The Killer Years: When F1 Was Sexy and Dangerous

Formula 1 these days is nothing more than a sponsored procession. Back in the sixties however every corner was a thrilling, terrifying dice with death as cars were made 'lighter, then lighter still'.
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Am I the only one? I do try and try to watch a Grand Prix every now and then but soon after switching on, I switch off. Was it always so boring? Were the cars always so spread out? Did they always all look the same?

No. Once upon a time it was not boring at all. Once upon a time, it was frightening as hell.

Nowadays all the Grand Prix cars front and back wings look like they were bought from ‘Grand Prix wings dot com’. It’s because they are designed by computers and the same designers keep switching from team to team, lured by more money. But rewind to the 60’s and a car could look like a fine cigar. When interviewing John Surtees OBE for my film ‘The Killer Years’ I was lucky enough to see his red Ferrari 158, in which he won the 1964 World Championship, being delivered for his annual spin around Goodwood.

This car is beautiful to look at. John struggled to get into it – not because of his advanced years, but because it was bloody awkward, windscreens being too fragile, the gear stick being in a silly place, steering wheel fixed firm. Getting in and out was not a priority. Looking fantastic was.

Two large chromed exhaust pipes strut out from the back of chromed suspension parts and a hand crafted curvaceous blood red body. ‘Why does this car look so good John?’ I asked. ‘it is beautiful because it was designed by an artist - Mauro Forghieri’. Mauro did not get his inspiration from fine Italian leather shoes however. He had studied the work of maverick designer Colin Chapman’s racing cars. Chapman, the dynamic son of a publican, went on to design what must be the most beautiful car ever made – the Lotus 49. With its fat tyres on massive alloy wheels, the low profile shark like nose and chromed engine parts, this car oozed sex. It had all the machismo of a hot rod, only it was the fastest racing car of its day, leaving everything in its dust.

On a long straight in the woods, Jim lost control of his Lotus, hit the trees, and was killed on impact.

Sadly, what made it look so sexy also made it totally lethal. ‘Make it lighter and make it lighter still’ was Chapman’s philosophy according to officionado David Tremayne, ‘And when it breaks, make it even lighter’. According to Chapman, the perfect racing car would win a race and then fall apart on the finishing line. Sometimes they fell apart a bit too early. Sadly, the last thing on Chapman and any other race car designers mind at the time was the safety of the driver. The idea of a tub that can look after a driver in a 200 mile per hour smash would take decades of fear to evolve.

So one misty April morning in 1968 at Hockenheim, Germany, the mechanic of the most famous racing driver of all time, sheep farmer Jim Clark, checked the wheels and gave the worlds most beautiful car a last quick polish with an oily rag. ‘It will stay with me forever... to me he is immortal’. Mechanic Beaky Sims would be the last person to speak to Jim Clark. On a long straight in the woods, Jim lost control of his Lotus, hit the trees, and was killed on impact. David Sims [inconceivably today he was the only man to work on Jim’s Grand Prix car] has spent the rest of his life wondering if it was something that he did or did not do that was the cause of the death of the best and most humble racing driver that ever lived. ‘I was only a kid, I was only in my twenties’ says Beaky. He has been scarred by this tragedy as it was all too obvious his death was not necessary. Sir Jackie Stewart is still livid to this day. ‘Jim Clark died in a forest, hitting young and old trees alike. He did not have a chance’.

Here was the problem. These gorgeous cars were attracting young people to the sport, to watch and to take part, only for some of them to be smashed to pieces in them or even worse, burnt alive. The wreck of Jim Clark’s Lotus 49, bent amongst the branches, was adorned with the ‘Gold Leaf’ tobacco logo. When I see this image today it looks so weird, someone’s death endorsed.

‘When I was driving there was a two out of three chance I would die racing'

‘When I was driving there was a two out of three chance I would die racing ... I and my wife Helen counted one night over fifty drivers that had been killed racing. Fifty! We were not at war, we were taking part in a sport, a pastime for public enjoyment!’

Sir Jackie would go on to be one of the key players in the quest for Grand Prix to be safe. In the process he would become one of racing’s most unpopular figures. ‘I did not care what the critics had to say’ he says. ‘When I was campaigning for safety measures, I was still winning races, I was the World Champion. I felt sorry for those guys who wanted to leave it as it was. I really did not have a lot of time for them’. One of the guys Sir Jackie did not have a lot of time for was the boss of the Belgian track at Spa Francorchamp. It was here that Sir Jackie would have most probably died if it was not for rival racer Jack Brabham pulling over and dragging Jackie from a hot car soaked in fuel. Forever more the memory of this frightening moment seared Jackie Stewart into a determined fight that would have the most famous tracks in the world scrapped from Grand Prix.

The Killer  Years is about a time when racing was exciting but when racing could also be pure hell. As writer Vicky Parrot put it when I showed her the film ‘When you see Bandini on fire in his Ferrari, it really is sickening. I used to think the good old days were the best but having seen your film John, I will never ever say that again. I cried out loud’.

Grand Prix the Killer Years DVD includes some bonus extras and exclusive interviews with Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Ickx and Jacqui Hamilton, girlfriend of the talented and sadly fated Roger Williamson who was killed unnecessarily at Zandvoort in 1973. It is available from and all good motoring booksellers.

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