• Review

Conceiving 1: Life on the Limit

Kate Walker
January 10, 2014
1: Life on the Limit closely documents a very dangerous period in Formula One between 1968 and 1978 © Sutton Images

In a sport based on the concept of technological revolution, it took a long time for the powers that be to acknowledge the need to apply the same scientific principles of development used on racecars to track and driver safety.

These days, safety elements are an integral part of car design, with components such as the survival cell and HANS devices made law by the FIA rulebook. There are restrictions on the materials used, and safety concerns now govern the aesthetic appeal of the cars - just look at 2012's platypus noses.

But back in the 1960s and '70s, driver safety was a distant second to raw pace. In a twenty-year period, the speed of the cars nearly doubled, but races took place on tracks which had barely changed since the Formula One World Championship was born in 1950. Safety lessons went unlearned, with Piers Courage and Roger Williamson both burning to death - in nearly the same spot - thanks to the magnesium used to save weight on chassis and suspension. Courage was killed in 1970, and Williamson suffered an identical fate three years later.

Fast-forward to the modern era, and F1 fatalities are a thankfully distant memory. In 1: Life on the Limit, a documentary released today in the UK, the film-makers go back to 1968 for a ten-year examination of safety in the sport, and a look at just how far we've come. Prior to the film's release, ESPN spoke to director Paul Crowder about the inspiration behind 1, and his own relationship with Formula One.

"We wanted to start with Jim Clark's passing, his tragedy, because it was such a wake-up call to everybody," explains director Paul Crowder. "Being the best, considered the world's best driver at the time - he was the Ayrton Senna of his era - he really was on a pedestal beyond other drivers. The realisation was 'if Jimmy can die, what chance have we got?'.

"That's why it was such a resonant tragedy. We felt like it was a good starting point to the safety movement. Plus, the Grand Prix Drivers' Association had only started a couple of years before; Jackie Stewart was very much a part of starting that. That's why we felt like that was the era to start."

While the tragedy of Clark's death may have been the catalyst for the film, the footage chosen to open and close the documentary speaks of survival and progress made.

"We start with Brundle's crash because it's just after Senna - eighteen months or less since Senna's crash, and it was on TV, first race of the season," Crowder remembers. "Everyone was watching, and everyone gasped, but he was okay - he was getting in the spare car and starting the race again!

"Brundle was not only alive, but he was starting the race again. It was the beginning of a new era, and that's why it bookends the film in such a way. Having seen his accident at first, now you've watched this progression, and then you see it again, knowing he's going to walk out, and hearing him tell you about it - it really made the film."

While the focus on the '60s and '70s meant that Crowder and team were not restricted to working with footage owned by Bernie Ecclestone, getting the F1 supremo's blessing to do the film was a vital step.

Jim Clark's fatal accident in an F2 race at Hockenheim shocked the motorsport world © Getty Images

"The most important thing about making this film was having the backing and blessing of Formula One Management," says Crowder. "We had to get Bernie's permission. We pitched Bernie, and he allowed us to use the footage. Once we'd pitched him and he agreed, we knew that side of it was okay.

"We did five days in Biggin Hill [home to the FOM archives], going through all of their stuff, and that was incredibly overwhelming. The first day we went in and saw how they had it stacked. We had to be very diligent in knowing what we were looking for - there was just no way to go through it all. You had to know the footage that you were seeking out; have a look around that era and see what was there. That was incredible - going through the stuff and finding footage, digging stuff out. With the opening scene, of Martin Brundle, when he has his accident, people who work for Formula One Management were saying 'oh, I've never seen that before'."

Criticism of 1 has largely centred on the way in which the film speeds through the last thirty years of motor-racing, but according to Crowder - who says he has enough footage and interviews to make two more movies on the subject of F1 safety through the ages - the decision to zoom in on '68-'78 was a deliberate one.

"'78 really felt like the time to end," he says. "Where it really started to change was after '78, with the bringing in of Sid Watkins, and Bernie and Max Mosely eventually getting more control of the safety side of it - 'we're not going to race unless this happens', making the TV deals, getting the things in place where you have more control. It forced the sport itself to take a look at itself."

While the arrival of Sid Watkins led to an immediate improvement in the standards of trackside medical care, there was still a lot to be desired in terms of track safety, from barriers and run-offs to safer circuit design. Despite ongoing minor improvements throughout the 1980s, it was the tragic events of Imola 1994 that gave the sport the impetus to change the way it looked at safety.

After Senna, "the sport had to do something, and they took it to the scientific level, and that's when it really changed. They'd been very lucky between '86 and '94 - and really on track since '82 - that there hadn't been any fatalities, but it was because they'd been lucky. I think that the reason there hasn't been a fatality to date since 1994 is because of the changes that were made."

The triumvirate behind the film - Crowder, producer Michael Shevloff, and assistant producer Jonathan Bracey-Gibbon - shared a flat together in the 1980s, when the idea for 1 was first conceived.

"I wouldn't say I was a big fan until the '80s, when I had a flat with Jonathan and Michael," Crowder remembers. "We watched a lot of Formula One back then. We were young, we liked to stay up late watching the races live in the middle of the night, and then watch the repeats, giggle at all the bad editing. The idea for 1 was actually Jonathan's idea - he came up with the pitch having seen a film I'd made called Once in a Lifetime, about the New York Cosmos. He said we should do a Formula One film with that energy, that excitement.

"In the '80s we'd watch. Williams were big, and it was Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. They had the best car, and it was all about who was going to be the best driver. I was a big Mansell fan, and they were all Piquet. Their argument was that it was about winning at the slowest speed, and I said 'nonsense, it's about being fastest!'.

"It was always a great battle - I remember when we were painting our apartment, they finished their room first. I was procrastinating and hadn't done mine, so when I was in the middle of doing my room I went into their room and painted 'Mansell' on their wall. When I was done, of course, I came home one day and there was 'Piquet' painted on my wall."