When it comes to films, racing fans have been blessed over the last few years. With the likes of Senna, Truth in 24 and Rush, plus smaller films and an abundance of TV documentaries, there’s a lot to choose from. And now a small team have put together what might go down as the definitive documentary on Formula 1.

f1  1: the latest and best Formula 1 filmCalled simply 1, this new film from director Paul Crowder charts the evolution of the sport’s safety measures. It’s not a gloomy piece of work by any means, but it’s often raw, occasionally graphic and, bearing in mind the subject matter, frequently upsetting. Ultimately, though, it’s an uplifting film that makes you think hard about what we can so easily take for granted in the present day.

Using one of the more dramatic non-fatal accidents of the ‘90s as a framing device, the narrative then takes the viewer back to the ‘50s and that post-Second World War hangover where risk and death were just things you had to deal with. Juxtaposition of new and old – as well as laughter and tragedy – is important in 1. The up-and-down nature of the film gives at least a little insight into the emotions of the time.

Unlike Rush director Ron Howard, Crowder had a passion for the sport going into the project, but not any direct involvement. “I don’t have a background in racing,” he says, “although producer Michael Shevloff’s family had a connection to Formula 1. He and associate producer Jonathan Bracey-Gibbon would go to Silverstone and the three of us had a flat in Worcester Park.

“I was in my 20s at the time and I really started to get into it. I became a big Nigel Mansell fan and they both claimed that Nelson Piquet was the best driver when they were at Williams, but I wasn’t having any of it. Our friend Mark Levinson shared a flat with Damon Hill when he was in F3000, so my interest really deepened around that time.

“Michael and Jonathan – who used to write for Autosport – wanted to do a Formula 1 movie and Jonathan fleshed out a story arc and it was supposed to start in ’68 with Jim Clark’s death and charting it from that pivotal moment. I’d been making films for a while and they’d seen Dogtown and Z-Boys and Once in a Lifetime – they said it has to be Once in a Lifetime [Crowder’s documentary about the New York Cosmos] but about Formula 1. They wanted to make the F1 film. The safety aspect was the thread to link all these stories together.”

Crowder remembers vividly the horrendous five-year stretch during the ‘70s where in F1 alone Roger Williamson, François Cevert, Peter Revson, Helmuth Koinigg, Mark Donohue, Tom Pryce and Ronnie Peterson lost their lives, and Niki Lauda had his near miss.

“It was something we talked about in the playground at school. When Koinigg died everybody was asking, ‘Did you hear one of them lost his head?’ It was so visible and I wanted to convey the relentlessness of it. There were great times as well, but everybody was always brought back down to earth.

Getting Bernie on-side

“We came up with the idea in 2006, pitched it in 2007 and finally got to Bernie in 2009. Originally, a lawyer said he could help us and we sat around for a year waiting, it was ridiculous. So Michael went to Herbie Blash. Once you’ve got Bernie’s support it opens all the doors. Ian Holmes at Formula One Management was our main point of contact, but they were both so helpful.

“Once we got that first meeting with Bernie, pitched our idea and made him understand that we weren’t trying to exploit anyone, that this wasn’t a tabloid piece, it was OK.” When the team was pitching the film, Max Mosley’s troubles with the News of the World were filling headlines and Bernie was understandably wary of the media outside the sport.

“He was very nervous of journalists and the kind of people who just want to get dirt. But we weren’t about that, we wanted to celebrate the sport. It didn’t take long to convince him, though, Michael nailed the pitch and got him on our side within about 25 minutes. He cracked a joke that was such an insider thing to say and we looked at each other and knew. It was a wonderful feeling. He shook our hand after the meeting and said ‘I’m a man of my word,’ and that was it. FOM put us in touch with everybody and let us into the vaults.”

Crowder was amazed at just how easy the interviews were. “They were keen to tell the story and it helped that we met a lot of them at the 60th anniversary celebration in Bahrain in 2010. They were all feeling a little nostalgic anyway and there was this excitement for the history. We got a ‘yes’ from everybody we asked.”

Powerful footage

There has been some consternation over the footage of fatal crashes included in the film. They’re not something you ever want to see, but in a film about safety in racing it’s impossible to shy away from them. “The only people who have complained haven’t seen the film,” he says.

“I got into a Twitter argument with someone balking at the fact that Jochen Rindt’s crash was in the trailer. He felt that it was unnecessary, irresponsible and exploitative. I was trying to explain that he needed to see the film in context so he could get what we were doing. Not to knock The Killer Years, but that’s kind of all they had in the film, they didn’t take it beyond that. We’re not showing deadly crashes just to show them, we’re trying to make a point.”

“These were tragedies and nothing was changing. Those who lived it – the families, the survivors, the mechanics who looked after those cars – they’ve all seen the film and they all say it’s tastefully done. That’s the most important thing. When I showed the film to Sir Jackie Stewart with Lady Helen and his son Mark it was an emotional screening. They were so close with Cevert. I remember looking over at Lady Helen and she was wiping tears from her eyes. We also really questioned how much to show of the Williamson crash. But David Purley’s body language… you needed to see the cars going past and him trying to stop them.

Formula 1 films
The Racers (1955, Henry Hathaway)
The Young Racers
(1963, Roger Corman)
Grand Prix
(1966, John Frankenheimer)
Weekend of a Champion
(1971, Roman Polanski)
One by One
(1975, Claude du Boc)
Bobby Deerfield (1977, Sydney Pollack)
Senna (2010, Asif Kapadia)
Rush (2013, Ron Howard)
1 (2013, Paul Crowder)
Discuss your favourite racing films on the forum

“I hope the film will bring the contemporary F1 audience in and even those who only know a little about the sport’s history as well. I hope it’ll teach everybody about what a journey it’s been and how incredible it is that the sport is where it is today, and how easily it could’ve just gone away if people hadn’t made those changes. The current drivers are standing on the shoulders of those people. They wouldn’t be racing the way they are without the sacrifices made by their predecessors and I want people to see that it’s not just these guys today and that Formula 1 cars weren’t always like this. I hope that it’s a good education.”

1 had its UK premiere during the BFI London Film Festival and a few days later shared the bill with Roman Polanski’s brilliant Weekend of a Champion – newly remastered and extended – which follows Jackie Stewart over the course of the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix. Whether you’re a long-time racing buff or a new fan, films like these are bound to enthral. Especially if viewed, as intended, on the big screen.

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