Watching John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film “Grand Prix,” for perhaps the fifth or sixth time last night, I was not only struck more than ever by how little the underlying ethos and image of Formula One has really changed in the 51 years since the film was made, but for the first time I also found myself loving the human story that I had always thought was the film’s weak point. And it was really only while watching it yesterday that I suddenly began to do the math and to discover another human story not stated in the film that gives the tale an even deeper feeling of gravitas.
The human story, mixing the racer’s competitive urge and taste for taking risks and the way it affected their personal lives, as well as the technological story and the presentation of the series itself all work in lock-step to produce the greatness of this film. Until Ron Howard’s film “Rush” in 2013, it was commonly felt that there had only been one good film made about the Formula One series, and that was “Grand Prix.” But watching “Grand Prix” with the perspective now of having “Rush” – the story of the 1976 battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt for the world title – there is another layer that may be added to the 1966 film. The scene in which the driver named Scott Stoddart, who is played by Brian Bedford, tries to recover from his horrible accident and injuries could be seen as a model for the even more horrendous Niki Lauda recovery scenes in “Rush” were it not that the Lauda scenes were based on the true story of Lauda’s life, whereas “Grand Prix” is fiction.
And yet “Grand Prix” also uses history to weave its tragic tale, including in the parallels to the death of Wolfgang von Trips at Monza in 1961 during a race that should have brought him the World Drivers’ title. Instead, he crashed, killing himself and 15 spectators, while the world title then went to his teammate, Phil Hill, the American driver at Ferrari (who also appears in the film). In “Grand Prix,” it is Jean-Pierre Sarti, the Yves Montand character, who was heading for the title at Monza, who crashes and dies, and so gives the title to the American driver, Pete Aron, played by James Garner, who drives for a Japanese team.
So How Has it Changed as Formula One Returns to Malaysia for its Final Race outside Kuala Lumpur?
As Formula One prepares this weekend to run its final race in Malaysia, after nearly 20 years at the venue outside Kuala Lumpur, our memory in sport remains very short. Watching “Grand Prix” can remind those who like to criticize the series for not being what it once was, that little in the ethos has changed. Malaysia was one of the many circuits that so-called “purists” liked to say had no place on the calendar of a series that was born in Europe, since the Southeast Asian nation had no racing culture, no car culture, no fans…. But in the film, the series already travelled to Mexico, and in another 10 years it would go to Japan. In fact, a Japanese manufacturer was involved in the film – as was Honda in reality – trying to win races after a couple of seasons without success, and seeking the best driver and having undergone far too much humiliation through losing. Echoes of Honda in the series now.
Too much money linked with Formula One today? In 1966, the tracks around Europe had sponsors plastered everywhere, but they were mostly car-related sponsors – Champion spark plugs, Castrol Oil, Goodyear Tires, etc. Today, it is watch companies like Rolex, Hublot, IWC and many others, or alcohol companies, technology companies, and dozens of other non-racing companies.It is commonly said that Bernie Ecclestone built up Formula One from a kind of gentlemen’s club in that period to the global business it is today. And while it is true that he organized it and made it into a very powerful global sport – one of the most-watched behind the Olympics and World Cup soccer – it can be seen in some ways as a natural progression as our whole world has progressed for what was ALWAYS the pinnacle of automobile racing. It has just expanded, developed, organized and become much MORE of what it was, building on what it was, as well as diversifying.
Very few of the underlying narratives have actually changed, and even most of the circuits from the film are still part of the series, but built up and vastly improved: Spa, Monza, the Nurburgring (although it was not the same circuit), Mexico and Monaco. The glitzy after-party in Monaco still goes on today.
The cars of the day were beautiful objects, and while they are primitive by today’s standards, they were the highest expression of the technology of the day, as with today’s cars.
Nearly Half of the Real Racing Drivers in the Film Would Die Violent Racing-Linked Deaths
But the most shocking part of the film is something we do not see, or we only see if we know the history of what followed. And that brings me back to that bit of mathematical counting I started to do while watching the film. Just over 30 of the drivers of the day were used in the film in small roles, as extras or just on camera as they raced. It was a brilliant blending in of the star actors with the fictional drivers. The most obvious ones being people like Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt or Jim Clark. But knowing what fate held for them is a hugely poignant thing.Of those 30 or so drivers, 13 would eventually die in racing accidents – or, as in the case of Graham Hill, while flying his airplane in poor weather returning from a racing test session; or in the case of Giuseppe Farina, after running his car into a telegraph pole while driving to the French Grand Prix of 1966, when he was acting as the double and adviser to Yves Montand in the film.
Also in the film, where Stoddart suffers a huge crash near the harbor in Monaco, the following year, at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, Lorenzo Bandini, who was also in the film, was killed in a fiery accident also by the harbor.
And here is the point: While Formula One remains a deadly series, as the death of Jules Bianchi two years ago from injuries in an accident the previous year at the Japanese Grand Prix has shown, it has incontestably become safer than it was. The series depicted by “Grand Prix,” while so similar – or perhaps “familiar” is a better word – in so many other ways to today’s series, no longer, thank goodness, takes the lives of some of its drivers nearly every year.
No, Formula One is not entirely what it was. It is better.