Steve McQueen: the man and Le Mans


We lead on the inside story of an inside story in the new issue of Motor Sport. A new documentary on the making of Steve McQueen’s Le Mans will be released in selected cinemas later this month, and executive producer Andrew Marriott – formerly of this parish – tells us the tortuous story of how the film has made it to the silver screen.

The making of the documentary sounds almost as traumatic as the movie’s creation – almost, but not quite. That’s because McQueen’s personal project is right up there with Apocalypse Now for painful births. The backstory, surrounding a man who was at the time the world’s biggest movie star – and by reputation, a womanising narcissist – is manna for the filmmakers.

With the full support and involvement of first wife Neile Adams and son Chad McQueen, Marriott and his team spin a fascinating tale, aided by terrific interviews with crew, cast and family, and wonderful never-seen-before archive footage previously thought long lost. You don’t have to like McQueen, his flawed movie or even motor racing for that matter, to enjoy their film.

Le Mans itself is more or less forgotten by the wider world, and that’s hardly surprising. While The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair remain holiday season favourites for TV schedulers, the Cooler King’s vanity project remains a curio. To those with no interest in cars and motor racing, it’s pretty much unwatchable.

Even to motor racing fans, Le Mans divides opinion, at least in my experience. The narrative is famously threadbare and as for the terrible, stilted dialogue, its scarcity is its saving grace.

Also, in stark contrast to Paul Newman and James Garner, I’ve sensed in recent years a palpable McQueen backlash, motivated perhaps by stories of what a boorish, difficult man he apparently was, but also by the growing cult of popularity around the movie that has made Gulf-sponsored jackets something of a cliché.

But for all its flaws, Le Mans entrances those of us with motor sport running through our veins. Not because of Michael Delaney or Erich Stahler, or even the lovely Lisa Belghetti and Anna Ritter… rather because of the glorious Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s. The cars upstage McQueen and co from scene one to final curtain, which I suspect was entirely his intention.

The footage, from the 1970 race itself and from four months of filming during the subsequent summer (and early autumn as McQueen blew way past his budget’s braking point), has set a standard of capturing motor racing on film that no other fictional cinematic release has ever got anywhere near. Ron Howard tried hard with Rush, but spoilt his good work with dreaded CGI and an obvious lack of realism.

In terms of his timing, McQueen got lucky. He just happened to capture one of the greatest eras in history. Revisiting those heady days to tell the story behind the story deserves to be a sure-fire hit.

Formula 1’s hybrid misfire

If McQueen was alive today, would he have been among the celebrities to visit Austin for the US Grand Prix last weekend? I have to wonder.

For all his faults, the actor clearly was motivated by a genuine love for cars and motorcycles. As Derek Bell tells us in our feature this month, that’s why they hit it off so famously during the filming of Le Mans. To Derek, he wasn’t a superstar – just a red-blooded wannabe racer.

So what would McQueen make of modern hybrid F1 cars – or, God forbid, Formula E? I think we can guess.

The misgivings surrounding the modern technology of motor racing were on my mind this week when I headed to the elegant RAC headquarters in Pall Mall for the Dewar Trophy and Simms Medal presentations. Both awards acknowledge innovation and technical excellence, and as usual the winners this year inspire admiration for the knowledge they have harnessed and put into production.

The Dewar went to GKN Hybrid Power, formerly a part of Williams, which has taken flywheel technology originally developed for Formula 1 and then adapted it to win a trio of Le Mans victories with Audi. Now the Gyrodrive System has filtered into the real world, on 30 buses in five UK cities. The stop-start nature of public transport is perfectly suited to the regenerating qualities of a system born on the race track.

The Simms Medal went to Williams Advanced Engineering itself, in particular recognition of its incredibly successful and efficient lithium ion batteries that power Formula E. As the series heads into season two, Formula E’s ‘unsung hero’ is gaining the recognition it deserves.

Worthy stuff, and in the company of scholastic engineers, you won’t be surprised to read that scepticism for motor racing’s high-tech future direction was in low supply at the RAC. But do these clever people, in thrall to technology, speak the same language as the likes of McQueen? Actually, yes, they do. They are still racers – they are just coming at the sport from a different angle.

One of the key messages of the day is that hybrid technology doesn’t have to be the enemy of traditional motor racing. It didn’t need MIA chief Chris Aylett to point out that “our engineering is funded by entertainment”. Engineers in motor racing instinctively know that, despite their reputation for getting lost in the technical exercise.

On the question of Formula 1, the engineers at the RAC accepted that the hybrid formula needs a rethink to make it more sustainable for teams beyond the works Mercedes and Ferraris. The schemes of Max Mosley – motor racing’s own Lord Voldemort (“he’s back!”) – to introduce an independent supply solution are not without merit. But there’s no going back to the good old days of the Cosworth DFV, whatever he might have been suggesting in his recent, agenda-driven joint interview with Bernie Ecclestone for German TV. This amazing hybrid technology is here to stay, but it’s how motor racing harnesses it that really counts next.

Craig Wilson, managing director of Williams Advanced Engineering, hit the nail on the head. The hybrid story should be used to promote engineering brilliance and inspire future generations. But its potential will only be fully realised if everyone involved at the top of F1 truly accepts it, gets behind it and stops talking it down.

“Unfortunately there is a shortfall in the UK of young engineers,” Wilson said. “It’s predicted that the country will be short of one million engineers in five years time compared to the jobs available. Engineering isn’t promoted enough, and F1 hasn’t helped by kicking hybrid technology to death. It’s absolutely a missed opportunity.

Craig Wilson (right) accepts the Simms Medal

“It’s very innovative and clever technology. Yes, it is very expensive – the powertrain is 30 per cent more efficient than the old engines and that comes at a cost. The FIA is now reacting to that with this talk about changing the engine and including more constraints, but that should have been the case from the beginning. We could do with F1 getting its act together.”

F1 is heading towards another crossroads and big decisions in the following months will frame how Grand Prix racing evolves. Costs, as ever, are clearly a factor that needs addressing. But in an era when high-degrading tyres have defined how drivers and their teams go racing beyond fuel saving, the hybrid technology should not be treated as the scapegoat for motor racing’s ills.

Certina watch competition

We’ve extended the closing date for the competition to win a watch from WRC partner Certina, worth £725. Visit the competitions page to enter.

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