There seems to be a bit of a romance going on at the moment between the world of Formula 1 and the cinema. I have a large collection of VHS tapes and DVD material covering many forms of motor sport: not just Le Mans but also Touring Cars and Formula 1, but by any stretch of the imagination, these are specialist films, never intended for anything other than home use or private showings at car clubs. They are certainly not in the same league as John Frankenheimer’s ‘Grand Prix’ or Steve McQueen’s ‘Le Mans’, which also sit in my video cabinet, but on a different shelf.
No, I’m talking about ‘proper cinema’: the kind that Barry Norman would talk about, the kind that brings interest in topics as diverse as the Titanic, George VI or John Nash to the public consciousness.
In 2010, the ‘Senna’ documentary became the first specifically Formula 1 movie to hit mainstream cinema since ‘Grand Prix’, and although it is difficult for me to be objective, it seemed that it struck a chord in the mind of the general public, or at least those who have an interest in the sports pages of the national newspapers. It was long enough ago to make it a story worth telling, but recent enough so that most cinema goers could remember where they were at the time. ‘Senna’ is, undoubtedly, a fine film, managing to balance documentary and drama, and in my view helped along by a charismatic subject in the feature role.
Then, earlier this year, along came ‘Rush’, with a great deal of fuss and amid much Hollywood dry ice. I went along, saw the movie, but came away down-spirited. I knew I would, I suppose: the fantasy world of the dimly-lit cinema with its comfy chairs and the smell of popcorn did not mix with personal memories of a damp Crystal Palace paddock or a packed Paddock Hill Bend.
So I was surprised to read of another F1 film being released this month, but went along with an open mind, when the opportunity arose to attend a preview screening. Shown as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival last week, ‘1’ charts the evolution of safety in Formula 1. Broadly, the film focusses on the period from 1968 to 1996, but director Paul Crowder happily goes beyond this period with impunity. Crowder was able, like Manesh Pandey before him, to convince Bernie Ecclestone to give him access to the FOM film archives, but unlike the director of ‘Senna’, Crowder’s mission was far more wide-ranging. Also, his subject matter pre-dates the FOM archive, and his material draws on much more material, including the Castrol and BP archives, all seamlessly edited into a coherent whole.
‘1’ is an impressive work. Maybe not as emotionally charged as John Matthew’s ‘The Killer Years’, but cleverly entertaining and informative, and above all, really enjoyable. The target audience is probably going to be limited to existing fans of Formula 1 as I suspect that there may be just too much content to explain everything to the uninitiated.
And for me, it is the content that makes this must-see viewing. More than that, it is a must-buy DVD. I had the chance to talk to Crowder after the screening and I told him how I felt like I wanted to press the pause button from time to time, and replay various scenes. “That’s what I try to do with my films,” he replied, “to pack in as much as possible, and make it a film that you will want to see over and over again. And each time you watch it, you’ll notice something different.”
It is clear that Crowder, along with writer Mark Monroe and associate producer Jonathan Bracey-Gibbon, (who was also at the screening), are all massive Formula 1 fans, even though this is Crowder’s first film about motor sport (his previous best-known work ‘Once in a Lifetime’, covered the story of the New York Cosmos soccer team). He certainly packs in the action. It keeps the attention; it is fast-paced and action-packed: features on World Champions Clark, Surtees, Hill (G and D), Rindt, Stewart, Fittipaldi, Lauda, Hunt, Andretti, Scheckter and Mansell are intertwined with familiar drivers like Brundle, Ickx and Watson, along with lesser-known luminaries like Brett Lunger and John Miles.
But like a faithful old labrador, Crowder keeps returning to the theme of safety, comments coming thick and fast from Nigel Roebuck, Maurice Hamilton and other insiders like Alexander Hesketh, Sid Watkins, Jo Ramirez, John Hogan, Max Mosley, Paddy McNally and even Ecclestone himself. Then, suddenly, he’ll shock you with another accident. In this regard, the art is to get the balance right between contemporary interviews and archive footage; between drivers in action and in repose; between shots of wives, girlfriends and hangers-on and paddock activity. The background music is atmospheric and the narration, by Michael Fassbender, well-measured and accurate.
I suppose it is inevitable that debate will rage about who and what has been left out. Crowder reveals that: “we had a lot of stuff that didn’t make the final cut, but we wanted to keep the momentum of the film moving,” and in this he certainly succeeds. No offence meant to those involved, but for my own part, I would rather have lost the contributions of Vettel, Hamilton and Button and had more of Pryce, Villeneuve or Koenigg. Michael Schumacher appears too, of course, and could speak on behalf of all the 21st century racers, to my mind.
I noticed only two howlers, but neither detracted from the enjoyment of the film –indeed I would have to watch again to ensure that the errors were not mine. The film is scheduled to go on general release in the UK next year – if it comes to a cinema near you, don’t miss it. And even if it doesn’t, then buy the DVD (which promises to have special features with even more detail for aficionados) as soon as it’s available!