end that I could see it was an inspired decision, and I think it made it more cinematic.’

Senna took six years to make and the first cut was seven hours long. The final version is 90 minutes, about the length of a grand prix race. It is not a complete biography of Senna, more a mosaic of his life.

“Part of doing this movie,’ Pandey says, ‘wanting to do it so badly and not resting till we got everything we wanted – from access, to footage, to clearances – was because his story had to be told. It’s a primeval story about man, his journey throughout life where success and failure are just moments that will ultimately lead him to death. In my experience, very few deaths – even dying of old age – are timely.”

The film takes the form of a journey in three acts – Senna’s rise to the top, his struggle to stay there, and his death – focusing particularly on the five years from 1989, and his rivalry with the four-times world champion Alain Prost.

Senna is a treat. As well as archive footage from the pits, the track and in-car camera, some funny Brazilian TV of Senna dancing with his girlfriend Xuxa, and his family holiday movies, we see some amazing film from the drivers’ meetings, the obligatory pre-race briefings that take place before every grand prix. Slumped in their chairs like a classroom of naughty schoolboys, heckling and barracking, there is Gerhard Berger, Senna’s lanky Austrian friend and teammate, with whom he was famed for playing practical jokes (Berger fills Senna’s shoes with butter; Senna gets his mechanics to drill holes in Berger’s credit cards; one of them replaces the other’s passport picture with a pair of breasts – you get the drift), and Nigel Mansell, looking incongruous in racing overalls and tweed cap, sitting next to his big rival, the obnoxious Nelson Piquet. (The three-times world champion, Piquet could never quite get over being supplanted in Brazil’s affections by Senna, whom he referred to as ‘the São Paulo taxi driver’; he later gave an interview in which he said that Senna was gay, the worst slur a macho Brazilian such as Piquet could muster.)

Key characters were interviewed for the film, including the Frenchman Alain Prost, Senna’s greatest rival, a sublime driver but very different from Senna. Known as the ‘Professor’, Prost liked to do just enough to win – if finishing third would win him the championship then he would finish third. He liked to hold something back, which was anathema to Senna.

He thought Senna was ruthless and dangerous, and could not compete with his total commitment and unwavering focus. It was an uneasy position for Pandey and Kapadia – talking to a four-times world champion for a film about a three-times world champion. On his desk Prost had a series of books: The Great Challenge – five encyclopedias about the best drivers from five different eras: Clark, Stewart, Lauda, Senna and Schumacher. There is not one called Prost. The rivalry between Senna and Prost was legendary. But Prost was keen to draw attention to the fact that at the fateful Imola weekend, where, now retired from racing, he was commenting for French television, he and Senna had had a rapprochement. ‘He said they had lunch together before the race,’ Kapadia says. ‘I desperately wanted that footage; I would have loved to put it in the film but I couldn’t find a single frame. So we couldn’t show any of it.’

Ayrton Senna da Silva was born in Santana, a suburb of São Paulo, on March 21 1960. He had an older sister, Viviane, and a younger brother, Leonardo, and his parents, Neyde Senna and Milton da Silva, were very well off. His father owned a successful metalworks company making components for cars, and also had a cattle ranch. Oddly, Ayrton was a clumsy child – slow to walk and not very coordinated – but showed great early ability around cars of any sort. He took up kart racing as a child and in July 1973 he won his first competitive race at Interlagos in São Paulo, followed by the national junior and senior championships. In 1978 he took part in the karting world championship at Le Mans, where he met the karting legend Terry Fullerton.

Senna delighted in what he called ‘pure racing’, in his karting days when there was no politics and little money. There is a touching bit of footage in the film where he is asked in 1993 which driver he got most satisfaction from racing against. There is a pause and you expect him to say ‘Prost’, but instead he answers ‘Terry Fullerton’. The karting world championship was the only title he didn’t win – he was beaten by Fullerton, who remembers that the next day Senna, still furious, pushed him in the swimming-pool.

In 1980 Senna married Lilian Vasconcelos Souza and moved to England to participate in the Formula Ford championships, the lower echelon of motor racing that is the normal route into Formula One. It must have been tough moving from warm, affluent São Paulo to cold, damp Norfolk, and although Senna’s dedication was absolute, his marriage was a casualty. In his first ever race in the Formula Ford 1600 class he finished fifth; two weeks later he won. He won the title that year and people really started talking about him with awe, particularly when he won races in the rain. In the rain you can’t see the rear lights of the car in front, there is spray everywhere and you can’t tell where the corner is. But Senna was magnificent in the rain, and he became famous for it. In 1982 he moved up into Formula Ford 2000, winning his first race by 14 seconds and taking the British and European titles, then won the British Formula Three championship the following year.

His grand prix debut was with the Toleman Formula One team at Rio de Janeiro in March 1984. Despite the unwieldy car, he scored his first championship points in only his second race, but it was at Monaco, in the sixth race of the season, that his spectacular talent really showed itself. ‘We are watching the arrival of Ayrton Senna,’ the former champion James Hunt, commentating for the BBC, drawled distinctively, ‘and he will undoubtedly be world champion in the future.’

Having started in 13th position on the grid, Senna had moved up to second by lap 20, 30 seconds behind the race leader, Prost. It rained, and Senna caught Prost, but the race was abandoned for safety reasons. Senna might as well have won in the minds of the public. He had shown his true credentials – that he could always rise above the car’s limitations.

The following year, 1985, he bought himself out of Toleman (which later became Benetton) and joined Lotus, for which he won his first grand prix, at Estoril, Portugal. In black overalls, in a black car with a John Player Special logo on the side, he looked pretty cool. He spent three years with Lotus but there was no way to win the championship in that car and it was Prost in his McLaren who won in 1985 and 1986. McLaren was the place to be, and, for Senna, Prost was the driver to beat. When circumstances finally prevailed for Ron Dennis, the famously dry and chilly supremo of McLaren, to sign Senna for the 1988 season, it seemed a perfect partnership. ‘What you’re looking for is an intellect,’ Dennis says in the film, and Senna certainly had that.

Senna and Prost were very different characters, both in and out of the car. Prost was seemingly laidback and self-effacing; Senna was intense and had huge self-belief. ‘He was also the most organised person I’ve ever met,’ says Jo Ramirez, who worked at McLaren for years and became a great friend.

“Senna already had an aura,’ the motorsport commentator Tony Jardine has said. ‘He had this look – I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was imperious – but he had total confidence… and unlike Prost he formed relationships with other members of the team. He’d stay behind all hours. He’d go down and see the Goodyear guys in the tyre-fitting bay; he was a cute operator.”

Things seemed amiable enough between Senna and Prost, but the former driver John Watson recalls Senna telling him that winter that he was going to make himself physically and mentally stronger than any of his competitors: ‘I am going to make Prost come to me, not me go to him… I am going to blitz him.’

And he did. By Monte Carlo, Prost realised he was in trouble. ‘He never wanted to beat me,’ Prost intones in the film. ‘He wanted to humiliate me, to show the world that he was much stronger, much better – and that was his weakness.’

In Monaco, in 1988, the world saw a whole other element to Senna’s driving. It was almost supernatural. In qualifying he had already attained pole position ‘and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker and quicker – suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And suddenly I realised I was no longer driving the car consciously, I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension… I was way over the limit but still able to find even more…’

During the race he found himself going a lap faster than anyone else – until Dennis ordered him to slow down, and then he lost it and crashed. Senna got out of his car and walked straight back to his apartment nearby. He didn’t answer the phone or the door and spent the night in tears.

“I came so close to perfection that weekend that I relaxed and made a mistake,’ he said later. ‘I became much stronger after that.”

It was a turning point. He went on to win six of the next eight races, and if he won in Japan, the championship would be his. But he stalled on the grid, found himself back in 16th place, then made an amazing recovery and, by lap 27, was overtaking Prost. It started to rain and the race was his. Later he claimed he had seen God in this race. Do you feel like a world champion, he was asked afterwards. And he replied, ‘I just feel peace.’

The following year, 1989, was, Ron Dennis said with masterful understatement, ‘somewhat less harmonious than the year before’. There was war between the McLaren teammates; they were not speaking to each other. At the deciding race in Japan, the positions were reversed: if Senna didn’t finish, Prost would win the championship. Prost led until lap 47 when Senna tried to dive through the chicane, and both of them came off. Prost’s race was over, but Senna got the marshals to push him back on the track; he headed for the pits, got a new nosecone fitted and went on to win the race.

Prost headed straight for the stewards’ office and his friend Jean-Marie Balestre, the (French) president of the FIA, motorsport’s regulatory body. The upshot was that Senna was disqualified for not driving through the chicane to rejoin the race, a controversial decision. And he received a suspended race ban for six months and was fined $100,000 for causing what Balestre called ‘a stupid accident’. Prost won the championship; he had already decided to leave the team and join Ferrari in 1990.

Senna, furious, with some justification, carried his rage into the next season, where his new teammate was Gerhard Berger, not really a threat. Senna won eight races that season. He and Prost were pretty much on equal footing by the Japanese Grand Prix, which was the most controversial of Senna’s career.

For the third time in a row the championship hinged on Japan. If Prost was out of the race, Senna would win the championship. Senna got pole position but there was controversy about which side of the track it should be on, because on the traditional side the track was dirty and slower. Senna pleaded his case with the stewards, was told it would be moved and then it was switched back again, on Balestre’s orders. When the race started, Senna pushed Prost off at the first corner, there isn’t really another way of putting it, although he defended himself by saying there was a gap and he went for it. It was at a much faster and more dangerous part of the track than the previous year’s incident and Richard Williams called it ‘a truly diabolical manoeuvre’.

The stewards decided it was a ‘racing incident’, so no action was taken against Senna, who later said, ‘I am not revelling in the fact that I had to do that.’ In the film, Prost says that he wanted to punch him, ‘but I was so disgusted I couldn’t do it.’ Senna had won his second world championship. He won another championship for McLaren in 1991, but by 1993 it was very clear that the Williams team had become superior and despite Senna pulling off some brilliant drives, it was Prost, by now with Williams, who carried off the world championship, his fourth. Then he retired, and Senna signed for Williams. But the new season’s car, the Williams-Renault FW16, was not as good as he expected, and arguably not as good as the confident new Benetton, with its equally confident new driver, Michael Schumacher.

Richard Williams thinks that Schumacher learnt a lot from Senna. ‘Senna’s ruthlessness was kind of hot-blooded, and the way that was accepted made it possible for Schumacher to go further in cold blood. Everything Senna did was in the heat of battle, so in that sense it’s excusable – but it introduced a whole layer of behaviour into the sport that hadn’t been there before.’

Damon Hill, Senna’s Williams teammate, agrees. ‘That’s a very good way of characterising them. The chilling thing about Michael is his ability to remain cool – he very rarely lets his emotions get the better of him. Michael suffered pressure like anyone else, he just didn’t show it, whereas Ayrton definitely showed it. You could put these down to national characteristics, national traits – the stereo­typing of German versus Latin. And Ayrton’s default mindset was “I am the best, therefore if everything is right with the world, I should win.”’

‘Schumacher was a very, very good driver,’ Richard Williams says, ‘but Senna was a virtuoso. He had a unique style of driving – that on/off the throttle thing that he did all the time when he was going into a corner – most drivers try to balance the car and drive it as smoothly as possible; Senna didn’t do that – he was finding the limit of the car all the time. Many times in the course of one corner he’d be up against the limit and then pull just fractionally back again – I don’t think anybody before or since has driven in that style, that was particular to him.

‘You could say, oh don’t be ridiculous, it’s only driving a car, but I do think that he genuinely saw another dimension to it, and that’s probably why he was as special as he was.’

Prof Sid Watkins was the head of the F1 medical team for 26 years and is a hugely revered figure in motor racing. The deepest personal relationship he had with any driver, he says, was with Senna. They became close when Senna was driving for Toleman and he treated him for spasms in his neck muscles. After that Senna would seek him out for a chat at every race weekend. Senna visited Watkins’s house in Scotland, and Watkins went to Senna’s farm in Brazil and they would fish together.

Over lunch in the Langham hotel in London, the twinkly 82-year-old doctor, known as Prof, tells me about Senna. About the time when Senna offered him $25,000 to eat a whole chilli but Prof was having none of it because he knew that the last person Senna had made that bet with had to have a colonoscopy as a result.

‘Senna was a bit of a devil. He was a devil on the track and he was a devil in a road car. He drove me once from Bologna airport. My wife was in the car too and Senna’s mother and his sister – they were both reading the Bible at the time, and I soon understood why: we came to a red light with two lines of cars – probably 20 cars in each line and a gap down the middle – and what did Senna do? He went for the gap in the middle. My wife could see my jaw clenching in the rear-view mirror.’

When Senna went to Scotland (this time Watkins drove; when they reached his house, Senna said to him, ‘Professor, I want you to know that you’re a very good, very safe driver. But painfully slow’) he gave a talk at Watkins’s sons’ school, Loretto, about the life of a grand prix driver. He prepared slides, talked for 30 minutes and then took questions. One boy asked, ‘How is it that you can drive for a tobacco company when you know smoking kills people?’ Senna took a long time to answer, then he said, ‘Look at it like this: the tobacco company pays me a great deal of money that I can use to help a large number of children in Brazil, hospitals and clinics. I’m able to help a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t get help.’

‘There was no bullshit about him. Zero,’ Watkins says. ‘The year he was killed I got a project going whereby if I could raise $1 million from a private source, I would get funding from the European Union and these two sums would go towards a scheme for educating medical assistants in the upper Amazon in Brazil. I said to Ayrton, I need a million, and he said OK, just like that. He put the money up and we set up the training school at the beginning of 1994 – at the end of that year he and I were going up the Amazon to inspect how the scheme was going, but of course he got killed.’

Watkins thinks that had he not died Senna would one day have been president of Brazil. ‘He had that quality – well actually much better quality than your average politician – he was so intent on helping the people of Brazil.’

At Imola in 1994, ‘God took his hand away from Formula One,’ Niki Lauda said. Describing that weekend, Damon Hill says, ‘It was like someone taking a cork out of a bottle and suddenly all this stuff that could have happened at a regular pace over the last 10 years all happened at once. For a while it looked as if we had descended into chaos.’

Senna was very unhappy with the car when they arrived for the third race of the season. Despite having had two pole positions, he was yet to score any points. ‘He was really livid that he’d spun in Brazil,’ Watkins says, ‘and mad that he’d finished neither race, so he was determined to do something spectacular at Imola.’

On the Friday, in practice, the Brazilian Rubens Barrichello had a terrible accident, when his Jordan went flying through the air at 150mph. The following day, the Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying when he hit a concrete wall at 200mph. In the film, you see Senna watching the footage on the monitors in the pits; you see the medics trying to resuscitate Ratzenberger; you see Senna wince and turn away. He was very upset by Ratzenberger’s death, the first fatality in Formula One for 12 years.

He spoke to his girlfriend Adriane Galisteu on the phone that evening and told her he didn’t want to race. She had never heard him speak like that. He also spoke to Watkins, who told him if he was that unhappy, he ought to quit. ‘I leaned on him as much as I could,’ Watkins says. ‘I said, “You’re the fastest guy around, you’ve won the championship three times, what else do you need? If you quit then I’ll quit too and we’ll have much more time to go fishing.” He thought about that for a minute and then he said, “Sid, I have to go on.”’

‘I thought he was having doubts about what he was doing as a racing driver,’ Hill says. ‘I’m not sure he was wholly convinced. I think he was just getting to the point in his life where he thought, do I need to do this? He was a very deep thinker and he was a concerned, passionate and intelligent individual who thought long and hard about things. He wanted to change things in Brazil and I think he would have gone on in that direction.’

On the morning of the race, Senna told his brother that he had asked God to talk to him and that he had opened his Bible at a passage that said God would give him the greatest of all gifts, which was God himself.

In the film you see Senna in his car on the grid, his beautiful face in unquiet repose, unusually not wearing his balaclava. There is another crash at the start, when JJ Lehto stalls and Pedro Lamy goes into the back of him, and there is debris all over the track, so the safety car – a saloon – comes out, a relatively new innovation, and the drivers line up behind it – then, when it swings into the pitlane, the race is on again and Senna is in the lead, closely pursued by Schumacher. On the seventh lap, Senna’s car leaves the track at the Tamburello curve and hits the wall.

Watkins was there 26 seconds after the accident, and saw immediately that Senna had terrible neurological injuries. It appeared that his right front wheel had detached and struck Senna on the head (some believe that in addition a steel suspension arm pierced his helmet). ‘I knew from looking at his eyes that it was going to be fatal,’ Watkins says. ‘He had a complication in his eyeballs that I’d never seen in any other head injury, because the energy of the impact was so intense. His pupils were fully dilated, which meant that his brain stem was inactive.’

They took Senna out of the car, and he gave a sigh and his body relaxed, and Watkins, not a religious man, thought that was the moment his spirit left his body. But Senna’s heart was still beating and he was flown to hospital in Bologna. When they cut off his overalls, a small Austrian flag was found – had he won the race, Senna had intended to wave it in honour of Ratzenberger.

Thirty-eight minutes later, the race was restarted. Shortly after, Berger pulled off, although there was nothing wrong with his car. Perhaps he had heard about his friend. There was a lack of information – some of the drivers didn’t know it was Senna, some of them didn’t know how bad it was, probably most of them wouldn’t have raced if they had known. Martin Brundle passed what he thought was oil on the track. Later, when he found out it was Senna’s blood, he was physically sick.

Schumacher won, as he would go on doing over the next 10 years or so. A new era had started.

At 6.40pm Ayrton Senna was declared dead.

Senna’s coffin was flown into São Paulo with a fighter escort, draped with the Brazilian flag, and driven through the streets on a fire engine. Gerhard Berger and Rubens Barrichello were pallbearers.

There were a few notable absences – Nelson Piquet and Michael Schumacher did not attend, and Bernie Ecclestone was in São Paulo but had been advised to stay away by Leonardo, Senna’s brother, because of bad feeling among Brazilians that the race had not been stopped. Jo Ramirez couldn’t bear to go, cancelling his tickets at the last minute and instead attending church quietly with his wife. Prof Watkins couldn’t face it either. He was in tears when he told me about the death, 18 years later. ‘I still miss him,’ he said. ‘He was a sweetheart.’

There was more, a lot more. Under Italian law the accident turned into an investigation and a trial, which would see the team owner Frank Williams and five others defending themselves against a charge of culpable homicide. The investigating magistrate, Maurizio Passarini, was intent on proving that the cause of death was due to a fractured steering wheel column that had sheered off at the point where it was welded after a modification. (There was no doubt that the column was fractured but whether it happened before or after impact could not be ascertained.) Finally, in December 1997, it was announced that no action would be taken against any of the defendants.

But what did cause the death of Ayrton Senna? How could a driver of his calibre come off the track at what was construed to be a fairly innocuous corner?

‘Something on the car would have to have gone wrong,’ says Richard Williams, who thinks the most likely cause was the power steering failing on the curve.

Hill disagrees. ‘I honestly do not hold the view that anything on the car went wrong. It may be sacrilege to say it, but Ayrton wasn’t infallible and I think he was caught out by what he defined himself by – not being intimidated, not backing off. And he was very unlucky.’

Adrian Newey, the revered designer of McLaren at the time, thinks that it was a slow puncture, caused by debris left over from Lamy’s accident. ‘The best racing driver in the world does not make a mistake there,’ says Ramirez, who thinks that the steering failed. Brundle thinks that something catastrophic happened at the corner; footage from the in-car camera clearly shows Senna fighting the steering.

It’s a mystery, but pursuing it was not the point of the film. It was an act of God, Pandey says. ‘What we were more intrigued by,’ Gay-Rees adds, ‘is that it was just his time somehow, and he seemed to recognise that.’

It is ironic that even with all the cameras and technology that existed, the cause of the accident could not be established. And there is another irony. There were vast improvements in safety after the accident – Watkins, who had considered retiring, was subsequently appointed to oversee safety in F1, and the changes to the cars and the tracks have been legion.

Since then there have been only three accidents with significant injury: Schumacher and Olivier Panis with broken lower legs and Felipe Massa with a head injury. Senna’s death left a lasting legacy, though the thing that actually killed him – the wheel – was a freak, and everyone agrees that if it had been six inches lower or higher, he would probably have got out of the car and walked away.

The filmmakers held a special screening of the film for Ayrton Senna’s family: Pandey was anxious about this because they hadn’t been at Imola and this was the first footage they had seen. He sat next to Viviane, who was crying quietly throughout most of the film, and then swapped seats so that when it came to the part about his death she could sit next to her daughter Bianca. ‘It really hit her hard, she was in floods of tears,’ he says. Afterwards she told the filmmakers, ‘You did it. You captured the genius and the human.’

During his lifetime Senna gave many millions of dollars to charity. The winter before his death he asked Viviane to organise a foundation to help educate the children of Brazil. The Instituto Ayrton Senna, of which Alain Prost is a trustee, has so far helped to educate 12 million children and invested $80 million, raised from royalties and the sale of merchandise, in social and educational programmes. Viviane, a striking and determined character, has achieved much despite the trauma she has gone through – two years after her brother was killed, her husband, Flavio Lalli, died in a motorcycle accident. Her son Bruno, the nephew of whom Ayrton Senna was extremely proud, is now a test driver in Formula One.