Tuesday 22 October 2013

1 - Film Review: Not just another F1 film

Yet another F1 film release? Right in the wheel tracks of the blockbuster successes of Senna and Rush, a documentary and a theatrical film respectively? Just like them based on the sport's past? What on earth can it offer over and above these? Well, in the case of 1, rather a lot as it turns out.

Even above and beyond the challenges outlined in the opening paragraph, the film-makers of 1 - a new film about the history of F1 - hardly could have asked for a more daunting set of objectives. Max Mosley told the film's director Paul Crowder at the project's outset that if he could 'capture why he's devoted 40 years of his life to F1 then he'll have succeeded'. In essence, the makers felt that their mission was to capture the essence of this the pinnacle of motor sport. Its glamour, its pace, its danger, and everything else besides. No mean feat.

Despite what it says on the tin though 1 isn't really a history of F1. Not exactly anyway. But nevertheless it can be said to have gone a long way to meeting its haughty mission statement.

Martin Brundle starts
 and ends the story
Credit: greenmashup / CC
The film starts not in the beginning, but on the starting grid of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix. Perhaps not the most obvious choice, but its reasoning soon becomes clear. The animated buzz of the assembled crowd, the rich colours resultant of the full-beam Melbourne sunshine, as well as the mass of team members and assorted hangers on crawling over the assembled cars - all in eager anticipation of the race, and season, start - are familiar. As is the gradual, aching build up of tension, eventually to be released as the cars are unleashed like feral beasts when the red light goes out.

But then...not long after we had a spectacular accident: Martin Brundle got his braking wrong and cartwheeled over several cars, his machine disintegrating as it did so. The car, by now a heap of wreckage, came to rest upside down in a gravel bed, and the seconds of time wherein there is no movement from the cockpit seem to stretch on like hours. All of the harrowing accidents, some fatal, that took place within the previous 24 months suddenly seem scarily redolent. Yet, before you know it Brundle emerges, in his own words 'without a bruise on his body' and then can be seen - accompanied by the roar of the crowd - hot-footing it down the pit lane to find Sid Watkins in order to get the OK to take the restart.

And this it transpires is the film's hook. It explores how F1 as a sport got to here - and by extension to the modern day - wherein safety is a matter almost taken for granted, from its dark days wherein death in action was a regular occurrence; that Jackie Stewart noted in his era as a participant claimed on average one F1 driver in seven each season. And Brundle outlines that at some point in the intervening period 'things changed, it suddenly became unacceptable to die in the name of sport'.

Essentially the story of 1 is that of the history of F1 safety: the progress, the changes, the battles that were fought, the impediments, and the major players in the tale. And the story is one that is told brilliantly.

Jackie Stewart features heavily in the story
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
It is a film that is hard to fault. It is clear that in telling such a story becoming ponderous, esoteric or offering a narrative that makes the audience's heads spin are major risks. Yet it avoids this: the narrative is tight and moves along at a rapid pace. The film looks great too, always colourful, gripping and eye-catching, contains all of the wonderful noises of the sport and the soundtrack is equally appropriate.

Comparisons of 1 with Senna and Rush given its being released in rapid succession after these are to a large extent inevitable. Probably, given its subject matter, it won't likely have the blockbuster success of the two films mentioned. But yet, I reckon that like its two forerunners there's a pretty good chance that 1 is capable of transcending the interest of just the motorsport fan. I didn't see much in it that would bewilder the uninitiated. Many of the story's themes are universal; almost none of them will leave you unaffected.

And moreover, despite landing in what has recently become a crowded F1-related film marketplace, it feels rather a lot like 1 has carved a very fine niche of its own. It has some parallels with either Senna or Rush: it has a documentary format, the use of real footage and lively pace reminiscent of Senna, the colour and ultimate affection of Rush; the captivating drama and compelling narrative of both. But above all, and even with the film retaining accessibility, it is also completely authoritative and clearly exceptionally well-researched. Whereas Senna's lack of balance and Rush's (understandable given everything) occasional variation from actuality have been criticised by some, such charges can hardly be laid at 1's door. Even the habitual nerds will struggle to pinpoint instances where the 1 film is inaccurate. For what it's worth, the best I could spot was when it said James Hunt was disqualified from the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix for a wing being too wide (it was in fact the car as a whole that was too wide). There was plenty in there too that I didn't know already: for example, did you know that Bernie, having for the first time acquired the worldwide TV rights for F1 in 1976 for $1 million, offered to share the rights among the ten competing constructors of the time for $100,000 each? And the constructors, thinking about all the testing they could do with that money, all said no? That got a laugh.

It was a film made with the blessing of Bernie and FOM, as well as with the close involvement of Herbie Blash - ex of Brabham, currently of the FIA and long-time Bernie right-hand man. And it shows. Not only does it ensure that the film is rich in all sorts of wonderful, sometimes graphic, footage from on the track and off, much of which I had no idea existed before (did you know that Bruce McLaren appeared on Blue Peter the day after Jim Clark's death? It's in there), but it also means that all of the major players that were still with us at the time of its making feature in the film offering their reminiscences and first-hand insight. This includes Bernie himself, Max Mosley, Professor Sid Watkins, drivers such as Stewart, Jacky Ickx, Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton, as well as journalists such as Nigel Roebuck and Maurice Hamilton in addition to a variety of other players. According to the film-makers 'Does Bernie know?' was a common question when approaching people to contribute to the film, and that they were able to answer in the affirmative opened just about all doors. As a consequence little of the story or of the important analyses and viewpoints seem to fall through the gaps; just about all important issues are covered and are done so engagingly and fully.

Colin Chapman - and his relationship with
Jochen Rindt - are covered
Credit: Evers, Joost / CC
And in 1 - despite an often bleak subject matter - the affection, enthusiasm and passion for F1 of all involved shines through at just about all points. There are almost no hatchet jobs in here - the closest there came to one was with Jacky Ickx and his attitude to the GPDA. But even here Ickx is allowed the right of reply and the basis of his stance is made clear. And the film ends with Ickx paying tribute to Stewart's work.

After the Brundle smash already mentioned sets the scene, the film then steps back in time. Starting out by explaining that post World War Two the sport attracted the sort that had been flying fighter planes in the conflict, those who were minded for 'going off and doing something dangerous', it then goes on something of a whistle stop tour of the things that makes F1 what it is - the 'brands' if you will. This includes Monaco, Fangio, Ferrari, and the rise of what Enzo Ferrari contemptuously called the Garagistes, most notably Colin Chapman. And as it goes it tracks the growing consciousness of safety: via the establishment of the GPDA (as well as the wives' and girlfriends' equivalent known as The Doghouse Club), the switch to 3 litre engines in 1966 which Stewart reckoned made the cars 'twice as fast' with no parallel improvement to circuit standards, as well as harrowing accidents such as that in which Lorenzo Bandini perished in Monaco in 1967.

Then upon the great Jim Clark's fatal accident in 1968 everything changed. This was as Stewart noted a departure point, the point when drivers suddenly realised that if death in action could happen to Clark then it could happen to anyone. And it is the next decade, 1968-1978, that the film largely concentrates on - a decade that the sport ended looking rather a lot more than ten years older. It was a decade in which the pursuit altered almost beyond recognition, that F1 entered as something of an amateur-type pursuit for gentlemen of leisure, wherein cars raced in national colours, wherein death was considered an inevitable by-product and safety was barely spoken of let alone acted upon, and ended as a sport with sponsors, lucrative TV deals, mass audiences and, increasingly, a mind wary of and active in improving safety standards. It tracks how the sport's advances came to be, as well as its considerable growing pains.

Francois Cevert
Credit: Raimund Kommer / CC
There are a few grisly stops along the way: such as Jochen Rindt's concern about the integrity of the Lotus cars he was given, something which he was tragically proved right in; the violent deaths of the likes of Francois Cevert and Helmuth Koinigg, as well as the shameful race in Zandvoort 1973 and the equally shameful weekend in Montjuic in 1975.

There are a few tangents in there too, such as extended features on the Hesketh team (presumably for some comic relief) as well as on the famous Lauda-Hunt duel of the 1976 season (it's a bit unfortunate the Rush getting in there first removed a lot of the tension here for most of the audience; particularly given 1's impressive attempt to create tension over the question of Lauda's survival from his fiery accident in the Nurburgring).

The decade ends with yet more tragedy: the death of Ronnie Peterson on the operating table after a startline accident in Monza in 1978. And it also ends with the introduction of one Professor Sid Watkins to the sport. He'd actually been introduced to the sport a few rounds before that fateful Monza race, but it was the aftermath of Peterson's death that marked another major turning point, with various changes put in place - led by Watkins - to ensure standardised medical response at each race.

We then jump forward via a period of relative calm to a weekend that we all know about, and one that was another pivotal moment in this tale, that of Imola in 1994. Herein one trauma followed another, culminating in the fatality of the revered Ayrton Senna. And the film takes us through the various further safety advances - again led by Watkins - that followed.

Ayrton Senna
Credit: Instituto Ayrton Senna / CC
Then the tale comes full circle, to 1996 in Melbourne where we came in, and to the modern day sport wherein - by the admission of the likes of Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel - the prospect of death in an accident is hardly thought about.

1 is a film that takes us through the widest range of emotions. It is always captivating, usually exciting and fast-moving and thus captures F1 at its best. Some parts are laugh out loud funny as mentioned. But as is to a large extent inevitable, a history of safety can at times transmit a little like a history of crashes. There the film pulls no punches, and some of the footage genuinely disturbs - particularly the sickening horror of the multi-car smash at Silverstone in 1973 with all on the nearby pitwall hardly protected as debris flew. Footage of Nina Rindt in a TV interview imploring her husband Jochen to stop racing is similarly moving. At various points the conspicuous and tragic waste of fine young men cut down in their prime - many times entirely avoidably due to safety standards scarcely thinkable from the modern perspective - will likely elicit anger and upset. Though equally 1 never strays into the territory of seeming gratuitous.

Little analysis is missing throughout, however if I was to be hyper-critical I'd say that the story's perhaps a little light on why things changed, it more records the how. The changing wider influences on F1 - such as via a wider audience and wider society that incrementally refused to tolerate such waste of life - are hardly explored. It doesn't really begin to answer the question why, as Brundle said at the outset, that by the 1990s wider society wouldn't tolerate people dying in the name of sport; why as Maurice Hamilton said, the broad reaction to Senna's death was much more seismic and recriminatory than was the case with Clark's a generation earlier. About the only thing we had on this at all was Marlboro's John Hogan talking about commercial pressure, including via increased TV exposure, for safety. But even there it was rather brief.

But despite this hyper-criticism you've probably worked out by now that I can't recommend this film highly enough. Certainly not to the F1 fan, nor even to the non-F1 fan for that matter. As I said, comparisons of this film with Senna and Rush will be inevitable to a large extent; 1 contains a lot of what made Senna and Rush the triumphs that they were, but equally the film very rarely feels like it's duplicating them. Watching, you feel that you're getting something clearly distinctive - something above and beyond - even from those. And in many ways it offers something better.

I watched 1 at one of three special advance showings of it at the recent BFI London Film Festival. The theatrical release in UK cinemas is planned for February next year, with similar releases in other countries planned for late this year/early next. It's also available now on US iTunes, as there aren't yet plans to release it in cinemas there (though this may change). You can also follow 1 the film on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. If the movie is half as good as this review then they have done a brilliant job. Your passion for f1 shines through

    1. Thanks very much, very nice of you to say so :)

    2. Just saw it. The film IS as good as this review. Excellent movie and fantastic review.
      "Senna The movie" looks like B level porn compared to "1"!

    3. Oh, and since I haven't seen "Rush "yet, I think it will be great sequal to "1"
      Fingers crossed.