New movie ‘1: Life on the Limit’ explores danger and death in Formula 1

Francois Cevert had the most piercing blue eyes, the presence of a movie star and a Gallic charm that melted hearts wherever he went.

Those eyes, that gaze glimpsed through the visor slit of a 1970s helmet, are still haunting in the Formula 1 documentary ‘1; Life on the Limit’ due to be released in selected British cinemas in January and then further afield.

A pitlane heart-throb, the Parisian was a hero of more carefree times – one moment escorting Brigitte Bardot or playing the concert piano and the next risking his life in the most dangerous and glamorous of arenas.

More than a decade before Alain Prost captured his first title in 1985, it was Cevert – Jackie Stewart’s friend and team mate at Tyrrell – who had seemed destined to become France’s first World Champion.

Francois Cevert's accident at Watkins Glen was horrific

Francois Cevert’s accident at Watkins Glen was horrific

Instead, at the age of just 29, he died during qualifying for the 1973 U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

The sense of what might have been, the waste of so much young talent in those ‘golden’ years when sex was safe and motor racing frequently fatal, hangs over the film without sensationalism, recrimination or gratuitous gore.

“We all know, every one of us, that death is in our contract,” Cevert had declared earlier in his career. He knew the risks, loved the sport, lived – and died – for racing.

The story of Formula 1 combines both horror and heroism, evident in the archive footage, and in later years has focused on the fight to reduce the carnage and improve safety as attitudes common enough in the immediate decades after World War Two began to change.

Francois Cevert in the Tyrrell 006 at the 1973 British Grand Prix

Francois Cevert in the Tyrrell 006 at the 1973
British Grand Prix

‘1’ has been long in the making, with a preview shown in Austin last year during the first grand prix weekend at the Texas track and then at this year’s London Film Festival, but the timing looks right.

Anyone who has seen ‘Rush’, the Ron Howard movie with Daniel Bruhl playing Niki Lauda to Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt, will be familiar with the dramatic 1976 season and the Austrian’s comeback from a near-fatal crash at the Nuerburgring.

The same applies to fans of ‘Senna’, the multiple award-winning film about the life and death of Brazilian triple Champion Ayrton Senna.

The latest documentary complements the previous two films, connecting storylines and filling in the background with the drama provided by original footage.

Michael Fassbender with Sebastian Vettel

Michael Fassbender with Sebastian Vettel

Narrated by German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender, star of ‘X-Men’ and ‘Inglourious Basterds’, and directed by Paul Crowder, ‘1’ charts Formula One’s progress from 1950s insouciance to the modern era where drivers expect to walk away from big crashes.

It includes interviews with Stewart, Stirling Moss, Mario Andretti, Jacky Ickx, Lauda and Nigel Mansell as well as more recent racers Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher.

Formula 1’s 83-year-old commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, former president of the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA), also have their say as key players in the battle to improve safety and men who lost friends along the way.

While younger audiences may not be familiar with the history, the fascination for the committed F1 fan lies in the archive material.

Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart pictured in 1967

Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart pictured in 1967

We see Jim Clark at home in rural Scotland and witness the shock and confusion on the faces of spectators in the Hockenheim grandstand in 1968 when his death was announced over tinny loudspeakers before flags were lowered.

There is the tear gently rolling down the cheek of Professor Sid Watkins, who died in 2012, as the eminent neurosurgeon and F1 doctor recalls his last conversation with Senna.

There is the poignancy of Austrian Jochen Rindt, the only posthumous World Champion, asking his wife shortly before his death at Monza in 1970 what one thing she would wish for.

“For you to stop racing,” she replies.

Then there is Cevert. The camera follows Colin Chapman, the Lotus team boss who was already no stranger to fatalities in his own cars, pacing anxiously in the pitlane as he sought information from others about the 6 October 1973 accident.

Francois Cevert won his first grand prix at Watkins Glen in 1971, two years later he was killed at the same venue

Francois Cevert won his first grand prix at Watkins Glen in 1971, two years later he was killed at the same venue

“Cevert? Bloody Hell,” he sighs.

Stewart did not compete the next day, or ever again in F1. He had already decided to quit as Champion, with Cevert – who had not been told of the plans – set to take over as Tyrrell number one.

“We arranged to send flowers to his mother and to his grave on that date of every year that followed, until she passed away,” the Scot, who likened the Frenchman to a younger brother, wrote in his autobiography ‘Winning is not enough’.

The triple Champion has continued to do so ever since.

Many others had been mourned already, including promising young Briton Roger Williamson who died earlier in 1973 after a fiery crash at Zandvoort in the Netherlands.

Denny Hulme passes the scene of Roger Williamson's fatal accident during the 1973 Dutch GP as David Purley walks away after trying to save the driver

Denny Hulme passes the scene of Roger Williamson’s fatal accident during the 1973 Dutch GP as David Purley walks away after trying valiantly to save the driver

The footage of that accident, with the driver trapped in the flaming upside-down wreck while David Purley struggles in vain to rescue him while the race carried on, remains stomach-churning 40 years on. The viewer is spared nothing.

How much has changed since Senna’s death in 1994 is emphasised by the opening shots of Martin Brundle running down the pitlane after a terrifying, flying shunt in Melbourne in 1996 that broke his Jordan in two.

He was unscathed, and climbed  into a spare car for the re-start.

A generation of drivers has now grown up that has never suffered the loss of one of their own at a racetrack, nor started a season wondering whose funeral they might be attending before the year was out.

But there can be no complacency even now, with 2014 marking the 20th anniversary of the last driver fatality (Senna). As Mosley, who started the same Formula Two race in which Clark was killed, observes quietly: “One is always haunted by the past.” (Reuters)

Subbed by AJN.

Content on by: staff & contributors, Reuters syndication, GMM service, Getty Images, Formula 1 teams, sponsors & organisations.

  • mik

    Deaths in sport are rare but when we push the limits sometimes they do happen. We remember those we lose and we imagine what might have been had they lived, but they accept the risks
    and the rewards that go with them.

  • Tre

    I remember 94. Everything was different at the start. Less familiar, uglier. Gone were famous liveries, the red white yellow Williams replaced by simple blue white, the canary yellow Benettons replaced by a sickly green and turqouise. It was weird. There were no more bright colors.

    Everyone said the champion Senna should walk away with the title. After 2 DNF’s those rooting for him watched Imola with great expectation. On lap 7 everybody went: not again.. How will he win the title now. But he was dead.
    A parallel universe had set in.

  • haha

    Thank you editor, Cevert is one of my hero’s.

  • Led Foot Lisa

    This is a brilliant film. Saw a screening in LA in the fall. A MUST SEE. I’m a newbie to F1, so this was an education. Paul Crowder & Team did an amazing job with this film.

  • aldo

    I was watching the race live and could not believe that until Purley stopped to try to extinguish the flames, too late, none of the marshals standing by made a real effort to kill the flames. Also many drivers went by without stopping. Horrible.

  • David

    Nostalgia is a strange thing. In my mind those days (1970s) were far more exciting and entertaining than todays F1, but the reality was senseless tragedy upon tragedy. Motor sport wasn’t even new then so there had been time to make it safer. Since early last century many lives had been lost. I often wonder why so many wealthy young men risked all (e.g. Bentley Boys) when after the carnage of WW1 life must have seemed so precious. The failure of the sport to heed the lessons for so many years is shameful.

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  • Brymar

    Danger and death is an occupational hazard for all motor sport competitors but thank god the safety of cars, tracks and support facilities have improved to minimise the risks. I have followed F1 since the early sixties and there just seemed to be one fatality after another during the sixties and seventies (Gary Hocking was my first experience of a racing fatality in 1962). I look forward to seeing this movie.
    An Aside – the final photo in the above article refers to Denny Hulme passing the scene of Roger Williamson’s horrible accident. I may be wrong but I think it is Carlos Pace in a Surtees.

  • SteveisGreat

    Really looking forward to seeing this next week! I hope it’s as good as everyone says!

    F1 has changed so much it’s forgotten itself, imo… perhaps the last tragedy in 1994 is still fresh in the minds of those that were there then and are still working in f1 now, but to me it’s grown stale and too safe – and I’m not asking for death or injury here – but I’m trying to say that if a driver leaves the circuit he shouldn’t be able to maintain speed or gain an advantage… in the good ol’ days you didn’t put 4 wheels over the line because if you did there was a wall or fence or sand trap. Now it’s just too silly and everone takes advantage of it.

  • John Byrne

    Indeed its F1 laid bare it was not just the drivers who pushed the envelope the machines of that time as any one who has ever attempted to drive fast in any of these machines will testify on very different tracks compared to todays were quite often pushed by their constructors beyond the envelope and it was the fearless/brave few in the equipment of the time that raced them and handled them with proficient driving skill with an adepth understanding and knowledge of the limits of their euipment and charactistics of each track. These few exuded eminence on the track but not without near death-risks at times.

    For me in latter years one such was Aryton Senna whom I personally rate above al the present F1 drivers today.