Some sports have been wonderfully well served by their writers: cricket and boxing the most obvious. Some sports have been served by their stills photographers: cycling especially. And some sports have been served by their film-makers: athletics and, above all others, motorsport. Which is why it is a delight to see any footage of racing from the archives. Black and white or sometimes grainy colour, full of angles and vantage points new to us; of drivers impossibly glamorous in sideburns and aviator sunglasses; and screaming of the danger, the omnipresent danger, the danger that snatched lives away, race after race, season after season, blindly.
Grand Prix: The Killer Years, is a beautifully, and brutally, constructed documentary that largely spans the Sixties, beginning with footage of Wolfgang von Trips’ hideous multi-fatality accident at Monza in 1961. Within a few moments, the viewer is aware that Bigger Picture Films will not be pulling any punches – indeed, their willingness to show death on the track and to be a little loose with the facts has attracted criticism and there are times when it’s easier to look away than to look – but to do so would be to dishonour the brave men who knew the odds and still rolled the dice.
Leavening the bitter beauty of the all too fragile cars (more like ballerinas than behemoths) and the all too human drivers (in leather bonnets and linen overalls, mugging to camera on the grid) are the words of those who survived. Jacky Oliver is English eccentricity writ large, until the brow furrows on recalling the complacency of the track owners and administrators of the time. John Surtees, rheumy-eyed and as prep schoolboyishly polite as ever, reflects with a just a tinge of sadness. Jochen Rindt’s widow – as handsome now as then – speaks of her husband with sad love and a wistfulness largely hidden behind a stiff upper lip that is obviously not the sole preserve of the British. Her reserve makes her gentle rebukes of Colin Chapman bite with a force all the more powerful for its understating.
As ever now Graham Hill has gone, Jackie Stewart is the star of the show, eyes ablaze with anger undiminished by the passage of time, the trade union (well, Grand Prix Drivers Association) leader who fought for a safer working environment and who won on the track and in the committee room. His sense of loss when Jim Clark was killed in a non-Grand Prix race in Germany is still close to the surface.
Heroes need villains too and Lotus’ Colin Chapman does not emerge well, fingered as the ruthless team-leader who loved his cars (and their design innovations) more than he cared for the lives of his drivers. But things were different then and it’s not always fair to judge a Sixties man’s morals from the perspective of 2012 – a point made in the film.
The last five minutes concentrate on the iconic scenes at Zandvoort’s 1973 Grand Prix. Trapped in his stricken car, Roger Williamson dies of asphyxiation, the oxygen sucked out of the air as the fuel tanks burn and marshals look on, racers drive on and David Purley despairs. I’ve seen the footage before, but it loses none of its awful power nearly forty years later. Like Mike Hailwood’s rescue of Clay Regazzoni earlier in the same year, Purley’s actions were to win him the George Medal and the respect of millions.
The film doesn’t quite finish there (and nor does its theme – there were horrific wholly avoidable deaths in Grands Prix even after Jackie Stewart had won the argument, notably Tom Pryce and Ronnie Peterson). Rightly, the closing sequence is one of joy, as drivers mug to camera from convertibles on a parade lap. Lads having a wonderful time – living, and dying, the dream.