FORMULA 1 MEETS HOLLYWOOD
acing movies tend to fall into two
distinct camps: those where the plot is
secondary to the action sequences (think
Steve McQueen’s Le Mans), and those
where the sport is a mere backdrop (the
deservedly forgotten Al Pacino vehicle
Bobby Deerfield comes to mind).
Grand Prix, however, is one of the few
that succeeds both as a melodrama and a
motorsports epic. A quarter-century before
the dismal Driven tried and failed to connect
open-wheel racing with a mainstream
audience, the 1966 release married
technical daring, high-octane thrills and
soap opera-style love triangles – packing it
all into a bladder-worrying 176 minutes.
Undeniably, it’s a flawed piece of work.
Yet, until the numbers are in for Rush, it’s
the closest a racing-based drama has
come to hitting box office pay dirt and
earning (some) respect from the critics.
Sure, Days of Thunder is laps ahead on
revenue. But on credibility? No contest...
The story behind Grand Prix is a saga
in itself. John Frankenheimer had been a
jobbing TV director prior to making the
leap to the big screen, earning praise for
films such as The Bird Man of Alcatraz and
The Manchurian Candidate. Grand Prix,
however, was his first time at the helm of
a blockbuster – and his first shoot in color.
MGM bankrolled the project, but a rival
studio had similar ideas, so it soon became
a race to see who would pull it off first.
“I had thought of the idea of Grand
Prix while I was in France filming The
Train,” Frankenheimer recalled in 1969.
“I’ve always been interested in
automobile racing. I used to do it as an
amateur. I love it, and still do.” As did
Steve McQueen, his original choice to
play the lead. Except “The Cooler King”
fell out with the producer and sided with
Warner Brothers instead. He announced
that he would make an auto racing movie
with director John Sturges, to be called
Day of the Champion.
Frankenheimer originally planned to
adapt Robert Daley’s book The Cruel
Sport for the big screen, going so far as
to hire the sometime New York Times
journalist to prepare a script. Daley’s
screenplay was reworked by Robert Alan
Aurthur (whose dialogue was in turn
given a polish by Bill Hanley), although
some quotes in the film were lifted almost
With a blockbuster budget and cutting-edge tech, director
John Frankenheimer hijacked the 1966 Formula 1 season
and made one of the few essential racing movies: Grand Prix.
verbatim from Daley’s original potboiler.
The plot centers on Pete Aron, a talented
racer, but winless for three years. The
American loses his Jordan-BRM seat
following a clash with teammate Scott
Stoddard during the Monaco GP – one that
leaves the Brit seriously injured and facing
the possibility of never racing again. Aron
finds comfort in the arms of Stoddard’s
wife, an ex-model who’s bored with her
marriage to a man living in the shadow of
his dead brother, former World Champion
WORDS Richard Heseltine MAIN IMAGE Rainer W. Schlegelmilch/Getty Images
(ABOVE) Onboard cameras have
come a long way... James Garner
(as Pete Aron) prepares to hit
the streets of Monte Carlo in one
of the modified Formula Juniors
that stood in for Formula 1 cars
during the filming of Grand Prix
in 1966. (RIGHT) Director John
Frankenheimer briefs Brian
Bedford (Scott Stoddard) at
the Dutch GP in Zandvoort.