Thursday, 7 April 2011

Motor racing: crashes, blood and burning cars

Bernie Ecclestone, the hyper-energetic billionaire who runs Formula 1, recently claimed that the sport needs an injection of oomph. It has grown too staid, he reckons. And he suggested a few improvements, like hosing the track to make the cars skid. Make it all a bit less health and safety was his idea. A bit more like the old days.

From many who watch Formula 1 on the television, there was a nod of acknowledgement at Ecclestone’s observation. The sport has indeed become moribund, a procession of lookalike vehicles swooping round sanitised tracks. These days the grandest money-making circuit in sport is not so much a showcase of skill as a shop window for computer design.

But anyone wishing to see a return to the Sixties and Seventies glory days when the drivers were real men and the cars looked like cars, rather than advertising hoardings with wheels, should watch a new documentary, Grand Prix: the Killer Years, on tomorrow night on BBC Four. For those involved, the memories of that time are so far from happy, any attempt to return the sport to its past ways would be dismissed as madness.

“One night my wife and I totted up how many people we had lost,” the former world champion Sir Jackie Stewart tells the programme. “It was 57.”

The documentary is a chronicle of the decade and a half between 1960 and 1975, when, as technology sped up the cars and safety was left behind, grand prix drivers were dying at an average of four a season. Usually they went in the most brutal of circumstances: wrapped around trees, splattered against walls, trapped in flaming cars, the smell of burning flesh a familiar feature of the times.

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