Following the roaring success of Senna (2010) and Ron Howard’s asphalt drama Rush (2013), Paul Crowder’s Formula One doc 1: Life on the Limit (2013) provides a more comprehensive history of the sport and examines in particular the tension between the glamour of danger and the human cost. The cards are slapped on the table from the opening scene which with a frenetic panic inducing energy recounts a terrifying crash at the opening of the Australian Grand Prix back in 1996. With a car cart-wheeling end to end off the track at high speed, it seems for a moment like history has repeated itself and the crazy sport of motor racing has gained another victim.
However, moments later Martin Brundle clambers out of the wreckage and has not only escaped serious injury, but is fit enough to run back to the pits and rejoin the race. The rest of the film will recount how such a standard of car safety was made possible and the lives that were lost on the way. Going back to the beginnings of the sport, the film makers use rarely seen drivers wore leather flying helmets and no seat belts, we see how even the most rudimentary safety precautions – barriers, seat belts, medical staff etc – were only provided when drivers began to fight for them and only after an attritional death rate was making people question the value of this potentially life-threatening sport outside of the purely financial.
Coming with the imprimatur of Formula One management, Crowder has assembled every major driver of the past four decades. Their testimony is full of fascinating anecdotes and not a few controversies, as they try to square their fierce competitiveness and their camaraderie and occasionally their grief. Their serious concerns don’t always go together as in the case of Jackie Stewart’s rivalry with Jacky Ickx, who resisted a concerted effort to cancel races and thereby pressure organisers into improving safety. Some of the talking heads suffer from an embarrassment of riches and with so many stories to tell, the film occasionally lacks focus.
Matters aren’t exactly helped by Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender’s somnambulant narration which drones usually necessarily with some linking information. One can’t help but notice that towards the latter half of the film, with the rise of Bernie Ecclestone (who has also bought up the television rights), Crowder’s documentary begins to feel like an infomercial for the slick multi-million pound industry Formula One is today. That said, 1: Life on the Limit provides plenty of thrills for motorsport enthusiasts and tells an interesting story for those uninitiated, or with only a passing knowledge of that world.
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