The history of motorsport is littered with tragedy. So it is hardly surprising that the recent spate of movies about it are filled with tragedies too.
Asif Kapadia’s BAFTA-winning documentary Senna (2010) climaxed with the Brazilian’s fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The focal point of Ron Howard’s 2013 drama Rush was Niki Lauda’s awful accident at the Nürburgring in 1976. 1: Life on the Limit (2013) chronicled Formula 1’s quest to balance speed and safety, from the frequent fatalities of the ’60s and ’70s to the much rarer casualties of the modern age.
And this year’s newest additions to the genre are no exception. In McLaren, director Roger Donaldson (Dante’s Peak, Thirteen Days) tells the story of a fellow New Zealander, Bruce McLaren. It begins with the two years McLaren spent strapped to a stretcher as a child to treat Perthes Disease, and traces his life through to its end at the wheel of one of his own orange cars in 1970.
Despite its tragic ending, McLaren is really the story of how a young man’s love of cars took him from his father’s service station in Auckland to victory in F1 and at Le Mans, and gave birth to the McLaren F1 team that has gone on to win 12 drivers’ and eight constructors’ world championships.
It’s also a lovely story of teamwork and devotion. As well as F1 icons such as Emerson Fittipaldi and Jackie Stewart, the film features interviews with many of the mechanics who worked with McLaren to build his racing cars. ‘If Bruce had come into the factory one morning and said, “OK men, we’re not going to work on racing cars today, we’re going to march across the Sahara Desert,” we’d have all said, “OK Bruce, no problem”’, says Howden Ganley, one of McLaren’s first employees.
Williams centres around two terrible crashes that profoundly affected the life of its subject, F1 team owner Frank Williams. The first is the death of Piers Courage, Williams’ first F1 driver, during the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix. The second is Frank Williams’ own crash, in a road car on the way to Nice Airport in 1986. That left him with a spinal cord injury and confined him to a wheelchair, but – as the interviews with him make clear – did nothing to dull his love of speed or his enthusiasm for motor racing.
The documentary is a lot more intimate than many biographies, largely due to interviews with Frank’s daughter Claire and recordings made by his late wife Virginia in 1991. We learn about the emotional impact that Williams’ tetraplegia had on him and his family, and the damage done to Claire’s relationship with her brother Jonathan when she ascended to the role of deputy team principal. We also see clearly the immense love and respect that so many of the contributors have for Frank and all that he’s achieved in F1.
What McLaren and Williams do very well is to depict the single-minded determination that it took to create two of the most famous teams in F1 today. They both show tenacious and creative young men scrapping together enough money to build and race cars at the pinnacle of motorsport.
The very personal portraits they paint of their subjects are what make the films compelling, far more so than the footage of wheel-to-wheel racing. They remind us that what happens off the track can often be just as fascinating as what happens on it.