1: Life on the Limit – the RaceFans review

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I recently saw a repeat of Grand Prix: The Killer Years, a 2011 BBC documentary on safety in Formula One.

It drew criticism when it was originally broadcast as the film makers’ brief seemed to have been to include as much graphic footage of dead and dying racing drivers as possible regardless of relevance and accuracy.

A few genuinely revealing interviews with drivers who endured the horrors of the sixties and seventies was the only thing that elevated it above being the kind of ghoulish crash reel you might find on YouTube.

Formula One has a dark past and it is because brave individuals studied what went wrong and drew lessons from it that we are heading towards the 20th anniversary of the last time a driver perished in a race.

Any director seeking to explore this subject area must be wary of treading the line between a responsible account of motor racing fatalities and sheer exploitation. The circumstances of a crash may teach us something but we do not need to see flames licking the flesh of a dying man.

That was what Grand Prix: The Killer Years got wrong, and was the first thing 1: Life on the Limit needed to get right. As this new film comes with the endorsement of Formula One Management there was always a good chance it would steer away from the sensational.

The film makers also assembled an impressive roster of Formula One champions and leading figures including Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley and a host of world champions to tell the story of the drive to improve safety standards.

It begins with a dramatic retelling of Martin Brundle’s astonishing escape from injury at Melbourne in 1996. This engrossing sequence, featuring a wealth of new footage from the FOM archive, is brilliantly realised, save for some choppy editing which confusingly introduces footage from other seasons.

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But having raised expectations of what is to follow the film then struggles to meet them. What unfolds over the near-two-hour run-time is basically Grand Prix: The Killer Years, minus the gore but plus an abundance of talking heads and a lot of material that is not even tangentially relevant to the subject of safety.

The story develops with the geriatric pace of a Life W12 as the director takes in a potted history of early F1, tells us how passionate the Monza crowd is and ruins footage of Ayrton Senna lapping Monaco by drowning out his wailing Honda V10 with rock music.

Suddenly it’s 1967, Lorenzo Bandini’s Ferrari erupts in flames at Monaco and the films finally returns to its subject. If you edited out all the extraneous material you’d probably find it tells its story very well. The researchers have turned up much of interest from the archives, including a sad-eyed Bruce McLaren talking about the death of Jim Clark on BBC’s Blue Peter the day after the tragedy.

The film makers had access to many of the figures who influenced the sport at the time, some of which give fascinating interviews. Jacky Ickx, irritatingly referred to throughout as ‘babyface’, describes his opposition to the safety campaign. And in a poignant moment Professor Sid Watkins, giving one of his last interviews before his death in 2012, wipes away a tear as he recalls Imola 1994.

But it would have benefited from more restraint in the selection of who to interview and what to use. The stream of dialogue from dozens of contributors renders Michael Fassbender’s narration largely irrelevant. And there are more than a few jarring edits in the audio revealing where the dialogue has been crammed in.

They might at least have omitted their subjects saying things that are wrong (Adolf Hitler did not build the Nurburgring) or flatly contradict what we’ve just been shown (Jackie Stewart saying “races weren’t stopped then” moments after footage of the 1973 British Grand Prix, which was).

Too much time is then spent on the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda – notwithstanding the fact it’s had plenty of screen time recently. Next we’re told how Bernie Ecclestone seized this opportunity to buy up the F1 television rights – and from then on it’s noticeable how little new footage appears.

The eighties and nineties, footage of which is available at a premium from Ecclestone, are largely glossed over. With that goes an important part of the story – the false sense of security that grew in the years before the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994.

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It’s been an embarrassment of riches for Formula One fans at the box office in recent years with the terrific Senna and highly entertaining Rush. As well as telling their own stories they have helped bring F1 to new audiences.

Too often 1: Life on the Limit feels like it has been made with an eye on that secondary goal, losing its focus on “the story of the drivers who risked their lives and the men who changed the sport forever”. At the end it gives the impression of being more like an advert for modern Formula One, rather than a film which has done justice to a serious subject.

RaceFans rating

1: Life on the Limit

Publisher: Flat-Out Films, Diamond Docs and Spitfire Pictures
Published: 2012

1: Life on the Limit – official trailer


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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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40 comments on “1: Life on the Limit – the RaceFans review”

  1. Thank goodness I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I was very disappointed with 1. Some interesting tidbits, but overall, they didn’t make the most out of the opportunity to go into the F1 archives. Probably why it went straight-to-video, I guess.

    1. I must say that I see it completely opposite.
      I actually really liked that film just the opposite to the “Hollywood Style” “Rush” which author of this blog calls “highly entertaining”.
      “1” is maybe not the masterpiece but I can’t really understand why one can rate it lower than Rush.
      Actually I don’t get why people compare this movie to “Rush” like it’s something wrong showing Lauda – Hunt rivalry. This is different movie and authors are not going to change their script just because some guys had similar idea.
      I saw “1” before “Rush” so maybe that’s why I like it more but it just gave more excitement.

      My recommendation would be actually to do the same. Rush is like any other entertainment business movie. After watching this one I wanted more. With Rush I don’t even remember anything F1 related, but there were some nice chicks so it must be cooler.

      1. but there were some nice chicks so it must be cooler.

        Internet debate 101: make sure to ridicule either your opponent or his opinion for maximum credibility.

  2. Too much time is then spent on the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda – notwithstanding the fact it’s had plenty of screen time recetly. Next we’re told how Bernie Ecclestone seized this opportunity to buy up the F1 television rights – and from then on it’s noticeable how little new footage appears.

    This is exactly how I felt when watching 1. It was a decent enough documentary that could have been more an hour than 2 hours. When it suddenly turned into “Rush but with real footage” I found myself getting bored and wanting to skip the whole section.

    I’m not even sure why they focussed on this bit so long as I thought the film was about the evolution and safety of F1, they could have just told the Nurburgring story they didn’t need to do a half-hour section on the 1976 season rivalry that was already covered in Rush.

  3. Blimey, given the write-up, 3/5 sounds pretty generous.

    The focus on Lauda/Hunt sounds like a classic example of corporate thinking, trying to cash in on the popularity of something else and massively diluting the purpose and quality of the product in the process. ‘How can we appeal to as many people as possible?’ rather than ‘How can we make this as good as it can be?’. C’est la vie…

  4. Sounds like a complete mess unfortunately.

  5. For those who didn’t see the film so far: the main reason for criticising is because it could be brilliant. The concept, the camerawork, the feeling it initially gives is beyond any documentaries I have ever seen. It uses a lot of shots that I’m pretty sure were previously unseen, putting you back in the glorious times at times and then showing the drama on the faces.

    But at about halfway through after the death of Francois Cevert, the movie just loses its point. The creators must have got carried away with the 1976 season, because they wasted an awful lot of time showing not just the danger and safety parts of the time, they also concentrated on that championship – with no reason. I mean, there were a lot of great insights – for example Bernie getting the TV deals – but it wasn’t the point of the film. The rest of the movie had only one interesting point afterwards on the evolution it started to explain, which was the introduction of Sid Watkins. We didn’t see anything meaningful from the late ’70s, ’80s and 90’s, just a few shots which were, well, too few. I read in the article of Autosport that the director wanted to put more in, but felt he didn’t need anything about for example Villeneuve because it wouldn’t have helped the story anymore – well, I think that’s simply wrong.

    Sure, they put a nice frame to the story with Brundle’s accident, but they missed out on a golden opportunity. It started out great, and only because of the wonderful images wasn’t it too easy at first to spot that the level drops. Which is sad, because I got much more excited about this film after seeing the intros than Rush.

  6. Hmmmmm. Doesn’t really seem like a ‘must see’ then.

    I think I might skip this one.

    1. Don’t make your decision on the review. I thought the movie was excellent and while I can see where he’s coming from – I really enjoyed the film.

  7. Fair review, I really enjoyed it. It’s not the best program ever made but it has some pretty interesting parts and some pretty funny bits.

    I think it’s the prefect thing to check out during the off-season, just don’t expect it to be the best thing ever made

  8. It’s unfortunate that there’s so much focus on Hunt/Lauda, when really, in the context of this movie, it sounds like Lauda’s Nurburgring incident (also his idea to stop the race, but I don’t know if that’s true or something that was embellished in Rush) as well as his decision to pull out of the Japanese GP would have been the relevant points to take away from that season.

    Is there a lot of grisly footage of bad accidents/deaths from prior eras? If so, it’s not something I’d like to watch. After watching Senna, I don’t want to see any of that type of footage again, nor even footage where the driver lives. I remember Senna showed a particularly bad accident where the driver was ejected from the car along with his seat (it looked like a Camel livery car) and seeing that accident was horrifying, even though I know the driver lived (his name escapes me, which is also slightly upsetting).

    1. I remember that, it was Martin Donnelly at Jerez in 1990. It was pretty horrible, lying there tangled with his seat still strapped to him, his foot twisted over and his Lotus behind him in a thousand pieces. That was pretty hard to watch

  9. This may be an insignificant detail, but I can’t understand how people, who have just made a film about F1, still call Vettel SebastiEn instead of Sebastian. 4 WDCs and they still can’t spell his name.

  10. The release schedule for this film has been pretty weird. It was screened for quite a few journalists before the 2012 USGP (I think it was Joe Saward who wrote about it) and it’s in the cinemas only now?

  11. Excellent review Keith. I felt exactly the same about it. As @hunocsi said above, there is so much potential for this to be a great documentary, and it felt like a missed opportunity.

  12. Saw it yesterday and I thought it was terrible to be honest. My first audible groan was during the 1996 Australian GP weekend, when I suddenly saw the white house on the outside of La Source, and moments later the Rascasse, and moments later the climb towards Massenet, before cutting back to Melbourne for Brundle’s accident – very confusing. My second audible groan was the commentary that was added to the pre-1970s stuff. And I could go on, because there were numerous bits that annoyed me.

    In general, the subject focuses very much on places it doesn’t need to focus on, and too little on stuff it should. I have no idea why I spent watching a 15-minute summary of Rush, and I have no idea why post-1976 got pretty much no coverage at all. In general, I am confused as to what 1 is supposed to be: a brief overview of F1? No, because it ended with stating what has been done in the last 20 years to make things safer. An F1 safety documentary then? No, because there was the Monza and Rush stories. F1 in general then? If so, then it did a pretty poor job of it, since it focussed on 1965-1976 quite a lot.

    Also, I thought the choice of interviewees was a bit off: Vettel and Hamilton didn’t really add anything, nor did Koen Vergeer (seriously, of all the people they chose him?). Some more non-World Champions would have been nice, and I missed the input from mechanics.

    Overall, I just didn’t get it. I’m writing this just under 24 hours since I’ve seen it and I can’t really pinpoint what exactly was the point of this.. uhm, documentary. Complete waste of money as far as I am concerned. Do yourself a favour and go read Jackie Stewart’s autobiography instead.

    1. Oh dear, doesn’t sound good. Are these random clips of Spa and Monaco meant to be Martin Brundle’s life flashing before him, or something?!

      1. @bullfrog No, the Monaco shots showed a Ferrari (I believe that wasn’t even a 1996 car) and I can’t remember what car was featured at Spa.

    2. @andae23 Hey, what’s wrong with Koen Vergeer? I liked his book.

      1. @magnificent-geoffrey You have the benefit of reading his words translated. The columns he does (or did, I stopped caring) in Dutch are typically him having an imaginary conversation with F1 drivers or bosses and telling them how they can better their lives, written down in a way that makes it awkward to read.

    3. @andae23 Had the same thought re: Melbourne 1996. They tried to make the first Lap 1 a lot longer than it really was (which was just 4 corners).

  13. What does Bernie do with all the F1 footage he hides from the public!?

    1. Maybe he sells them… And the likes of Sky buy them for a few (billion) pennys.

    2. So I’m not missing anything it seems, I was looking forward to this but apparently it is quite a ridiculous documentary. Pity, I was hoping for a good one.

    3. Its all sitting in a bunker at Biggin Hill.

      Broadcasters do have access to it & several around the world do use it to broadcast classic races (Like Sky did throughout 2013) & to use bits of archive footage for features etc….

      A reason why more of it isn’t made more widely available is that its all still on its original media & in boxes on shelf’s. It hasn’t all been moved onto digital media or onto any type of network server which would allow quick access to everything & going through that process would take months if not years with the amount of material they have there.
      That is a big part of why there’s no sort of online portal where you can buy/stream the races, The archive isn’t setup in a way that would make that possible yet.

      As to whats in the archive, Everything from 1981 onwards & some stuff from before that which FOM have brought over the years.
      The full race broadcasts (Although some from the early 80s are incomplete), Highlights, Unedited footage from all trackside camera recordings, All the in-car recordings, All the live data recordings for telemetry, team radio & the timing/tracking systems, All the archive camera recordings captured from the non-live cameras, All the test footage from cameras/equipment that gets trialed which is stuff not made public, Multiple language commentary tracks from the broadcasters & probably more stuff i’ve forgot to include.
      Also remember that this is from every session over the weekend & not just the race footage.

      1. Thanks for the insight @gt-racer.

        It’d be a monumental piece of work, but giving it some thought I’d also imagine Bernie would like to offer consistent quality, options and eventually have seasons or at the very least entire race weekends up in a sensible order.

        I can’t even think of the complexity of a project planning scheme for such an operation.. Still, I’d also imagine Bernie and the FOM would have access to willing interns in video editing who love F1 and would like to help get things going. It’d be nice just to hear they’re giving it a go.

      2. Thank you for the info GT Racer. I’d heard mention of a Biggin Hill archive before but never knew what it was. Considering the money and manpower in F1, you’d think someone could make a start at sorting it all out! As Nick said it wouldn’t be for a lack of willing volunteers!

  14. That is typical about Formula 1: I’d be glad to have a look at it but it is just impossible to buy, no VOD whatsoever and its just sad. F1 should really embrace the 21th century and adapt its offer, it will be more effective than doubling last race’s points when it comes to attractiveness.

    1. In an age where IndyCar, WEC, and DTM are broadcasting for free on the internet… F1 is way too far behind. Remember how long it took them to move to HD? Previous races should be uploaded to YouTube or some other service, just like DTM does already.

      F1 is pitiful in this respect.

      1. Indycar no longer provides an online stream as there broadcast contract with NBC prevents it.
        The previous espn deal had the streaming deal because espn couldn’t be bothered to promote the series or show every race live so a web stream was needed.

        WEC & DTM do use web streams but thats mainly because they have poor worldwide tv distribution & therefore don’t have the contractual issues with broadcasters who have paid for exclusive tv deals like f1 does. Plus without the live stream they would struggle to get people able to watch.
        The categories of MotorSport you see providing official online streams, Especially free streaming on sites like youtube & dailymotion are those who struggle to get tv distribution, Struggle to gain viewers/fans & who need the web streams to draw an audience.

        DTM for instance started there international web stream on youtube last year purely because they had practically no international tv distribution as prior contracts had ended & not been renewed or they just weren’t good deals.

        The thing with F1 is that it has the worldwide TV distribution, It has a massive tv audience, It has broadcasters who have paid for exclusive F1 rights in there respective regions & who don’t want another service popping up to take viewers away from there broadcast’s.

      2. Remember how long it took them to move to HD?

        @steevkay I forgot to reply to this point yesterday.

        FOM often get criticized for been late to adopt HD but the reason they waited so long was because there wasn’t many broadcasters worldwide ready/able to take a HD broadcast.
        We looked at going HD in 2006/2007 & found that only 3 broadcasters & a small percentage of there audience would be able to take the HD feed so at that point it wasn’t worth the extra expense to upgrade everything & sent out a feed not many would have access to.
        Even moving on to 2009 there was still only 6 worldwide broadcasters who would be able to take a HD feed.
        Going into 2010 more country’s around the world started to see more HD channels become available & more of the F1 broadcasters also went to HD so it made sense to finally make to switch for 2011.

        People tend to look at things from the perspective in there country, They had access to a HDTV & a HD service was widely available so it seemed F1 waited too long to go HD. However considering many country’s didn’t take up HD so quickly & many broadcasters didn’t have HD channels from a worldwide perspective the later switch was more or less about right.

        I’ll just add a note about widescreen. F1 was late to adopt that but it wasn’t really FOM’s fault as such. We were ready for widescreen from at least 2001 & had the f1 digital ppv service continued that would have almost certainly been in widescreen by 2004.
        However don’t forget that until 2007 the F1 world feed was produced by the local host broadcaster for each race (ITV in the UK, RTL in Germany, RAI in Italy etc….) & not every broadcaster were able to produce there race in widescreen. It was felt that sticking with non-widescreen was better than constantly switching between widescreen/non-widescreen from race to race depending on what each broadcaster was capable of doing.

        As soon as FOM took over the world feed broadcast for all but 3 races in 2007 (Now FOM do all but Monaco), We took the world feed widescreen.
        If it was purely down to FOM we’d have gone widescreen a few years sooner, We were just tied down by the local host broadcasters.

        1. My misplaced criticism is withdrawn; I thought HD spread a lot more than that by 2009 or so. I did wonder at the time why such a rich sport wasn’t in HD, but didn’t consider that most of F1 viewership is from outside North America.

          Thanks for clearing that up.

          1. @steevkay
            North America was one of the early adopters of HD (As was Japan). From memory HD was fairly widely available in the US by 2006, I know Fox took Nascar HD around that time?

            Looking at the UK while the SkyHD service launched in Mid-2006 it wasn’t really that widespread for a couple years after. Even today just under half of Sky’s 10m+ subscribers have a HD subscription.

            In terms of F1 in the UK it was on ITV 1997-2008 & BBC 2009-today & BBC share coverage with Sky since 2012.

            ITV didn’t launch its HD channel until Mid-2008 so would only have shown half a season in HD had F1 been in HD at the time.
            BBC had a HD channel from Mid-2007 but since it was officially only a trial it had strict limits on what/when it could broadcast & one of the limits was the number of hours of sport it could show.

            BBC One HD (Which is where the F1 is broadcast) wasn’t launched until Late 2010 so was just in time for F1 going HD from 2011.

            Story was similar in other European country’s.

  15. Don’t let this review deter you from watching it. I really enjoyed it and was really captivated the whole time, unfortunately this is one of those rare time where I disagree with Keith but I hope people don’t decide not to watch this movie just because Keith didn’t enjoy it.

    1. To be honest, I haven’t watched it yet because I’ve been either busy or sick the past 4 months and have simply not been able to see it anywhere. Reviews like these (hardly the first one to note the lack of focus on the 80s and beyond) aren’t exactly pushing me towards looking very hard either.

  16. Jonathan Tibbles
    16th January 2014, 18:10

    I couldn’t disagree more… Modern day F1 is mentioned for the last 5 minutes of the film, there was 105 mins devoted to the history. With the film at 111 mins, time constraints meant they had to cut allot of the 80s era… I read that in an interview… enough material to make ‘2’ they said. And also while the Hunt Lauda era was heavily covered in RUSH, their film was finished over a year before I read, and screened in Austin in Nov 2012. It was introduced by Emerson Fitipaldi and Sir Jackie Stewart who heralded the film as “one of the most important Formula 1 films we have seen” , they lived the story that was told, their opinions speak volumes for the work done in this film. I thought it was really well done, and obviously made by people who truly love the sport. There are a few spelling mistakes, but the content is fabulous and an incredible wealth of footage put together like never before….but that is of course just my opinion, like Keith has his.

  17. I think the film is a much better viewing experience when you watch it without any expectations or keep trying to compare it with Senna and Rush. Expecting it to be fully about safety for example, will create an idea in your head on what it should be like, based on what events/ideas you consider to be important when it comes to F1 and safety.

    I thoroughly enjoyed watching it – and I have to say, it was more like revisiting F1 history in a poignant manner rather than a story on how F1 has become as safe as it is today. Yep, it isn’t anything as well edited as Senna or Rush. It doesn’t have the technical finesse of the other two. But what it gives me is a feel of being in a room full of F1 people, from all eras, and getting all their perspectives, their priorities, their fears, their ambition, their frustrations and their rapidly alternating moments of joy and sadness. The sport itself was mostly unorganised during a large part of its existence, and you get that impression from the footage. You sort of can see how attitudes and working culture and priorities changed in F1 over the years. The only thing I would fault it for, is the amount of screen time each era gets. As Keith as already pointed out, some get a lot of screen time, and what many of us would consider as important incidents are glossed over. I suspect the end product more or less reflects the footage that was available, and the creators did what they could with it. Perhaps they didn’t have the budget to get more from Bernie.

    I don’t mind these shortcomings though – I always enjoy seeing rare old footage, and ‘1’ was an emotional viewing experience for me. Maybe that’s because I’m a relatively new F1 fan, and wasn’t even born when Senna won his first championship. I don’t have any real memories of those days, and nor will any recent fan of the sport. If it means the film will appeal to a smaller section of existing fans and maybe bring more fans into the sport, so be it. There’s much that a seasoned F1 fan can enjoy in Senna and Rush. It’s ok if ‘1’ is for a wider audience. The more F1 films, the merrier.

  18. @keithcollantine

    I finally saw this a couple of weeks ago as it was one of the entertainment options on my flight to Las Vegas. I actually really enjoyed it but I can understand your criticism. And with stuff like Rush and The Killer Years it does feel like it retreads an awful lot of old ground. Still, I always really enjoy hearing Max Mosley speak about F1 safety and think it’s a shame that his involvement in F1 is often overshadowed by other things.

    Also – the sequence of the onboard lap with Senna set to Hocus Pocus may well be one of the best bits of F1 footage I’ve ever seen. Proper hair standing on end stuff.

  19. More like a 2/5. Only saw it because of the unseen footage, barely had much of story.
    A lot like the 2013 season, but with more unpredictability and less of story.

  20. I don’t think you get it. Grand Prix The Killer Years braught to light how dangerous that era was, and how violently drivers died. It’s one thing to talk about it, show a few photos of wrecked cars, but that video touches people emotionally, it’s raw and visceral, and I think in this era we need to remember how dangerous racing was. As for 1, I reguard it as a fantastic documentary. A little unfocused, but it does what it does well.

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