Very unpleasant reminder
AUGUST 24, 2011
The title signalled an obvious clue of what was to come. 'Grand Prix : The Killer Years' brought tabloid film production to a documentary for BBC Television on F1 in the 1960s and 1970s with, as the sensation-seeking signature suggests, the emphasis on the larcenous nature of the sport at the time.
It is a crude piece of work but, for that reason, the film does serve a purpose. Initially, you are appalled by the showing, not once, but twice of Lorenzo Bandini's burning Ferrari atop the straw bales at the Monaco harbour chicane in 1967. Any excuse is used to drag out footage of blazing cars; a simple enough task since, in those days, a crash inevitably meant fire.
It's a reminder of something we now take for granted. When was the last time you saw a fiery accident providing the chilling spiral of black smoke that accompanied so many races during that period? We've watched, for example, Robert Kubica's BMW destroy itself in Montreal in 2007. Forty years before and the car (and, probably, the track) would have been ablaze with Kubica trapped inside. It's a point worth making. But not in the manner of this film.
The story line rambles wildly with time spent, for no obvious reason, on the battle between Ferrari and the small British teams. But much of the film is devoted to a character assassination of Colin Chapman. It is true that his Lotus F1 cars, particularly the early ones, were designed with lightness in mind and seemingly strengthened only when something broke.
The reason behind the lengthy examination of Chapman's integrity is to provide the lead into the death of Jim Clark at Hockenheim on 7 April 1968 (a date engraved in the minds of those of us of a certain age just as surely as subsequent generations will never forget the significance of 1 May 1994.)
So, we have the build up and the interviews with Dave 'Beaky' Sims (Clark's mechanic) and discussion about what a horrible place Hockenheim could be on such a damp day. Clark is driving - as he always did - a Lotus. We are told he was flung 15 feet into the trees (a fact I confess I had never heard before. But, if the script writer says so...).
No detail is spared. Except one. No one ventures the thought that a slowly deflating rear tyre probably caused the accident rather than a mechanical failure on Chapman's Lotus 48. But that wouldn't fit the clumsily constructed theme, would it?
Sir Jackie Stewart does make the stark point that, in 1968, there were no barriers; no protection whatsoever from the stout fir trees that killed Clark as the car was torn in half. By today's standards, such a thing seems barbaric.
The most thought-provoking moment comes at the end when the film dwells on Roger Williamson's accident at Zandvoort in 1973. This was only the second Grand Prix for which the young Englishman had managed to qualify. A tyre failure sent his March upside down at high speed, Williamson trapped inside the blazing car. Distressing images show the valiant efforts of a distraught David Purley who had stopped his March in a bid to rescue his mate. It also shows the hopelessly inadequate marshals and fire-fighting equipment. This much I knew.
But I had forgotten - and the film is useful in providing a terrible reminder - how the race continued, Purley gesticulating in demented fashion at his colleagues as they continued to blast past the burning wreck. It is inconceivable that such a thing could happen now thanks to the tight control exercised on virtually every motor race you see today.
The editing of 'Grand Prix : The Killer Years' may be appalling (what on earth has a lengthy shot of Francois Cevert's stalled F2 Tecno on the grid at Rouen got to do with anything?) with clips of cars not matching a commentary that utilises every cliche in the book.
But it does show - albeit in an unsophisticated way - just how fortunate we are today. Sadly, the documentary fails to provide a professional balance by addressing the remarkable steps that have been made to reduce the fatalities embraced with such ghoulish enthusiasm by the film's director.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.