As we watch Formula 1 continue its fast-tracked ascent into the heart of pop culture, largely through its explosive arrival into the world of Hollywood, the crown jewel of motorsport is going from strength to strength with its high-flying ambitions to conquer the US. With the upcoming launch of Brawn: The Impossible Formula 1 Story, this docu-series has become the latest in a long line of F1’s classic stories to be documented on the silver screen.
Although much has been made about the Americanisation of the sport, as it looks to cover new ground across the States, if we take a trip back through the F1 archives it doesn’t take too long to find the historic moments that helped to define the sport and turn it into what we see in this modern era.
Across its 73-year history, Formula 1 has created Oscar-worthy moments on track and produced legendary drivers that have been immortalised in the world of cinema starting from the 50s.
Kicking it all off in the 1950s, Formula 1 officially introduced itself to the world and quickly built up a raging reputation of wild danger fraught with the electrifying thrill of watching the fastest cars in the world break new ground in spite of the potentially fatal consequences.
Whilst no Hollywood blockbusters took over the sport in the 1950s, before the decade ended we would see a dramatic tale of deception run rampant due to the actions of F1’s first US driver, Harry Schell. With the sport heading into it’s final race of the year at Sebring, which was coincidentally Schell’s home race, the American driver managed to secure 3rd place on the grid at the expense of Ferrari’s Tony Brooks. Incensed by being pushed out of the top 3, Ferrari’s day for retribution would soon arrive as it later became clear that Schell had cut the entire back straight in order to secure his impressive qualifying time. However, as the race unfolded his plan would fall into pieces as his clutch gave up on lap 6 taking him out of the race.
Rolling into the swinging sixties, F1 would get its first feel of taking centre stage on the big screen with John Frankenheimer’s Oscar-winning film, Grand Prix. Telling the fictitious Formula 1 tale of Grand Prix driver, Pete Aron, as he goes through the trials and tribulations of a turbulent F1 career. This movie set the standard for the future of Formula 1 films that would follow. It made an effort to encompass the true feel of the F1 world by featuring drivers who had lived the life of becoming a World Champion as well as shooting during Grand Prix weekends to provide build an authentic world for the film to take place in. Despite its award show success, this film would not catapult the sport into the Hollywood zeitgeist, as that would take several more decades, but it did lay the foundation to build upon.
Often referred to as the Golden Age of Formula 1 and for good reason, the 70s was riveted with stories of exhilaration and despair, intoxicating an ever-growing audience, and allowing them to become spectators to the unimaginable highs and tragic lows that rocked this era of motor racing.
Starting with the 1970 season, the seventies quickly reaffirmed F1’s status as one of the deadliest sports in the world with the devastating death of Jochen Rindt in Monza making him the first and only driver to be awarded the championship posthumously. However, Formula 1’s lethal death toll would not stop there. In 1973 François Cervert would also fall victim to the sport that he put his life on the line for, sparking the unexpected retirement of legendary 3x World Champion, Jackie Stewart, the very next day.
The spotlight would soon be shone on the the perilous risks of the sport with the documentary One by One which highlighted just how many lives F1 had claimed. The decade of destruction would continue on, as in 1976 Niki Lauda would suffer a horrifying crash at the Nurburgring. Whilst it initially looked as though it would be a career-ending incident, this wouldn’t be the end of the road for the 3x World Champion.
In 1977 Lauda returned and provided us with one of the most intense championship battles against James Hunt. This unparalleled rivalry has gone on to become synonymous with this era of Formula 1 solidifying itself as one of the legendary battles of the sport, riveting and ruthless throughout, these two drivers displayed what it means to reach the peak of Formula 1. The show business of the seventies wouldn’t offer much for F1, despite movies such as Bobby Deerfield staring A-listers like Al Pacino, a majority of the award-worthy entertainment during these 10 years would take place on track.
The decade of the turbo engines could largely be summed up by the infamous rivalries that took place on and off the track. From Senna v Prost to Williams v McLaren or FISA v FOCA, there was no shortage of entertainment. We witnessed some of the most closely called battles within the sport’s history as the power struggle during the 80’s signified a turning point for the sport. Drivers and teams began to fight back against the governing body in a much more ferocious way than we had previously seen. In today’s modern era, we’ve become accustomed to teams voicing their discontent with the FIA, sometimes on a very public scale, but the pushback that was experienced in the 80s’ , such as the 1982 South African Grand Prix, threatened the very foundations that the sport stood on.
Whilst the decade continued to solidify legends such as Senna and Prost in the history books, the F1 pioneers of the past were cementing their legacy on screen. The 1981 documentary Fangio: Una vita a 300 all’ora detailed the life and career of Juan Manuel Fangio throughout his dominant decade of Formula 1 during 50s, chronicling the immense journey that the sport had been on in its few decades of existence.
With the Las Vegas Grand Prix currently underway, we can see in real-time how Formula 1’s journey through Hollywood has built it up to now take the centre stage.