The brief, discreet instruction given to Jackie Stewart at the conclusion of the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix would be more chilling if it weren’t so typical. ‘Williamson’s dead,’ the winning Scot is told, still sat in his car after crossing the line. ‘No lap of honour. Quiet presentation.’
The death of 25-year-old Roger Williamson is one of the many in 1, a documentary of triumph and tragedy in Formula 1 with the emphasis, for the most part, on the latter. Bookended by footage of Martin Brundle’s spectacular crash at Melbourne in 1996, it argues that safety measures introduced since the fatal accidents which had long dogged the sport were responsible for keeping him alive; in previous years he’d have had no chance.
Williamson was trapped in a fireball as track safety officials, without flame-resistant clothing, failed to come to fellow driver David Purley’s aid and other drivers continued the race, seemingly oblivious to Purley’s frantic pleas by the upturned car just yards away. Later Stewart, Francois Cevert and James Hill stand on the podium, dejected. Less than three months later Cevert was dead too.
Of course, there were more, and director Paul Crowder tries to get to the heart of why so many young men were happy – or at least content – to chase glory at such great risk in what remains, to many minds, an essentially silly pursuit. Stewart provides some of the best contributions, with the help of some fantastic photographs bringing a sense of the camaraderie that existed within the sport and then the sadness at each predictable death.
Max Mosley is another welcome voice, pointing out that crashes will always happen in a sport where the aim is to drive a car around a track as fast as possible while others do the same. The key, he says, was to examine how the sport could improve the chances of its drivers emerging from the inevitable collisions unscathed like Brundle – or, at least, alive. The recent deaths of Maria de Villota and Sean Edwards, of course, remind us that there is no guarantee.
The success of Senna and Rush should help the film’s commercial prospects when it is released in the UK next Spring. Naturally it covers some of the same ground as these, and through Niki Lauda and Hunt’s son Freddie unsurprisingly suggests their mutual antipathy was not as strong as portrayed in Ron Howard’s film. Extensive footage of an Ayrton Senna practice lap at Monaco in 1989, meanwhile, is some of the best on show; the onboard camera bringing us as close as possible to understanding the skill of the drivers and the danger they faced.
Michael Fassbender’s languid narration offers an agreeable contrast to the busy presentation early on, as rapid cuts, big type and flying graphics dominate the screen. It settles, though, and makes the footage that is allowed to run – such as Senna in Monaco, and Purley’s anguished cries – more effective. The details of the belated safety measures brought in by Bernie Ecclestone and Sid Watkins are dealt with briefly, the focus wisely on the human stories that make sport so compelling and necessitated the changes that came too late for too many.
This review comes from a screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival 2013 (LFF 2013).