McLaren versus Williams at the box office

by Joe Dunn on 12th July 2017

You wait for one decent racing film, and then two come along at once. But which one takes pole?

Forget Wimbledon, the cricket and Love Island, racing fans can while away their summer evenings binge watching two of the best Formula 1 films since Senna. Even better for British viewers, they tell the stories of the best loved home-grown teams: Williams and McLaren.

Both films use the same technique of digging out rarely seen footage from their subject’s archive and stitching it together to create a narrative arc along with memories from the main protagonists. But the similarities go further than that: both essentially tell the story of the men who gave the teams their names. And they reveal how the single-minded obsession of two very different men forged two of the greatest racing teams in the world.

The first to be released is McLaren, which appeared in June and is available on DVD now. It tells the story of how Bruce McLaren travelled from New Zealand to Britain armed with nothing but a burning passion for racing and ended up founding one of the most evocative names in the sport. Directed by Roger Donaldson, who also directed The World’s Fastest Indian, it is scrupulously researched and manages to track down many of the key players in the story, including several who have died since the filming such as Chris Amon and McLaren’s wife Patty. As such it can be seen a key historical document the like of which we won’t see again.

But is it compelling as a film? Well, if you are a McLaren fan the answer is a resounding yes, if not then you may not be quite so blown away. Although slickly produced, McLaren never quite manages to reveal anything new about its subject or broaden the story away from the race track. If it is nice footage of 1960s Can-Am races you want there is plenty here; if you want to gain a deeper insight into what motivates men and women to go racing, especially at a time when death on the track was all to common, look elsewhere.

That brings us to Williams, which goes on general release next month. This is an altogether different beast and something of a curio. Subtitled A Different Kind of Life, the film is based on the 1991 book of the same title written Lady Virginia Williams (Sir Frank’s late wife). As well as telling the story of how Frank built the team from nothing into racing royalty it uses audio recordings of Virginia (known as Ginny) to illuminate what it was like living with such a single-minded and at times not particularly pleasant man. The story centres on Frank’s terrible accident, which left him a quadriplegic, and how his family (including his daughter Claire, the current deputy team principal), friends and team coped.

If McLaren lacks emotional punch, watching Williams is like doing a couple of rounds with Tyson Fury: Frank talking about the death of Piers Courage is as taut an examination of male grief as you are likely to see, while the scenes of Ginny lifting the trophy after Williams won the British Grand Prix in 1986 in place of Frank is lump-in-the-throat stuff. Perhaps most movingly, Frank reveals towards the end of the film that he has never read his wife’s book, despite the pleading of his daughter, because it would be “too emotional” and he refuses to do emotion.

Ultimately, Williams leaves you thinking about it long after the final credits roll. And while the racing scenes might not be on a par with those from the McLaren offering, in many ways it is all the more exhilarating for that.


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