The challenges of filming

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Mounting TV and movie cameras on Grand Prix cars has for decades challenged film engineers and racing teams alike. One of the most celebrated examples has been Bill Mason’s 1962 set-up on a 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125, complete with tail-top seat for an intrepid Shell Film Unit cameraman, strapped into place one suspects despite his protests. The result a splendidly high-resolution fullcolour view over Hermann Lang’s shoulder as he lapped the old NOrburgring Nordschleife proved well worth both the bother and the cameraman’s life insurance premium.

Delving back into motoring antiquity, we have some car-to-car movies shot hand-cranked from as early as the 1906 Grand Prix de l’ACF, and from 50 years later there are Fangio’s laps of the Modena Aerautodromo aboard a Maserati 250F. Crank forward a wee bit to 50 years ago and there at the NOrburgring in 1962 the celebrated ‘camera incident’ occurred in which German TV rather ballsed-up the mounting of a movie camera on Carel Godin de Beaufort’s four-cylinder Porsche, and during practice it dropped off in the very fast and always spooky Fuchsrohre section.

Next on the scene, oblivious to the camera’s loss ahead of him, was Graham Hill in his brand new lightweight BRM V8. At some 120-130mph he did his best to bridge the object lying in his path, but the camera punched a hole in his car’s oil tank from which oil gushed over his reartyres ” …so I spun round and shot along a ditch on the left tunnelling along like a giant mole at great speed, tearing off wheels and suspension bits, and eventually came to a stop.., lying in the ditch in little more than just the chassis…” He continued: “I had only just got out, and was peeping over the top of the ditch with my eyes level with the track, when Tony Maggs came rushing down the ‘Foxhole’, hit my oil, spun like a top and bounced end to end off the hedge destroying his car as well”. Graham rushed out, waving, just in time to save Maurice Trintignant in Rob Walker’s Lotus from a similar fate; “Then I found the shattered remains of the movie camera with film all over the track…”.

Predictably, there was hell to pay, both BRM and Cooper having notionally lost cars, and German TV or their insurers finally had to pay up.

Twenty-three years later, in 1985, Renault ran a third car alongside their regular pair of RE605 for Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay in the German GP back at what had now become the modern-day ersatz Nürburgring.

That extra Renault turbo was driven by Francois Hesnault, effectively just as an onboard live TV test car, but the effort of rigging it with a TV camera and transmitter was largely wasted when the car’s clutch failed after just eight brief laps. The quality was hardly up to the full-size film footage we had seen shot for big-screen movies from Such Men Are Dangerous aka The Racers made by 20th century Fox, director Henry Hathaway, in 1954. MGM’s Grand Prix, directed by John Frankenheimer, had followed with magnificent onboard footage in 1966, as did Solar Productions’ dazzling Le Mans in 1970.

But fitting hefty movie film cameras on F1 cars was always a massive structural and vibrational challenge. In contrast, electronic video and TV cameras today are incredibly tiny and relatively simple to mount, maintain and operate so there’s hardly a racing car which doesn’t carry one. But just spare a thought for the pioneers as you press the Dirty Digger’s red button and select your Formula 1 ride for this afternoon’s Grand Prix. Securing such a view wasn’t always this easy…