Why Grand Prix: The Killer Years is exploitative and distasteful

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Terrible title, terrible documentary.

I have to admit that I was far from impressed when I first watched Grand Prix: The Killer Years when it originally aired on BBC4 earlier this year. I am, however, appalled that what was nothing more than an hour’s worth of sensationalism will shortly be committed to DVD.

Profiting through on-screen misery does not sit well with me.

Killer Years, for those that missed it the first time around, is a made-for-TV documentary that focuses on grand prix racing during the early 1960s and ’70s – a horrific period where death was all too commonplace.

And with that, we are dealt a series of heart wrenching and ghoulish crashes that are interspersed with talking heads such as Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and John Surtees, all of whom played vital roles in pioneering driver safety over the years.

These extraordinarily candid interviews are wholly impressive. Listening to Stewart and other luminaries narrate their long struggle in making racing safer for friend and rival alike is certainly a depressing affair; it never fails to astound how expendable driver’s lives seemed to be just a few decades ago.

Unfortunately, that is about all the positives I can possibly conjure up as far as Killer Years is concerned because, quite frankly, I find it to be nothing more than a load of gratuitous, exploitative, nonsense.

Firstly, it is littered with inaccuracies. It’s not even a minute old before the first howler rears its ugly head: was the 1961 world championship really a fight between Wolfgang von Tripps and Jim Clark as they lined up on the grid at Monza? Really? And, if my eyes don’t deceive me, why is Clark sat in an Formula 2 Lotus?

The gaffs don’t stop there. There’s random Indianapolis footage, mixed with snippets of F2 and Formula 3 races for some bizarre reason.

More inexcusable is the implication that some drivers were killed during a grand prix when they were not.

Jo Bonnier, for instance, died in a behind the wheel of a sportscar, Mike Spence was killed during testing for the Indy 500, and Ludovico Scarfiotti perished during a hillclimbing event.

These errors are unforgivable. If you are going to produce a documentary on such a serious subject matter, at least get your facts right, and don’t just use them as an excuse to serve up grim footage to shock the audience.

And that’s where I take issue with Killer Years. Be honest, do you really want to see someone die in a ball of flames or be cut to pieces?

On-track fatalities of the nature included are nothing short of distasteful and are totally unnecessary to get the point across that grand prix racing was once a highly dangerous pursuit. And ask yourself this: would anyone in their right mind produce a documentary on deaths in other sporting categories?

As a documentary it’s neither innovative nor is it the most informative you’ll ever see. It seems to lack focus and aimlessly plods along – you never really know what its intentions actually are. It’s a wasted opportunity that fails to educate and inform on how safety has evolved in the sport. Instead it seems to revel in how deadly it once was.

The fact Killer Years is soon to be released on DVD truly baffles me. Why would anyone want to fork out the best part of £20 on something that is so abhorrently distasteful?

The honourable thing would be if a charitable donation were made from each sale – to the GP Mechanics Charitable Trust, for example – but I can’t see that being the case, unfortunately.

30 Comments

  1. Hi mate, 

    An interesting read, but I think you’re being a bit too politically correct.

    People are interested in death, especially at a time when the world is so safe.

    Like it or not the deadly decades of Formula One’s existence have ultimately contributed greatly to the mystique and allure of that period in the sport’s history.

    We view guys like Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda being somewhat different to the drivers of today.

    They knew when they looked in the mirror on race morning that there was a a good chance they’d not coming back that evening.

    Equally, I didn’t think the programme was all that sensationalist.

    I mean, pick up one of the Duke Video ‘Crash’ series from the 80s. Now THAT is sensationalist, right down to the creepy mood music whenever a crash involves a fatality.

    Equally, I think your issue is with the format rather than the content.

    Why should The Killer Years programme be treated any different to the dozens of books we’ve seen dealing with death in Formula 1?

    You could argue Richard Williams The Death of Ayrton Senna was a bit distasteful, especially given the speed it was rushed to book shops. 

    Equally The Lost Generation by David Tremayne dealing with the deaths of Tom Pryce, Tony Brise  and Roger Williamson might be seen in the same vein.

    But they’re both classics.

    So I don’t see why The Killer Years should be treated any different just because it’s on TV.

    I thought it stood up on the basis of its strong interview subjects and the tone of their answers.

    Jackie Stewart we can take as a given on this subject.

    But Jacky Ickx, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Jackie Oliver and (especially) Jochen Rindt’s widow added huge weight to the documentary.

    The subject was ghoulish, but hey, death isn’t pretty.

    I’d certainly buy it for my DVD collection.

    Cheers!

    • I think the only thing I can be accused of is being on my high horse, rather than being politically correct!

      I found The Killer Years to be nothing more than an attempt to tap into a morbid fascination of a bygone era when racers stared death in the face. It was poorly executed and the content questionable.

      Documentaries should act as a reminder for those that were present, and educate those who weren’t. But through some astounding gaffs it is a disservice to both parties. But I guess telling the truth isn’t so interesting, and grabbing attention is (hence the terrible title to draw punters in).

      And what can we conclude from watching The Killer Years? That grand prix racing used to be dangerous? Well blow me down with a big fat feather…

      The abrupt finish with the awful sight of Roger Williamson burning to death gives a misleading impression that his tragedy changed things from that point on, when they didn’t for some time. Perhaps if the documentary went on for a bit longer we’d get a truer picture? It just seemed to be a vehicle to show grim images.

      You also make a good point with regards to different mediums covering the same subject. I thought about this when writing the article and I believe that visually seeing something has more impact than actually reading about it.

      Books can of course get you emotionally charged up, but witnessing footage of this nature is, of course, more accurate and definitely harder hitting.

      • I think we need to differentiate between content which targets the hardcore fan and the mass audience.

        The programme was definitely the latter.

        For the BBC to commission a documentary like The Killer Years they’d need to be confident it could be of interest to the mainstream, many of whom would be unfamiliar with the dark back story of modern day F1.

        Another discussion is the shrinking amount of quality media for the hardcore fan…

         

        • True enough. But for a documentary that has existed purely on BBC 4 or late at night on BBC 2, I doubt it would have captured a massive audience anyway. Or certainly not that many who wouldn’t already have a passing interesting in motor racing (and particularly Formula 1) anyway.

  2. I also disagree with the review of this program. Yes the subject is ghoulish, yes it did ramble slightly and yes some of the images were hard hitting. But the entire premise of the program is to show the grim horror of motor racing at that time, plus the difficulties faced by some of F1′s greatest to try and make the sport safer. I thought the part about the GPDA voting to not race at Spa was fascinating, and equally so the reactions quoted from the press at the time.

    I can understand that as a serious fan of F1 you may have been upset by the images of some of the crashes. But can I take it then that you are equally appalled by the Senna documentary which has been widely praised and regarded as one of the finest insights into F1 and one of it’s most legendary drivers?

    F1 drivers, and racing drivers in all formula actually, have benefitted hugely from the advancements in safety related technology and regulations over the past 30-40 years. This has been achieved through the hard work and sacrifice that drivers in the “Killer Years” gave for a sport they love. They should be applauded for this, and the story of their sacrifice and hard work should be told.

    • I can understand that as a serious fan of F1 you may have been upset by the images of some of the crashes. But can I take it then that you are equally appalled by the Senna documentary which has been widely praised and regarded as one of the finest insights into F1 and one of it’s most legendary drivers?

      Yes, I thought the ‘Senna’ movie was a load of poppcock as well (see here).

      F1 drivers, and racing drivers in all formula actually, have benefitted hugely from the advancements in safety related technology and regulations over the past 30-40 years. This has been achieved through the hard work and sacrifice that drivers in the “Killer Years” gave for a sport they love. They should be applauded for this, and the story of their sacrifice and hard work should be told.

      I don’t for one minute disagree with this. The strong contributions to The Killer Years by Stewart and were fascinating to listen to, and yes, the strides they took to improve safety is something that should reach a wider audience – except that message doesn’t really come across in this documentary, does it? Not once does it mention the developments or improvements made in helmet or circuit safety, for example.

      • Actually I think there was one point in particular where the program did mention the advancements that were made during that period to increase safety for the drivers and spectator; armco barriers, full fireproof overalls/underwear, FIA approved helmets (rather than leather) and the 6 point safety harness.

        There was also the information that GPDA purchased there own mobile hospital with transfusion capabilities etc to improve medical care at the circuit.

        I would say that this accounts for quite a hefty improvement in terms of the technology available at the time, and the program referenced it all.  

        I do however totally agree that this program was not aimed at F1 aficionados that would spot the errors you have pointed out, and the title is undoubtedly sensationalist and used to draw people in.

        I also think we agree that the majority of weight and insight in the program was achieved via the contributions by drivers and partners, whose accounts were at times just as harrowing as some of the footage used.

  3. I think your next piece should be on the injustice of Nick Heidfeld (maybe) getting sacked from Renault. 

  4. The era covered by the documentary and the death toll suffered by the drivers is part of the very fabric of the sport. Those drivers did not die in vain as the sport now is the way it is because of the safety evolution that followed.

    I thought a difficult subject was dealt with beautifully and thoughtfully. If you are a genuine aficionado of the sport you cannot gloss over death, to do so is disrespectful. I cannot agree with your comments.

    • Sorry, but I don’t agree with you suggesting someone “cannot gloss over death,” and that by doing so “is disrespectful.”

      So I suppose by that token, showing some poor bugger burning to a cinder isn’t disrespectful? What purpose does it actually serve?

      Viewers would perfectly understand the message about the hazards of grand prix racing without the needing to exploit their emotions through disturbing images.

      And no, I’m not some namby-pamby, Mary Whithouse wannabe. I just think it’s a little off that something of such a sensitive nature has been covered by exaggerated truths and unnecessary footage – now that is disrespectful.

  5. I understand what you’re saying but I think the point the film was making was made more powerfully by using the footage that they did. The incidents they talked about are the history of the sport in the same way that victory is.

    The world was very much a different place then and the film was trying to portray that in a way that made people sit up and think. What I was trying to say is that you can’t just pretend it didn’t happen, we should never forget and the horrific images strengthen that case.

  6. Just one point to make. This film was made by Paul Stewart productions for the BBC.
    I personally think that the people and organisations that come out of this worst are the car designers and manufacturers, track owners, race organisers and the FIA themselves for the appaling lack of safety organisation.
    That is the truly horric part of this film. In fact the most shocking part is the contrast between some of the big crashes in F1 in the last 18 months and their posertive outcomes in terms of driver survival and those in the film with their tragic outcomes.

  7. Interesting discussion.  I too was annoyed again by the Killer years…

    Stewart used to be a hero of mine but never meet your hero’s they say? In fact I have met him, more than once, and I have to say he was a totally charming and thoroughly captivating guy. However over the years I’ll admit my views on motorsport in general and Stewart have changed.

    Stewart epitomises for me the self centred narcissism that is almost a prerequisite for success in many endeavours. I really don’t mind that, it is after all a vital character trait for success in some walks of life, but that doesn’t make it any less disagreeable or dishonest a personality trait.

    Did Jackie and Helen really count the 57 dead people they new in motorsport, a fun night that must’ve been! A quick check tells me 40 dead dead F1 drivers from 1950 to Senna in 94 so roughly one driver killed per year, including the Indy 500, not exactly the 1 in 3 chance of death Stewart bleats on about. For Sir Jackie I have three words, Isle of Man. 100 years on it’s essentially the same potentially deadly venue and riders still turn up voluntarily every year to take on the challenge and good luck to them. They don’t moan and I’d guess they rarely romanticise the risks they choose to take or more importantly blame anyone else, after the fact if tragedy strikes.

    You’re right Sir Jackie driving GP cars is not a war it’s  far less admirable an endeavour and no one was ever forcing you to do it, so your own choice of comparison is shameful. As the ‘Killer years’ showed Stewart and many of the other safety conscious contributors to this program were in the race, where the organisers had finally built a ‘safe’ track, the Dutch GP in 1973. Roger Williamson burned to death before their eyes in that race and those same drivers chose to cruise past his burning wreckage, lap after lap, Williamson crashed on lap 7 so in Sir Jackie’s case he drove past that wreckage 65 times to victory.

    David Purley was the ONLY driver to figure out the enormity of the situation and was the only one who cared enough to stop, undo his six point harness and even try to do anything about it. Killer indeed.   

    • Mate, I’d just like to ask you, personally. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you could/should have assisted in some way to save another life?

      I can tell you it is very harrowing experience. I agree in hind sight you say Stewart won the race and could have stopped. Yeh every driver should have stopped. But think about OHS in general. Things were entirely different 30-40 years ago.

      I’ve also read comments about the lack of assistance from the track side officials who appear in the footage to be standing around and making no contribution to Purleys attempts to save Williamson. According to medical professionals peoples reactions to such situations vary considerably. Some are leaders and some are followers. I’ve administered CPR and I can tell you the whole experience was a massive shock and I was trained prior to the incident. Would those track officials or drivers have been first aid trained back in those days? What was first aid training like in those days? If you consider the fact that the car was on fire and other drivers were still hertling past, I imagine the officals were rather afraid they might be next.

      The other thing is the drivers were accustemed to to seeing crashes like that. Maybe it’s a bit like the ads for road safety and anti smoking campaigns, after a while they just loose significance?

  8. Thank you for your letter.

    I passed it on to the board of directors and they have no comment to make. They appreciate your suggestion of charity donations but already contribute to several charities, in the main cancer related and hospices as our managing director lost two if his family to cancer.

    reference your comments i know for a fact that many people do not agree with you Mr Cross.

    We have had several correspondences from widows of racing drivers who all say that they think the film is excellent, this from those that have lost loved ones.

    David Tremayne thinks the film is fantastic and is ‘very proud to have been involved in the film and with the team’.

    The film passed several stringent BBC editorial checks before, during and after production including a taste and decency board.

    Whilst the name is less then subtle, the film delivers more than the title suggests.

    One of our key advisors has said that ‘it is more a historical document than a documentary’ in the light of the standard of the sensitive interviews.

    We have material that shows without doubt the horrors of this period. They are most certainly not for broadcast and are extremely disturbing. The images we use show the truth of at period without causing distress.

    I have put your suggested charity in the filed for consideration at the year end.

    Again I would like to thank you for taking the time to write to us.. I put this publicly in answer to your public criticism.

    Sincerely,

    GH Wilson
    PA to the Board of Directors
    Bigger Picture

  9. One correction – Grand Prix the Killer Years was produced by Bigger Picture who also made Deadliest Crash, about the worlds biggest motorsport disaster, which was nominated for a Grierson Award last year for Best History Documentary. The Grierson’s are considered the highest accolade in the world for factual film making skill.

    Sincerely,

    GH Wilson
    PA to the Board of Directors
    Bigger Picture

    • Glenda,

      I fail to see the actual point in the self-promotion of Bigger Picture’s previous efforts?

      Also, Braveheart and Titanic were Oscared as “best picture”, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they were any good…

  10. Brilliant response from glenda. Written like a true PA. Sounds like your boss just told you to “tell him to f**k off”. When you make a public programme you understand you’ll get differing reviews and opinions. Getting all shirty does nobody any favours. I love the “filed for consideration” sounds more like “put in the bin” – much like what your film probably deserves. Making a public response to a letter in this way is extremely unprofessional, and as such you’ve just proven your incompetence.

  11. With this kind of subject matter, the response is always going to come down to individual taste. When my editor and I were choosing pictures from the Klemantaski Collection for my book Real Racers (reviewed elsewhere on this site) we saw the whole roll of Robert Daley’s pictures covering Lorenzo Bandini’s accident at Monaco.
     
    Some of the photos had been published elsewhere before, others hadn’t. I could see why. There were several images where the body of the fatally wounded Bandini could clearly be seen in the wreckage. We elected not to use these on the grounds that they were unpleasant, and that even if they didn’t offend some readers they would certainly strike a bum note with many.
     
    Watching The Killer Years, I noticed the film makers used graphic footage of the Bandini accident not once but twice, returning to the scene with almost pornographic relish. What with this, and the snotty (and borderline cretinous) response from the film makers in the comments above – ‘nuff said.

  12. If you are going to nit pick about accuracy you should at least get your facts right. The Indianapolis 500 was counted as a World Championship race between 1950 and 1960 and was considered as dangerous as Spa and Nurburging as a result it is perfectly acceptable that film footage of the Indy 500 is included. There were also a number of F2 and F3 races that were classed as Grands Prix even to modern times. Didn’t Ralf Schumacher cause chaos at the Macau Grand Prix which was an F3 race. The programme whilst having a focus on the Grands Prix (as the most glamorous face of the sport) was also often making the comment that the lack of safety for both drivers and spectators permeated at ALL LEVELS. Sports cars raced at the same circuits as the F1 cars and the problems of inadequate safety affected all equally. Grand Prix was also used as a term for many other sports so do you want to nit pick at the title because it didn’t cover the Motorcycle Grand Prix or the Power Boat Grands Prix.

    Another commented also suggested that Jackie and Helen Stewart could not have counted more that 40. Interesting! In two years of marshaling I counted 15 dead, yet a trawl of the internet does not give these figures. The little known guys who never made a name in the main races get killed in test accidents or non championship races and are seldom recorded in the lists on Wikipedia.

    Yes the programme had a lot of gratuitous coverage but it is also an important point of motor racing history and it’s very easy to forget the up to the late seventies and even into the early eighties the default was that a driver would die at a race meeting or test session and the younger viewers who don’t remember watching their heroes being killed on a weekly basis are watching a sport thinking that massive shunts like Kubica’s in Canada or Massa’s in Hungary have always been the norm so often complain about the safety rules that are in place, saying that they get in the way of the racing. Personally, in my time working trackside, I pulled too many bodies out of racing cars and don’t want the safety to be relaxed. Programmes like this show where we would go back to if the safety rules were relaxed and as such I applaud it.

    • The Indy 500 was part of the FIA World Championship between 1950-1960. Mike Spence was killed in 1968, hence my dissatisfaction with his inclusion in the programme. And the F2 footage that was shown had absolutely nothing to do with the races or the drivers that were featured.

      You may call it “nit picking”, but I call it getting the facts straight. Making a series of false claims on such a serious matter is unforgivable, if you ask me.

      And yes, I do agree there is a case to be made to reflect the terrible era motorsport (not just grand prix racing) once was. But not when it’s done in such a distasteful and titillatingly gory fashion.

  13. Cross by name and cross by nature. I think you are right about making comments on positives of safety improvements, but I disagree with most of the other comments. If you think the film had no direction and was chaotic, that may actually be the point! It highlights the whole drama!

    I think the whole movie gives a complete contrast to the more popular “glamourous” view of 1960′s F1. It follows a time line highlighting the main point! The danger! The total ammateurism of the era! Lack of emergency facilities. Disregard for human life.

    Who cares about logic? In the context of this production I believe logic has no place! It’s meant to be shocking and imotional! That’s the point Bud AND YOU MISSED it!

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  15. What does it matter if the facts aren’t 100% correct. Too many people were dying and Stewart & Co decided to do something about it. Good on them..

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