‘1’ the film – F1 Documentary Review

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I’m not a film critic, but I do know my F1 history. My wife, she’s a complete newcomer to racing since meeting me. “1” is the first racing documentary she has sat and watched, without falling asleep or finding a way to distract herself. Does that mean it’s a winner?

I hadn’t even heard about this film until the day I bought it, which means it probably needs some wider marketing. By chance, I was flicking through the movie section on iTunes and could see it was something to do with racing due to the icon it had. So I clicked, read the information, then went to Youtube on my phone to view the trailer.

The trailer was enough to sell me on a purchase of the movie on iTunes. These days my movie and TV collection is all digital, I store on my PC, streaming through iTunes and our Apple TV. I shared the trailer on social media, and then discovered that the movie is only available right now on iTunes, and only in the United States store! I quickly checked, and found that it will eventually get a more widespread release, but right now I think the partial release will not help with success. Priority should have been the UK.

Whatever the reasons for the release they have, they probably had enough of them to do it how they have. Worldwide distribution rights for movies I am sure are a complicated matter. In any case, I have the film, watched the film with my wife, and here are my thoughts…

This is one of the greatest documentaries of F1 safety changes ever, it might even be the best movie about F1 I’ll see this year (tip to Ron Howard). After initial concerns about use of footage and special effects on my part proved to be unwarranted, the movie settled down to use pure archival footage and interviews.

It begins in Melbourne, 1996, with Martin Brundle’s horrifying airbourne crash on the first lap of the race. He managed to not only walk away, but restarted the race. His crash in this documentary serves as the main example of modern safety and success in Formula One. It was during this sequence, with inserted footage from later in the race, and some special effects, that I began to worry I had wasted my money, but once the title sequence started, I realized their effects on the Brundle crash were intended to fit with the titles (they didn’t, by the way).

Soon after, introducing the documentary, the narrator talks about F1 while we are shown onboard footage from a historic F1 car racing at Sonoma in California. I don’t feel like this was needed, and it will most certainly irritate those viewing this as a documentary, not a movie (Rush is a movie, I can excuse their usage of Brands Hatch in-place of other circuits, I can’t excuse a documentary for using non-archival footage of an F1 car on a circuit they never competitively raced).

While my wife found it amusing that I was pointing out these faults (which I normally don’t) in those early moments of the film, I didn’t. It is essential for films like this, like Rush, to find success and be liked by their intended audience, because otherwise we’re not going to see people enter this genre again for a long time. Or if they do, we’ll end up with a terrible movie like Stallone’s Driven from 2001, the worst movie of all-time for me.

The title sequence itself (after the Melbourne 1996 editing) is lovely. It quickly and effectively sums up Formula One. After that comes the footage from Sonoma, then an interesting comparison between fighter pilots, bravery of that era, and the early formation of Formula One, moving into focus on the 1950’s. I love the fact that the narrator input is minimal. Instead, there are respected voices from within the sport, world champion drivers and constructors like Colin Chapman, telling the story from interviews.

After short focus on Fangio, him being essentially the only driver mentioned from the 1950’s, the documentary immediately leaps forward to Lotus, Chapman and Clark. Then, somewhat confusingly, there is focus placed on Monaco that I feel is misplaced, then Senna, which is a complete tangent subject at this part of the film. While I can understand some focus on Monaco, the majority of the footage is from the modern era, and after coming from the 1960’s, to Monaco, to Senna, it goes back to the 1960’s… I understand the connection between Senna and Graham Hill both winning at Monaco, but, huh?

The film then talks about the camaraderie in the 1960’s between drivers, the formation of the GPDA, and the huge role the wives and girlfriends played in the sport at that time. At the same time, it discusses the changes in regulations, selling of sponsorship, and then we hear from Max Mosley.

Mosley was on the grid as a driver for the Formula Two race at Hockenheim in 1968. This is the first time I have ever heard an interview where he talks about Jim Clark’s death being the catalyst for him wanting to get to a position of power (which he did) and make the sport safer (which he did). I feel that the documentary puts a lot of focus on Clark, with good reason, because he didn’t survive the sport, and the documentary is about safety. Putting focus onto a driver who many thought was too good to die, it sets the mood.

The film includes quite a lot of footage I have never seen. Among them being the German crowd at Hockenheim reacting to a loudspeaker announcement of Jim Clark dying in an accident. It is often the reaction of others, empathy for their shock and sadness, that draws the greatest reactions from ourselves, and I noticed my wife raise her hand to cover her mouth at the same time a woman in the German crowd stood with her jaw dropped in disbelief. This was the point that I realized how good this documentary was. My wife, who didn’t know or care about these people before watching this, was devastated by it.

From this point onward, the documentary spirals into the sad story of danger, death and failure by organizers, track owners and the sport’s governing body. Perfectly edited, the film gives you a real sense of the danger, but even more importantly, the reasons why drivers kept racing, as the sport evolved in step changes.

Perhaps one of the most sad segments of the film, revolves around the relationship between Chapman and Rindt. The biggest step change in the sport, of course, was the addition of wings. The documentary talks about the failures of those wings, and the lack of trust Rindt felt in Chapman’s cars, along with his eventual death behind the wheel of one after he chose to try to race it without the wings at Monza. I had either forgotten, or never knew that Rindt had a manager, and his name was Bernie Ecclestone. The film talks about the fact that not many people could handle Chapman, but that Bernie could.

It is somewhat nice to hear another designer, John Barnard, explain that the first requirement was to be fast, not safe. It’s very easy to blame Chapman for the failures of his cars, but I feel this documentary doesn’t do that, it simply lays out the facts. And then you have Rindt’s team mate explain that he was “frightened” by the Lotus without wings, and that it was Rindt’s decision to keep them off. Hearing Bernie Ecclestone talk about the loss of Rindt is something I didn’t expect to hear in this film, and it gives him a humanity that is tough to see these days. Ultimately, very sad indeed, although the documentary does explain that it was Rindt’s death, the death of the first person to openly question safety, that began to change the way other drivers felt about it.

Moving into the early 1970’s, the film now explains just how much of a shambles the sport was at every level, how threats from the drivers to not race unless changes were made were fought over, and how both Mosley and Ecclestone had moved into team ownership. We then hear Emerson Fittipaldi explain just how death had begun to affect people, as he tells how Colin Chapman told him “I don’t want to get close to you.”

It then brings in a Dutch fan, and we hear him talking about when he was 11 years old, attending the 1973 Grand Prix at Zandvoort. His father had a video camera, and he captured the death of Roger Williamson, and the anguish of David Purley trying to save him. Then, amazingly, you hear Max Mosley talking about the loss of his driver, Jackie Stewart talking about the fact he drove past Williamson as he burned, you hear Ken Tyrrell quietly telling Stewart that “Williamson is dead, no lap of honor, quiet presentation”, and then you see a drawing from that 11 year old boy of a car burning. Unbelievable.

Switching gears quite a bit, enter Hesketh, Hunt and Hippies. Things suddenly get all jolly, as the film explains the area surrounding Watkins Glen, and that Jackie Stewart had decided to retire after his 100th race. Stewart explains that he didn’t tell Cevert, and that Cevert still felt he needed to prove himself. Then, of course, like the entire history of the sport, things come crashing down, Cevert is dead. He pushed too hard. An interesting thing at this point for me, is again interaction from Chapman, who seems to have grown weary of drivers dying. You see him being told Cevert is dead, and you see him burying his head in his hands sitting on the pit wall. Then, yet again, you hear the drivers picking themselves up and carrying on regardless.

Moving into Emerson Fittipaldi, and his struggle for safety that I had heard far too little about after Stewart had retired. Max Mosley does a terrific job then of explaining why the organizers need to be the ones protecting the drivers, because the driver will always choose speed over safety.

Next: Hunt versus Lauda. We all know this story, though I felt it a mistake to never mention that Lauda came out of retirement to win the championship again in 1984.

Then, I got a major insight into just what Bernie Ecclestone has done for the sport. The hiring of Sid Watkins, telling an organizer to tell 40,000 fans to “go f*ck themselves” unless that organizer made safety improvements, for example. Very interesting stuff, especially hearing from Professor Watkins himself.

It was that first season with Sid Watkins around that Ronnie Peterson died, but that seemed to be the turning point. F1 went on to lose four more drivers in four years, then two in the next 12 at the horror weekend of 1994 in Imola.

I feel the documentary could have done more here, largely skipping over the 1980’s and the true impact of Sid Watkins, it went straight from Peterson to Senna, albeit with a mention of Villeneuve in-between. Seeing Sid Watkins with a tear rolling down his cheek, hearing Hamilton talking about it, then seeing the State Funeral, the film does eventually make a good comparison between 1968 (Clark) and 1994 (Senna). It asks the direct question about the realities of the situation, then Max Mosley again makes a fantastic statement: That why Senna crashed is “totally irrelevant, it’s a sport, done at the limit of human and mechanical ability. When you do that, you’re going to have a crash. The interesting question isn’t why he crashed, it’s why did he get killed?”

Max Mosley was on the grid with Jim Clark in 1968, and months before Senna died he had taken control of the FIA (the F1 governing body). He was finally in a position of power that he wanted since Jim Clark died, and he made changes that, to date, no driver has died since Senna. At this point, the documentary goes full circle, and we see again Martin Brundle, Melbourne, 1996. He doesn’t hit trees due to the barriers, he doesn’t catch fire, he’s unhurt. He runs to Sid Watkins, gets the OK, and gets back in the race.

F1 has moved on, and last of all, we see modern drivers surviving, and we see them surviving because of everybody who died, every lesson learned, and largely because of very few people who stood up and pushed the sport in the right direction.

Both my wife and I came away having learned something, but more importantly we came away with an understanding of the subject matter. I did pause the film a few times, to explain some things that I felt needed explaining, but an F1 fan probably won’t need that, and perhaps my wife didn’t need it either. Very few flaws to speak of. Just some concerns about use of footage and special effects on my part, which proved to be unwarranted. Superb, superb documentary.

If you’re an F1 fan, please see it, and please see it in a way that supports these film makers. We need more of this. Here is the official link (iTunes purchase link, only way to get it right now, at the bottom left).

One thought on “‘1’ the film – F1 Documentary Review

  1. Just returned from Austin. What a great time. F-1 is the most fantastic motorsport there is. Where can I purchase a copy of “1”?

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Tim is British and lives in the United States with his wife and kids.

He works for software developers Image Space Inc. and Studio 397 on their racing simulations, and is a fan of Gaming, Motorsports, and photography.