May 1, 2014 will be the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna, the last driver to die in a Formula One grand prix. In the early years of the sport—the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s—such a gap between fatalities would have been unimaginable. F1 was just too dangerous.
In 1: Life on the Limit, the new documentary by Paul Crowder, three-time world champion Jackie Stewart relates a story about climbing out of the cockpit after the 1968 German Grand Prix:
We had a driver die every month on the same weekend for four consecutive months. And we were racing on the fifth weekend in circumstances that we should never have been allowed to go out in. You couldn't see 60 metres of visibility because of the fog and heavy rain. And the very first question I asked when I got out of the car was, "Is everybody OK?"
The film, which premiered at London's Leicester Square on January 10, is a tragedy, but an inspiring one. It is the history of F1, framed by the men who died to make the sport what it is today, told by those who were lucky enough to make it out of the deadly years alive.
It is inspiring because, as you listen to Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Niki Lauda and others, you realize that these drivers were willing to repeatedly risk everything, even their lives, for one goal: To prove they were the fastest men alive.
Michael Fassbender narrates the film, although he is used sparingly. Interviews with the drivers and other influential figures like Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley drive the story.
1 includes a lot of unsettling footage, including the fatal crashes of drivers like Jochen Rindt and Roger Williamson. The film begins with Martin Brundle's spectacular crash at the 1996 Australian Grand Prix, which he walked away from unhurt. But then it transports viewers back through the decades, demonstrating how the deaths of various drivers on the track slowly led to incremental improvements in safety.
Eventually, 1 returns to Brundle, describing how, in the years before Senna's death at Imola, he would have been killed in Australia. Instead, we see him running down the pit lane, looking for his spare car to take the restart.
The 2010 documentary Senna raised the bar for F1 filmmaking. 1 has increased the standard again. Crowder makes good use of his unfettered access to the F1 archives and to a large number of former and current drivers. In fact, my biggest criticism of the film is only that I wanted more—more archival footage, more interviews, more of everything.
Also, in some scenes, the cuts are too quick. Crowder is trying to immerse his audience in the speed and sounds of a grand prix. But sometimes, before you can figure out exactly what you are looking at, you are off to the next race.
Several times, I found myself wondering what happened next in an exciting sequence, or simply marvelling at the noise, the cars and, most of all, the circuits of an era that has passed, before they were cut away in less time than it takes Red Bull to execute a pit stop.
For diehard fans, there may not be much that is completely new in 1, but they will still find much to enjoy. Casual fans and anyone just learning the history of the sport will be fascinated by the story of how F1 developed from a loose collection of car manufacturers and privateers into the multi-billion dollar juggernaut it is today.
One scene that sticks out is Lord Hesketh, owner of the short-lived Hesketh Racing team, talking about Ecclestone buying the F1 television rights for $1 million in 1976. He then offered Lord Hesketh and the eight other team owners 10 percent each, for $100,000. "Nine idiots sat there," remembers Lord Hesketh. "'Think how much testing I could do with $100,000.' I said, 'No, thank you," and everyone else said, 'No, thank you.' And that's how Bernie got control."
However, the biggest impact of the film comes from the juxtaposition between the drivers of the early years, who lived constantly in the shadow of death, and those of the modern era, who are untouched by it. In fact, Lewis Hamilton says that, "I've never had that fear. I've never been worried about death or the danger from getting hurt. ... It's almost like you have control of the danger."
A very different sentiment from Stewart's first thought after the 1968 German Grand Prix.
Crowder set out to educate fans on the history of the sport, telling Formula1.com that:
Millions of people worldwide watch the Formula One races as the circus travels the globe, but there are many who just don’t know the history behind this, at one time, incredibly dangerous sport.
He achieves this goal in remarkable fashion. 1 is the first film to document the complete history of F1. The only problem (for fans, anyway) is that he has done such a good job that another film covering the sport so thoroughly may not be needed for quite a long time.
Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert