Top 10 Motorsport Films
2017 was a stellar year for motorsport film releases. Flicks on Ferrari, Williams, McLaren and the Nürburgring all hit the big screen. Matt Kew sees if they are among the best
Retelling the story of the inimitable 1976 Formula 1 season, Rush follows the championship rivalry between McLaren’s James Hunt and Ferrari driver Niki Lauda. The story of a flawed playboy versus Lauda’s recovery from a near-fatal crash at the Nürburgring and of taking title glory down to the wire was always going to make for a great script. Directed by Ron Howard, of Happy Days and Apollo 13 fame, it’s aimed squarely at the motorsport apathetic. It’s exciting and visually stimulating but takes Hollywood-style liberties in recounting the past. Perhaps it’s not a purist's favourite, but Rush is undeniably entertaining.
AutoFact: Many of the cars featured were prepared and driven by historic racing specialist Hall and Hall. It’s based in the small town of Bourne, home to 1962 F1 constructors champions BRM.
It’s far too long and is interspersed with a contrived love story, but nevertheless, Grand Prix is a class act. Its main asset is that it’s the cars and circuits that star, not the actors. Although it was released in 1966, the film still feels remarkably fresh and that’s mostly down to the stunning picture quality and visceral engine notes. There’s fun to be had spotting the cameo appearances from various 1960s grand prix drivers, and there’s plenty of time to get it right with a near three-hour running time.
AutoFact: Steve McQueen withdrew his interest from the lead role, which ended up going to James Garner, his next door neighbour.
Spearheading its celebration of 40-years in F1 comes an adaption of Ginny Williams’s 1991 book A Different Kind of Life. Williams is an honest portrayal of the difficulties faced by Ginny, wife of eponymous team founder Frank, as she recounts the challenges of supporting her husband and having to come to terms with the car accident that left him wheelchair-bound. Although F1 is at the core of the film, make no mistake this is about the family first and foremost. Don’t expect reels of archive footage from past races, but do expect an emotional, honest and altogether compelling insight.
AutoFact:: As featured in the film, Frank Williams has never read his wife’s book.
1: Life on the Limit
1 celebrates F1’s safety crusade. You watch the opening laps of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix as Martin Brundle’s Jordan is launched into the air before coming to a rest upside down. Able to clamber out of the wreckage and run back to the pit-lane, he hops in the spare car to take the race restart. From there, audiences are taken back in time and guided through the landmark fatalities and safety step changes that helped make 200mph crashes survivable. It’s a perfectly judged tone but what makes the film stand out are the interviews. Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley and Sid Watkins all star.
AutoFact: 1 is narrated by Oscar-nominated actor Michael Fassbender.
Opening onto the McLaren M8D Can-Am racer and listening to its rumbling Chevrolet V8 is a lesson in how to engage an audience. With plenty of footage and audio to celebrate the life and legacy of company founder Bruce McLaren, the film tracks humble origins through to F1 and Can-Am success. Former mechanics of the company are drafted in to explain what made the man so great and why they had such undivided loyalty to him. The recreation of some scenes is jarring at times but to say this is nitpicking is testament to how good the film is.
AutoFact: Footage is used from the classic American Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
It’s thanks to Senna that many motorsport documentaries have followed in its wake in recent times. Capturing the ill-fated career of one of motorsport’s greatest icons reignited the hunger for delving into racing’s past. It’s not perfect, however. The need to cast a villain in every film results in a scathing and misleading portrayal of Senna’s closest rival Alain Prost. And to those not well-versed in Senna’s driving talents, perhaps the politics he faced outweighs the screen time given to him driving on the limit. Nevertheless, it’s worthy of its place on this list and was received with huge critical and commercial success.
AutoFact: The film raked in £375,000 on its opening weekend, a UK box office record for a documentary.
TT: Closer to the Edge
Only a certain type of person dares to take on the fearsome Isle of Man TT. Fortunately, personalities of that ilk make for a hilarious and engaging crop of interviewees. Closer to the Edge follows the build-up to and events of the 2010 race by focusing on four of the front-runners. As is so often the case with the 37-mile road course, coming to terms with death permeates in also. This is another on the list to be fantastically well received by critics and has all the components to keep a general audience intoxicated.
AutoFact: Closer to the Edge holds a perfect 100 per cent score on film review website Rotten Tomatoes.
He may have relinquished a starring role in Grand Prix due to conflicts with the crew, but five years later Steve McQueen starred in the motorsport film he had always wanted to make. There’s a certain pleasure to be derived in knowing that the main star was a true motoring enthusiast and that shows throughout the movie as Le Mans captures the scale, emotions and danger of the world’s greatest race. McQueen is as close to perfect in the role as is his co-starring Porsche 917. But like many on this list, it’s definitely a harder sell to mainstream cinema-goers.
AutoFact: All the Ferraris featured had to be privately sourced as the marque wouldn’t lend its cars to the film depicting a Porsche victory.
Days of Thunder
Days of Thunder may have assembled the old band back together, but even with the director, producers and leading man Tom Cruise carrying over, Top Gun did not seamlessly transfer to terre ferme. But in its favour, the NASCAR adrenaline hit is an easy-to-watch Hollywood thriller. It’s by no measure a masterclass in subtlety as young and raw talent Cole Trickle tries to make it on America’s ovals. But with that said, the cast ensemble is impressive and the movie’s pacing spot on. As an appreciation of the USA’s biggest motorsport, it’s a far better production that Talladega Nights.
AutoFact: The film lent its name to the short-lived Days of Thunder ASCAR series that raced around Rockingham Motor Speedway in the mid-2000s.
Truth in 24
In the same year Death Race was released, Jason Statham was back to narrate 2008’s Truth in 24. Another attempt as honing in on what makes the 24 Hours of Le Mans so special, the movie follows Audi Sport in its attempt to take the spoils of glory for a fifth consecutive year despite the threat of newly established rival Team Peugeot. Director Keith Crossrow is open that he was not a racing fan when he took on the role and it shows, but all for the better as it appeases audiences regardless of their interests.
AutoFact: Statham was an Audi brand ambassador following the release of Transporter 3 in which he pilots an A8.