As much as I despise the BBC’s touchy-feely, human interest-led, interactive approach to sport in which everything seems to be a 1980s Top of the Pops party with the heirs of Peter Powell presenting the shows in such a way that the sport is incidental to the promotion of an audience experience as inclusive as possible aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator whose imagined finger is poised on the remote and with a mind wandering to the Jeremy Kyle Show unless an angle can be found that reveals the journey traversed by the sport personality, their pain, their disappointments and their imminent redemption (“How does it feel?”), I loved The Rock and Roll Years. The clarity, the crispness, the sheer bloody confidence to add nothing at all but a music soundtrack to ropy old pictures, made it one of my favourite programmes ever. Francis Welch had the bleedin’ obvious and bloody genius idea to do that with the BBC’s motor racing archive – and That Petrol Emotion is the result.
Few sports look better in the old days – football looks too slow, athletes, with one or two exceptions, look like ordinary blokes and you can’t even see the ball half the time in the cricket. But motor racing? Oh motor racing was so much more beautiful, so much more thrilling, so much more alive (even with the Grim Reaper’s finger continually tapping on the windshield) in the old days.
There’s doomed Mike Hawthorn in his bow-tie winning a World Championship and unexpectedly so shy in interview; the nonpareil Fangio, fat and bald but with ice in his veins; the impossibly handsome Stirling Moss chatting to a devilish Colin Chapman; and Jimmy Clark, on his farm tractor, the quiet everyman who might just have been the best of them all. Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart do their turns of course, and there’s a sight or two of the likes of Denny Hulme and Jackie Oliver with James Hunt’s glinting eye and fierce will to come. I haven’t seen Jochen Rindt or Ronnie Peterson yet, but I’ll get upset again when I do.
And the cars! From the curves of the science-fiction machines of the 50s to the sleek lines of the rear-engined 60s F1 missiles to the first experiments with the aerodynamicists’ crazy looking bolted-on wings, every last one of them is a vision – pretty much devoid of sponsors’ logos and identifiably a car. The circuits are also clearly roads or purpose built tracks that look like roads – kerbs, lamp posts and walls boast a couple of straw bales as protection for a car hitting them at nearly 200mph. Camera positions at the likes of Monaco and Spa are different, so we see unexpected perspectives on old favourites. Fire is an ever-present hazard, but mechanics still smoke in the pits while they ready jerry cans of fuel for the cars.
There’s no omniscient voice to explain, judge or apologise for any of this – just the men (always men) who did so at the time. Raymond Baxter is outrageously posh and paternal, but he knows his stuff (he was a fighter pilot so he knew all about facing down death day after day and a decent rally driver, so he knows the skills required to keep a car on an icy road with the foot down hard). Other raffish middle-aged products of decent public schools and Oxbridge happily describe cars as being like girlfriends, stereotype Italians in a way that would make Paolo Di Canio blush and give the overarching impression that the British are the natural leaders of the world. It’s not so much offensive at this distance as sweetly quaint.
There’s no smart-arsery in cutaways to Jimmy Carr or Miranda Hart to give an ironic glaze and capture the twenty-something demographic, just a willingness to let these grainy, glorious, foolish pictures speak for themselves. It’s not on the i-player because of bloody rights issues of course, but there are clips on the website here and you can still catch some episodes on BBC Four. And you should. You really should.