Grand Prix: The Greatest F1 Film

Duncan ScottAnalyst INovember 10, 2008

F1 has all the ingredients for a great film. Speed, action, bitter rivalries, triumphs, and thwarted ambitions. There are real or imagined plots and conspiracies, there is a paddock adorned by gorgeous women. It's sex on wheels.

In the late 1990s, Sylvester Stallone announced plans for an F1 film, but that foundered. Amongst other obstacles, he was not going to be allowed to film at circuits on race days, a fatal blow.

Allegedly Stallone's film was to be based on the life and death of Ayrton Senna, but when lack of F1 access killed the project, he instead made the CART-based film "Driven," and that is to be avoided at all costs. It's a real stinker.

Back in 1966, in an innocent pre-Bernie era, director John Frankenheimer made the classic film "Grand Prix." It was an age of open-face helmets, beautiful race cars, and appalling accidents, it was a golden age marred by frequent tragedies.

"Grand Prix" takes us on a wonderful trip back to that time, giving us F1 scenes so real and evocative you can almost catch the brassy smell of a hot exhaust.

I had not seen it for some years. Renewing the acquaintance has been my film treat of the year.

The human stars of the film are James Garner, as Yamura (based on Honda) driver Pete Aron, and Yves Montand as Ferrari driver John Paul Sarti. Sarti deliberately sounds very similar to Surtees, who was a Ferrari driver in 1966, that was so live race commentaries could be used in the film. Sadly, Surtees had a bust-up with them and quit the Scuderia midway through the season.

Garner had to lose 20 pounds for the role, and because his head would otherwise extend above the roll hoop of any race car he drove (race drivers tend to be small) the seat was taken out.

He was trained at the Willow Springs course and then at the Jim Russell driving school, so by the time filming started he was at least competent in a race car.

Most driving scenes in which "Pete Aron" appears do feature Garner behind the wheel, including the shot where his car bursts into flames.

When I see Garner in the film wearing a helmet and goggles, he looks terribly like a Thunderbirds puppet to me. Brains even, but apart from that he is fine.

Montand was reportedly not all happy about high-speed driving, and would complain if he thought a scene was driven too fast.

The real stars are the cars, of course.

There are no wings or spoilers, just an engine, four wheels, and a highly vulnerable driver. In 1966, Colin Chapman had yet to bring sponsorship to F1, so we just see the simple beauty of racing cars, only decorated with their race numbers.

Where we see Garner or Montand in track action, they are not driving real 1966 F1 cars, but F2 and F3 cars, mostly BRM, Brabham, or Lotus, painted and otherwise faked to look the part.

Continuity is patchy in the film, the same car seen in different shots can suddenly have wing mirrors of a different colour, or the bodywork may have undergone subtle alterations.

These matters are of no consequence, for we are looking down a time tunnel at a lost past, and we cannot expect perfection.

Frankenheimer was allowed to shoot on race days, giving the film a very authentic feel, the stands are packed with real race fans cheering real drivers.

The action is a mix of real race footage and mocked-up races. Some of the mocked-up sequences are lame and unconvincing, but there is some brilliant footage shot from a camera mounted on a Shelby Cobra.

Just take a look at the clip on YouTube I have embedded below. This shows the film version of the Spa race, which in real life was a John Surtees win for Ferrari.

Notice how different the circuit looks from today, and how extremely dangerous. There are track-side buildings waiting to be crashed into, roadsigns, telephone poles, even people by or on the track.

My head knows how crazy it was that races were run under such hazardous conditions. My heart says those were the days of real racing and real racers.

The clip demonstrates two features often seen in the film; convincing and enthralling race action, and a crash sequence that would fool nobody.

Just about all the famous names of 60s F1 appear in Grand Prix (some of them like Jim Clark and Lorenzo Bandini soon to die) and no Tifosi can miss the scene in the (genuine) Ferrari factory.

Can you just imagine any of today's secretive F1 teams allowing cameras in?

As a run-of-the-mill film, "Grand Prix" is not a particularly good in my opinion; it does not have the narrative strength to hook the uncommitted viewer. But for the F1, fan it is a truly great, unique, and essential film, cinema's only worthwhile tribute to F1.

Looking today on Amazon UK, it is available on DVD for a modest £4.97, no doubt it will be even cheaper everywhere else in the world. Get it; you won't be sorry. Turn up the volume, sit back, and do your eyes and ears the favour they've been begging for.