Timely reminder of when racing drivers faced death

Jochen Rindt crash, Barcelona, 1969,  from Grand Prix Killer Years, BBC4 documentary
Jochen Rindt crash, Barcelona, 1969, from Grand Prix Killer Years, BBC4 documentary
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IN the weekend when the Formula 1 season opens to great excitement, BBC4 is screening a documentary directed by Sheffield’s Rich Heap, which recalls a darker past for the sport.

In the 1960s and early 1970s it was common for Grand Prix drivers to be killed while racing, often televised for millions to see. Grand Prix: Killer Years reveals how mechanical failure, lethal track design, fire and incompetence snuffed out dozens of young drivers.

Amid fierce competition they had become almost expendable as there were plenty of undeterred eager young wannabes waiting to take their place.

Grand Prix: Killer Years, made by Manchester-based Bigger Picture Films, includes some shocking archive footage and interviews with those who lived to tell the tale such as Sir Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and John Surtees.

Eventually the Grand Prix drivers grew sick of their closest friends being killed and finally took control of their destiny and the film ends in 1975 with a caption saying that 1976 was the first year when there were no death on the track.

“The film-makers had to negotiate hard to acquire the footage they do include: “We identified five incidents which were absolutely essential including the 1973 death of Roger Williamson in the Dutch Grand Prix which was really the final straw,” said Heap.

Just as important as that, some home movie footage they stumbled across. “We were interviewing Jean-Pierre Beltoise and his wife, Jacqueline, when she revealed she used to take a camera with her. So she showed us all this informal stuff and you see drivers winking at the camera and laughing and I think those intimate shots are what gives the film its heart.”

Heap and his producer, John Matthews, spent two weeks filming the interviews. “It was very low budget so we drove around in John’s camper van through Holland, Belgium, France and Switzerland. For a week and then back in the UK we were able to talk to people like Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Oliver and Tony Brooks.

One of the most moving parts of the film is an interview with Jochen Rindt’s widow, Nina. “She was wary at first but the door was opened after we had interviewed the wife of one of the other drivers who told her we were all right. She called us in Paris and said, ‘Be in Geneva tomorrow’ so we drove through the night.”

One of the things that surprised them was how eager the interviewees were to talk about the sensitive subject of losing so many of their friends. “When we set out we thought it was going to be tricky to bring up the subject and we said we were making a film about safety. But they themselves brought it up and you could tell it was still something raw for them and you could tell they remain angry.

“The very last person who agreed was Jackie Stewart who was absolutely pivotal to the story,” reveals Heap. “I think it was because we had spoken to everyone else and they told him we could be trusted. They are a very close-knit community. They still meet up at race meetings and talk about it.”

Grand Prix: Killer Years is on BBC4 on Sunday at 9pm.