Grand Prix: The Killer Years is a poignant look at an era that Formula 1 would mostly likely rather want to forget. This is due to the sheer quantity of death that surrounded it. A viewing experience that will remain with you.
Director: Richard Heap
Stars: Jackie Stewart, Tony Brooks, Emerson Fittipaldi, David Sims, Nina Rindt
Detailing a 12 year period between 1961 to 1973 where a total of 57 drivers died. We hear from former drivers and engineers who experienced the deaths of their colleagues almost every 3 races. Telling how drivers began to force organisers to introduce health and safety measures at circuits and the difficulties that it entailed.
As a long time Formula 1 fan I never really had a great deal of knowledge of the years before the 1990s (to be fair I wasn’t born in the other eras). I had seen clips of drivers such as Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark, but never knew too much about them. So this documentary felt like the perfect watch. I first came upon this documentary on the BBC iPlayer and didn’t really think it was going to be anything other than a general piece for broad audiences. I was wrong.
From the start you are drawn in. We hear from Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx and others about the likelihood of death while racing, interspersed with clips of accidents and deaths. It is a harrowing start to a documentary and makes you realise how different we see motor racing now. There are no barriers between fans and the cars. Just bales of hay, yes hay, that rather combustible material, protecting everyone against a speeding car full of fuel. As David Sims (a former engineer) states, drivers were seen as fighter pilots. They, their families and the public knew that they might not return home. How can that happen in a sport? Even in the 60s and 70s?
Grand Prix: The Killer Years never tries to glam up this era, whch helps it stand out from others documentaries. Some of these docs tried to have a small sense of fun or show too much of behind the scenes material. This was most likely done to allow the audience to have more emotions towards said featured driver. Director Richard Heap is able to do this in a fraction of the time and also to show driver concerns. He keeps a sombre tone throughout with a hint of melancholy when drivers, journalists and families reminisce. This helps show a lot of respect for those who are lost and survived this driving era in the sport.
A horrific experience detailed by Jackie Stewart where he crashes into a hut, a pole and eventually a wall. Remaining stuck in his car for 30 minutes before a fellow driver (Graham Hill) assists in getting him out of the wreckage. The entire time the car could have gone up in flames. Eventually they had to search for an ambulance to get Stewart to safety. With only only one person there with a first aid kit. To make matters worse, the ambulance gets lost. This is the incident that caused drivers themselves to pay for onsite medical facilities. Not the officials from the sport or the owners of the tracks. The drivers, yet this wasn’t enough to save everyone with many more dying.
The worst aspect of this era that is grimly told here, is that even with an obvious death. The race continued, with drivers having to drive past their fallen friends, if they thought all was lost. Led by Stewart, drivers had to make compromises on safety for the races to go ahead. Just the fact that a compromise had to be made instead of race organisers flatly agreeing to change is astonishing.
For motor sport enthusiasts, watching clips of older races and the overhead angles of some of the drivers of the past such as Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt who are featured prominently in the documentary, will be a true joy . Yet, discovering that with all the pressures from drivers. Changes mainly came thanks to pressure on sponsors and how the deaths looked on them is startling, but not unexpected. This is due to the Roger Williamson crash, a utterly heart-breaking incident that was shown live for all to witness.
The filmmakers have created a very heavy piece here and it is felt throughout. Also by focusing on a specific era of Formula One they are able to go into more detail and I am sure that if they were given time to go to feature length that they could very well have. Grand Prix: The Killer Years main strength is that fact. Others spend a lot of time in this era and then hurriedly go through the next 20 or so years. By focusing the full documentary on this era the audience can digest everything better.
Circuit owner’s umming and ahhing over having to spend their money to adapt their circuit to these ever evolving and much faster cars is unthinkable now and that is thanks to these drivers. The stories are worrying and uncomfortable to listen to, it is hard to fathom younger racing fans such as myself believing that the drivers were not looked after as they risked their lives.
If you can find this one hour documentary then I highly recommend that you watch it. It may be a tad difficult to find, but it is available online if you search for it. Despite there being some terrific documentaries of this era (1 – Life on the Limit for example). Grand Prix: The Killer Years is the superior film thanks to its emotional impact that hits you on a greater scale. Unmissable for those interested in motor sport and for those who enjoyed the wonderful doc Senna. Be warned, if you are a fan of Motorsport you may go down a deep rabbit hole watching documentaries on this era of racing.