Steve McQueen's lost F1 movie: Day of The Champion

Years before filming the seminal Le Mans, Steve McQueen had dreams of making a grand prix epic. The project was axed but as Damien Smith reports, the abandoned and long forgotten early footage has now been rediscovered

2020-07-07-0016

Steve McQueen wanted John Sturges to direct his grand prix film, who he’d previously worked with on The Great Escape. They’re pictured here in the Alan Mann Racing Garages, which is where they flew to immediately after their research at the 1965 Monaco GP

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Steve McQueen or James Garner? Michael Delaney or Pete Aron? Hilts ‘The Cooler King’ or Hendley ‘The Scrounger’? You’ll have your preference. John Frankenheimer, director of 1966 motor racing blockbuster Grand Prix, certainly had his – and it wasn’t the star who he ended up with. “I still think if we’d had Steve McQueen in that movie it would have been bigger than Jaws,” he said. That might have stung Garner, had he cared – which he probably didn’t. For the horizontally laconic actor immortalised in motor sport as the ‘other’ world champion of that melodramatic alternative 1966 season, Grand Prix was just another job – even if his own interest in cars turned out to be genuine. But for his friend, neighbour and co-star in The Great Escape, and as it transpired arch celluloid rival, racing was… “life”, as he would come to express it in a certain other racing movie further down the road.

Garner would never have got anywhere near Pete Aron’s blue-and-red-striped Chris Amon helmet had Frankenheimer got his way. But for a fateful meeting with producer Ed Lewis that the director missed, the role would have been McQueen’s. Instead, the famously volatile actor stormed out. But even then, if he wasn’t to be Pete Aron he could still have been Hollywood’s first Formula 1 star, as he wanted to be, far more than Garner. He would have been Michael Pearce, hero of Day of The Champion, the great lost motor-racing movie of the 1960s.

Exactly how ‘great’ it would have turned out to be is open to question, according to those who have read the script… but a stunning new feature-length documentary gives us a glimpse of what we’ve missed for all these years, at least from a racing action point of view. Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie, soon to be broadcast by Sky Documentaries, reveals for the first time just what silver-screen gems were already in the can prior to Warner Bros studio shouting cut before principal filming had even begun. The unseen footage captured at the 1965 German Grand Prix, unearthed as it turns out purely by accident (see sidebar), offers a technicolour (or at least mostly ‘Nürburgring green’) glimpse of F1 that rivals anything Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix captured, and in a manner that offers a tantalising snapshot of an authentic motor racing movie that pre-dates McQueen’s Le Mans by five years.