WEEKEND OF A CHAMPION and 1: Formula 1 in the 1970s

Jackie Stewart Weekend of a Champion

Weekend of a Champion (original: 1972; update: 2013) – Directed by Frank Simon – Starring Jackie Stewart, Roman Polanski, and Helen Stewart.

1 (2013) – Directed by Paul Crowder – Narrated by Michael Fassbender.

I spent some time this week watching two recently released documentaries on Formula 1. Both WEEKEND OF A CHAMPION and 1 focus, in large part, on the early 1970s; the difference is that where WEEKEND focuses on just that, the weekend of the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix, and one driver, Jackie Stewart, attempting to win one race, 1 focuses primarily on the safety movement led by Jackie Stewart in the 1970s.

Formula 1 is a violent sport. The entire idea to push a car to the cutting edge of technology in an attempt to be the fastest person to go around a track is inherently dangerous. The last 10-15 years have seen an amazing leap forward in car safety and, thankfully, no F1 driver has died at an F1 weekend since Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger perished at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. 1 shows Martin Brundle’s horrific 1996 crash at the Australian Grand Prix, and then shows him walking out of the car and running to find the head doctor so he could be cleared to return to the race in a back-up car (which was allowed, at that time). It’s a testimony to the improved safety of the cars, which is 1’s way to make it okay to spend much of the documentary showing and talking about people dying.

From 1952 – 1967, 20 drivers perished at sanctioned Formula 1 tests or events. With open seats and narrow cars, it’s not hard to see the danger. Starting in 1968, the governing body of Formula 1 ushered in the era of unrestricted sponsorship; prior to this, teams were supported by the manufacturer, but this new era of treating cars like advertisements for tobacco and liquor ushered in new waves of cash. Just as importantly, 1968 saw the introduction of the wings on the race cars. This combination of new money and technological advancement pushed the cars to new heights of speed and ridiculousness. Whole lots of ridiculousness.

The wings race came at the expense of driver lives. Eleven drivers perished in the next eleven years. This actually represented a small decrease in the rate of death from the previous fifteen years, but drivers were seeing speed increased at a rate far exceeding safety. In WEEKEND, Stewart talks about how he’d lost five friends in the previous few years and even though he’s now in the prime of his career (in 1971, he would win the second of his three F1 Championships), you can see that he’s growing tired of it. He’d last only two more years, winning the championship in his final F1 season but refusing to take the grid for his final race, the 1973 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen after his teammate, François Cevert, died after a crash in practice.

Death weaves its way through both documentaries, though in WEEKEND it appears like wafting tendrils of smoke, snaking in and leaving. Much of the focus of 1 is on safety, so death is a much more present companion.

To play the artificial comparison game, WEEKEND is a much more interesting documentary, but 1 does a better job at serving as an introduction/brief history of the sport.

1 Documentary

1 has lots of great racing footage and interviews with numerous drivers, but it lacks focus. It’s starts as a history of the sport then moves into an elongated examination of safety, yet it clearly wants these men to come off as heroes or gladiators, risking their lives for a sport that doesn’t do what it could to protect them. It comes off as a watered-down version of HBO’s excellent When It Was a Game baseball documentary series.

Narrated by Michael Fassbender as if he were at a wake, it makes for a sometimes-disjointed presentation, as it tries to be both celebratory and informative. Wright Thompson, ESPN’s excellent writer of mostly long-form pieces (and just flat-out one of the very best writers of any kind in the world right now), tweeted a couple weeks back that documentarians work for the audience, not the subject they’re interviewing. Thompson was prompted by a documentary he had enjoyed until the end, but the critique works when leveled at 1, as well. It is an enjoyable documentary, but it fails to either tap into the glamour enough to qualify as car-porn, and to sustain it’s critical approach to safety.

It’s good. It’s very good, but it’s not great and if you have even a passing familiarity with F1 during this era, you’re not likely to gain a whole lot of new insights, but you will have some of the details painted with greater clarity.

WEEKEND OF A CHAMPION, however, is engaging from start to finish, thanks to the engaging relationship between Jackie Stewart and Roman Polanski. While Frank Simon directed the film, he was hired by Polanski to follow him and Stewart (who were good friends) around the weekend of the Monaco Grand Prix, one of the most important races in the world.

There’s plenty of behind the scenes clips of Stewart in his hotel, in the garage, watching other races, and dining with other drivers and celebrities. The strength of the film is Stewart’s passion, however. There’s a bit of Cosmos-styled Carl Sagan in Stewart. (WEEKEND is almost a decade pre-Cosmos, but given that the film was forgotten about for 40 years, Cosmos has a much greater cultural impact.) I don’t care what your profession is, if you talk about it with passion, I’ll listen to you. We see Stewart talking to both apprentice (Cevert) and fan (Polanski) with equal amounts of passion.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Stewart and Polanski are having breakfast in Stewart’s hotel room. Polanski draws a corner onto the tablecloth and asks Stewart about the proper way to take the corner. When he puts a matchstick box at the apex and suggests this is where Stewart wants to start accelerating, the Scotsman can barely contain himself as he explains why that’s wrong. Even if you know nothing about cars, Stewart’s passion in detailing why you want to treat your breaks gently and create the smoothest line is infectious. Later, he stands with Polanski and watches the Formula 3 race, pointing out which drivers know what they’re doing by the line they take and where they break

The documentary made its premiere at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival and then was forgotten about. Forty years later, London’s Technicolor Lab rang up Polanski and told him they were destroying all their old negatives and WEEKEND was on the chopping block. Polanski got the film back and re-cut it, adding a 15-minute postscript in which Stewart and Polanski gather back in the same hotel room four decades later to screen the film and talk about it. Their conversation is fascinating and while it feels out of place with the rest of the film, I would not want to watch the documentary without it.

Their chat is both light-hearted and serious, the topic of conversation ranging from the hairstyles of the early ’70s to the death of Cevert. The impact of Cevert’s death on Stewart is part of the historical record, but Polanski opens up about how Cevert’s death affected him. He talks about going on secret ski vacations with the young Frenchman (which would not have been approved of by the team, hence the secrecy) and washed away his interest in the sport.

For his part, Stewart opens up about his dyslexia, admitting to Polanski that at the time of the filming of WEEKEND, he couldn’t read and no one knew it because of the shame he felt. He admits that not even his wife knew about his inability to read.

It’s a fascinating conversation, but the true joy of WEEKEND is watching a man at the height of his powers talking passionately about his profession.