1 – Blu-ray review

Though NASCAR reigns with a greasy fist in the arena of U.S. auto racing, outside America, Formula One drivers are superstars, and the sport is avidly followed by legions of fans every bit as die hard as the bubbas of Daytona or Talladega.

Narrated by Michael Fassbender, “1” tells the story of one of the most popular sports in the world, Formula One racing. Released to capitalize on the recent success of biopic racing drama “Rush,”  “1” features the great drivers and personalities of Formula One’s 60 years of existence, with plentiful race footage and a slew of interviews with greats such as Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Michael Schumacher, and Emerson Fittipaldi.

One of the most surprising aspects of the documentary, especially to a racing neophyte such as myself, is how loose and casual the sport was in its early days, and how little concern was given to driver safety. In comparison to the meticulously stage-managed and overblown spectacle that is contemporary sport, it seems like another world, a world of daring, uber-competitive boys and their (incredibly dangerous) toys.

The main storyline uniting the film is, in fact, the watershed events that triggered developments in safety technology.  As one interviewee states, “It always seems to take a tragedy to change things.” In its beginnings, in 1950, there were no safety barriers, no crash helmets, very little in the way of on-course medical personnel. Just driver against driver and safety be damned.

This system of machismo and machine works well enough until technological developments, such as much more powerful engines, higher speeds, and aerodynamic innovations take the machines beyond the abilities of even the very best drivers. The deaths of a string of drivers in the late 60’s through the 70’s forced drivers, led first by Sir Jackie Stewart, to unite in protest and force tracks and owners to pay more attention to course and car safety. It should come as no surprise that money played a big part in the speed of changes, with tracks and owners resisting expensive modifications, and the rise of television coverage coinciding with the lowering of that resistance.

A highpoint of the film is footage from an in-car camera taken during a qualifying lap at the Monaco Gran Prix with driver Ayrton Senna. The gut-punch roar of the engine, the incredibly tight confines of the city street course, and the view flying by in a blur gave me a new respect for the complicated skills of a high performance driver.

“1” is at most affecting in its use of crash footage, including a sadly memorable scene of one driver desperately trying and failing, by himself, to extricate another driver from a crashed and burning car, as the other drivers whizz by. In a self-celebratory coda, the film notes that since the death of Senna in 1996, no driver has died behind a Formula One wheel.

The film really works best as an introductory showcase to the sheer visceral spectacle and drama of the sport, a sort of visual cheerleader for a sport that realistically seems not to need a lot of help in the attention department. Beyond the stories of safety developments and the sadness of young men dying too young, there is little effort to dig any deeper beneath the glamour and testosterone.

But that doesn’t make “1” any less watchable. Director Paul Crowder keeps things moving along through the hairpin turns and straightaways alike, and fans and newbies both will find much to enjoy in its archival footage, honest and well-spoken interview comments, and an energetic pace and editing style.

“1” is presented in 16×9 widescreen. The archival footage looks surprisingly good, and clearly much care was taken with the digital transfer of the older film stock. There are options for English SDH and Spanish subtitles.

The audio track is presented in 5.1 True HD, with an option for Stereo 2.0. The track is everything you’d expect, with the shaking roar of high performance engines prominent without being deafening.

There are no extras on the disc.

Parting thoughts:
Fast-paced and slickly fashioned, the documentary “1” presents the drama of Formula One racing through the stories of its great drivers, events and evolutionary changes.