Pondering the glorification of motor racing in film - Derek Bell Column - May 2012

12th June 2012

The film Senna recently picked up two BAFTA awards, a remarkable achievement for a small British-made documentary, and all the more praiseworthy as viewers who wouldn’t normally be interested in motor racing have raved about it. Much of its success, it seems, has been down to word of mouth.

I must admit that when I saw the film last year, I really didn’t want it to end. It was extraordinary to watch the man himself tell his own story via such fantastic footage. His was such a compelling tale and in many ways it could have come straight out of Hollywood: a kid from South America arrives in Europe as an unknown and then makes it all the way up the ladder to Formula 1. He then has to overcome authority figures and beat the best driver out there to become the world number one.

Of course, in reality Ayrton Senna da Silva wasn’t a poor boy made good and he knew how to work the system. You could also argue that Alain Prost is treated harshly by the film-makers, but Senna had magnetism and charisma and that is why the film got made in the first place.

Problems with racing movies arise when you stray from documentaries into the realm of fantasy. There hasn’t been a realistic one for decades and nobody is going to do what Steve McQueen did all those years ago, as the great circuits aren’t what they used to be and those that are left would cost a fortune to hire. Making Le Mans or Grand Prix with the latest kit would nowadays be practically impossible.

However, the success of Senna appears to have opened the floodgates for historical pieces. The hard-fought battle for the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda is to be the backdrop for Ron Howard’s forthcoming Rush. Having directed films such as Apollo 13, Howard has a great track record when it comes to dealing sensitively with true stories. Nonetheless, I will be interested to see how the relationship between the two main characters is depicted. James’ private life has latterly served to overshadow all else in print, and really the film would have to be properly pornographic to do him justice! But seriously, I hope he doesn’t become a caricature because James did so much for racing, and in so many ways.

It will also be interesting to see how Niki’s dreadful accident at the ’Ring is painted. He was given the last rites, after all, which I imagine will infuse the plot with tension, but I hate seeing crashes shown as entertainment. I suppose it’s all about perspective.Before watching Senna, I was unsure how I’d react to watching his fatal shunt and that of poor Roland Ratzenberger, who also died during that same black weekend at Imola in May ’94.

I vividly recall making my first-ever Formula 1 start at Monza for the 1968 Italian Grand Prix. I was annoyed to have qualified only eighth, which wasn’t that bad an effort, but my Ferrari team-mates Chris Amon and Jackie Ickx were third and fourth respectively. In the race itself I was lying seventh, only to drop out on the fourth lap thanks to a damaged piston, so I decided to watch the action from the side of the track, which wasn’t something I would normally do.

Chris’s car came into view in the midst of a scrap with the Honda of John Surtees, only to go off on oil at one of the fast Lesmo corners. He went flying backwards through a gap in the guardrail opposite where I was standing and disappeared among the trees. It made me feel ill; I was convinced there was no way Chris could have survived, and it was only a few months after we’d lost Jim Clark. 
I decided that I would tell my son years hence about how I had reached Formula 1 only then to retire from racing. Did I really want to be a part of this? And then Chris’s head appeared, followed by the rest of him. He dusted himself down and that was that. And of course, decades later, I still enjoy getting behind the wheel.

If nothing else, the likes of Senna, Rush and the film rumoured to be in the offing about Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins will serve to keep the legends of motor racing out of the history books and in the spotlight. Were you to stop people at random on a British high street and ask them to name the UK’s first F1 World Champion, I doubt many would – or could – identify Hawthorn. As for them knowing who Collins was… The heroes of our sport deserve wider recognition, and there are many great stories to tell. Films such as Sennamatter because they illuminate the humanity behind the lap times.


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