Directors: Frank Simon, Roman Polanski; Starring: Jackie Stewart, Roman Polanski, Helen Stewart; Running time: 93 mins; Certificate: PG
Sir Jackie Stewart's son Mark described Roman Polanski's long-forgotten documentary Weekend of a Champion as a "time capsule" during a special screening at the London Film Festival, and for anyone fascinated by the history of motorsport, he's right. Made in between Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, Polanski and his fellow filmmakers were granted unparalleled access to film Stewart at the 1971 Monaco grand prix, one of motor racing's classic events.
Nobody would be able to make this kind of documentary at a grand prix in today's age of watertight commercial rights, and for that reason alone it's worth watching.
Polanski follows Stewart around almost constantly for the duration of the weekend, exploring the Monte Carlo street circuit with him in a road car. His film crew has access to Stewart's Tyrrell racing car that broadcasters don't even provide today. It's a world away from modern Formula One, where rival racing teams screen off their cars in the garages and use people power to shield the backs of their cars on the grid.
Stewart almost acts as narrator through the movie, and his realistic, down-to-earth explanation of how his championship-winning car works is used effectively as a storytelling device. The opening - in which you're immersed in all the sights and sounds of Monaco on race day - is especially effective. In terms of setting the scene and transferring you to a particular place in space and time, it's on a par with some of the most exhilarating scenes in Ron Howard's recently-released racing drama Rush.
Our protagonist's heightened tension as he strives for perfection throughout the weekend is captured in deep, almost intrusive detail, and it's something that any racing fan will understand and respect because that same unyielding desire still fuels today's F1 world champions.
The sense of camaraderie and family between teams and drivers is also encapsulated nicely. For example, Stewart's wife Helen sits on the pit wall recording lap times throughout the weekend. She too is a principal player, and an almost constant presence during the documentary. There are also brief cameos from motorsports legends Graham Hill and Stirling Moss, plus Ringo Starr and Princess Grace of Monaco, and brief hints of the sport's party atmosphere in the years before the fast-living Hesketh Racing team (home to James Hunt) shook things up with their arrival on the grid in the mid-'70s.
There are poignant moments too, such as a shot of Nina Rindt watching qualifying mere months after her husband Jochen was killed during practice for the 1970 Italian grand prix, and Stewart joking that he has given away "all [my] secrets" during a post-qualifying chat with Tyrrell team-mate and close friend François Cevert.
In a postscript recorded 40 years after the documentary, Polanski confesses to Stewart that Cevert's death at Watkins Glen in 1973, and the premature passing of other top drivers, put him off motor racing. Watching Stewart talk with enthusiasm about comparative improvements in safety such as his new seatbelts during the movie also reminds you of how far we've come in terms of safety since 1971 (a topic also addressed at length in Paul Crowder's forthcoming documentary 1). Their discussion offers a thought-provoking end to a trip back into motor racing history that deserves a wider audience.