Photo Credit: Morio, 2015 Malaysian GP opening lap, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Best Formula 1 Documentaries of All Time

These days, sporting documentaries are an intrinsic part of pop culture. From ESPN’s multi-award winning 30 For 30 series to this summer’s cinema aceMcEnroe, it seems that our sporting idols are a permanent fixture of screens big and small. But it wasn’t always so. Way back when, sports documentaries were seen as the preserve of the aficionado, focusing on minority interest sports like cycling (1976’s A Sunday In Hell) or lower league incarnations of bigger ones (Channel 4’s infamous 1995 Club For A Fiver tracking the (mis)fortunes of Leyton Orient). 1996’s When We Were Kings changed all that. The story of the 1974 ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali scooped a cinema release and an Oscar. Fans flocked. Studios sat up and took notice.

With TV and film’s fixations on four wheels ranging from The Dukes of Hazzard to The Fast And The Furious, F1 would seem a natural fit for documentaries. However, pre-2000, the only one of much note was Roman Polanski’s 1972 Weekend Of A Champion. It tracked the 1971 Monaco GP through Jackie Stewart, and faded into relative obscurity. Now, though, there’s a glut. 2020 alone saw retrospectives on Juan Manuel Fangio, Jochen Rindt and Willy T. Ribbs. Let’s sort through a crowded field and find four of the favourites for pole position.

Senna

Senna - Official UK Trailer

The movie that started the push for F1 documentaries was 2010’s Senna. Using private home footage from Ayrton Senna’s family, race coverage, press conferences and TV appearances, Senna presents the story of the Brazilian legend more as a contemporaneous live action drama than a posthumous documentary. There’s a focus on Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, and also on his views about the safety of the sport, including his rationale that his Williams team’s increasing computerization of their cars was a good thing. He was proved right in the most devastating way when the FIA banned computerization for the 1994 season. Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger and Senna both lost their lives at the San Marino Grand Prix.

Crash And Burn

Crash & Burn Official Trailer 2016

Thankfully, Tommy Byrne didn’t. Or certainly not physically. This 2016 movie tells the story of the Irish driver who had more talent than most, but never quite made the majors. It’s a hard slog to get through to Formula 1, and while Byrne was a star in Formula Ford and Formula 3, worries over his attitude and the fact he came from a poor background led the McLaren team to pass him over. The film is a scathing take on motorsport’s elitism, and how a driver considered better than Senna by some, only ever made five starts.

Murray Walker – Life In The Fast Lane

MURRAY WALKER - (2021 VERSION)- LIFE IN THE FAST LANE

For all the champion drivers that have sprayed champagne on the podium, there’s probably nobody more associated with Formula 1 than Murray Walker. From 1978 to 2001 he was the BBC’s full time commentator, with that unmistakable voice roaring along the likes of Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Damon Hill. He remained in racing coverage for the rest of his life, even working on the 2018 British Grand Prix at the age of 94. After having been voted ‘Best Commentator Of All Time’ (over John Motson) by UK sports fans, BBC 2 director Tim Gaunt followed Murray to Australia in 2011 for the opening race. Appearances from his friends span the gamut of racing history from Sir Stirling Moss through to (not a Sir at that stage) Lewis Hamilton.

Formula 1: Drive To Survive

Formula 1: Drive to Survive | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

Bringing things right up to the present day, Netflix’s series has run for four seasons and made Top 10 for viewing figures in 56 different countries. Capitalising on the sport finally breaking America, it now features behind the scenes access to every team, with Ferrari and Mercedes being holdouts in the opening season. Season four finished in Abu Dhabi where Max Verstappen was crowned champion, ahead of record-chasing current incumbent Sir Lewis Hamilton in the most dramatic fashion. Hamilton’s current F1 ride ends in 2023 and he will no doubt be desperate to take an eighth title. That number would make him the most successful driver ever, as he’s currently tied top on seven with Michael Schumacher. However the latest F1 odds from Ladbrokes show Verstappen as clear favourite for next season; likely due to the Red Bull Racing Honda car being superior to Hamilton’s Mercedes. Will it be a permanent passing of the baton? Netflix have renewed Drive To Survive for the 2023 and 2024 seasons, so stay tuned to find out.



About the author

Ellis Brown is a motorsports fanatic who currently lives in Truro, Cornwall. He went to his first Grand Prix aged just eight, watching Thierry Boutsen win in Adelaide. He's been hooked ever since, and now loves writing about everything and anything Formula 1.

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