Morning Qualifying – You say Sarti….I say Surtees edition

Is the John Surtees leading Jackie Stewart? Or, Jean-Pierre Sarti leading Scott Stoddard?

Arguably the best depiction of auto racing in Hollywood history, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film, “Grand Prix” is much beloved in the Hooniverse.  Using what Hollywood once called the “Grand Hotel” approach to story telling, it takes an “all-star cast” to depict the actions of a number of characters in a relatively small space; in this case, the small space being the Formula One circus as it existed in the mid-1960’s. While you could argue that the film fails as Hollywood melodrama, Grand Prix’s racing sequences still astonishes modern viewers, 45 years after the film’s original release.

"Bob Turner" (aka Graham Hill) gets his "Jordan-BRM" sideways at the Tabac corner.

It’s in the details of motorsport that director John Frankenheimer really captures what driving an F1 car was like.  Rather than shoot his actors against green screens and use stock racing footage, Frankenheimer sent James Garner (“Pete Aron”), Yves Montand (“Jean-Pierre Sarti”), Brian Bedford (“Scott Stoddard”) and Antonio Sabato (“Nino Barlini”) to racing school to learn, as best they could and with varying degrees of success, how to drive a race car.  Then, he put them in F3 cars, dressed up to look like their F1 big brothers, mounted cameras on the cars or a specially prepared Ford GT40 camera car, and with the film speed set to run slower than normal, had the actors drive the circuits.  When the film was run at normal speed, the actors appeared to be as fast as the professionals that they mimicked.  It made inter-cutting the actors’ racing footage with the film Frankenheimer’s crew shot at the actual races appear seamless.  The sound the race cars made in the film came directly of sound recordings that Roy Charman and Frank Tilton made of each car competing in the 1966 Formula One season.  Frankenheimer’s stated goal was to put the movie goer IN the cockpit, and he succeeds brilliantly.
John Frankenheimer with Chris Amon and Phil Hill during the filming of Grand Prix. Photo by Bernard Cahier/Copyright The Cahier Archive

Employing nearly 2 dozen actual Formula One drivers in small speaking roles, extras and as technical advisors, Frankenheimer futher heightened the realistic tone of the racing sequences.  You could invent a wicked drinking game and educate yourself on 60’s F1 history playing, “Spot the Race Car driver”; though, you’d likely be soused by the end of the title sequence!  And, I don’t think it hyperbole to say the Phil Hill and Richie Ginther’s feet should have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Dancing Performance for the manner in which they danced on the pedals in the Monaco sequence.
Phil Hill and Yves Montand on the set of Grand Prix. Photo by Bernard Cahier/Copyright The Cahier Archive

Over at Autosport Magazine’s Nostalgia Forum, the internet’s greatest motorsport history hive mind has devoted several threads to gleaning every bit of racing minutiae out of Grand Prix.  Want to know every racing driver and personality with an uncredited cameo in Grand Prix?  They know it.  Want to match elements of the character’s back story to actual events and people in Formula 1?  They can tell you.  They can tell you who raced which Ferrari chassis appearing in the Ferrari factory scene between James Garner and veteran Italian character actor Adolpho Celi, as the Enzo Ferrari doppelganger, Agostini Manetta.  They’ve even set out a search party to find the footage that John Frankenheimer is rumored to have shot at the Nurburgring during the 1966 German Grand Prix.  Frankly, the Mt. Olympus level of motor sport-related pedantry displayed at the Nostalgia Forum is one of the great wonders of the internet.
But enough about the fiddley bits of Grand Prix!  With the Monaco Grand Prix right around the corner, let’s look once again with awe and respect what John Frankenheimer and his very talented crew achieved on the streets of Monaco in 1966.



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3 responses to “Morning Qualifying – You say Sarti….I say Surtees edition”

  1. west_coaster Avatar

    Great timing. Just two weeks ago I brought out the DVD set to watch this for the ???-th time, since my wife was out of town and I was free to take in some vintage racing cinema undisturbed.
    The drivers boozed, smoked and chased women. (The fictional ones, anyway. I'm assuming art was imitating life.) And the safety we take for granted today was laughably – or sadly – nonexistent at the time. Seeing Monaco in the early scenes is the most fun. So much has changed, yet so many things are still exactly the same in the principality.

    1. Jennings R. Scroggs, Jr. Avatar
      Jennings R. Scroggs, Jr.

      Art absolutely imitated life and, strangely enough in Grand Prix, it circled around in a meta way to become art again. Case in point, check out Graham Hill's cameos in this movie. Every time he's on screen with Eva Marie Saint, he sizes her up the way a hungry dog stares at a butcher shop's window. Which, according to all anecdotal and apocryphal accounts, is what Graham Hill did with attractive women in real life.

  2. Eastaboga Avatar

    Thank you, my work for the day is now officially not getting done!