Grand Prix: The Killer Years

Grand Prix: The Killer Years book review

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Grand Prix: The Killer Years, a documentary on safety in the early years of the world championship, was broadcast by the BBC in 2011. As mentioned here previously I didn’t think much of it, so my expectations were low for this spin-off book.

My chief problem with The Killer Years was the inappropriateness of the footage they chose to use. If you’re telling a story about the dangers of grand prix racing in the sixties then it is misleading to illustrate it with footage of a crash from the Indianapolis 500, which was run by different people to different rules. Worse, some of the grand prix footage which did appear was used in a tasteless and gratuitous fashion.

But its redeeming feature was a series of revealing interviews involving some of the drivers who survived that era, their partners, and some of the track operators. And as those interviews are the focus of this book, I hoped I might find more to appreciate about it than the documentary.

Although several greats of the sport like Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and John Surtees were interviewed for the documentary, some of the most interesting tales come from the close-knit family of drivers’ partners, such as Nina Rindt and Jacqueline Beltoise.

The circuit operators, who at the time were pinched between the drivers’ growing demands for safer circuits and the huge cost of trying to meet them, also have interesting stories to tell. The account of Ben Huisman, who oversaw a huge rebuilding programme at Zandvoort in the Netherlands only for Roger Williamson to perish at the track in 1973, is particularly frank.

Grand Prix: The Killer YearsUnfortunately much of the rest of the book leaves a lot to be desired. According to the editor, the interviews have largely been left unedited. That much is clear in the lack of narrative flow, the tedious repetitiveness and pointless conversational fragments in too much of the copy.

Much of Jacky Ickx’s interview is bound up with his complaints about the questions he he faced. That being so, it is mystifying why they aren’t included, as it would make it much easier to make sense of his objections.

It would also have helped address one of the other major shortcomings of the book: how short it is. Despite small pages, large text and generous margins it only just creeps past two hundred pages.

Even with the level of discount widely available on books these days, that’s not enough to justify the price – particularly when the text is so repetitive.

Grand Prix: The Killer Years is definitely preferable in book form than as a television documentary – but that really is damning with faint praise. For more on the perils of F1 racing in this era there are many books to recommend before this, such as Robert Daley’s Cars at Speed (reprinted in 2007), Michael Cannell’s The Limit, David Tremayne’s The Lost Generation or Jackie Stewart’s autobiography Winning is Not Enough.

F1 Fanatic rating

Rating two out of five

Buy Grand Prix The Killer Years: Extended Interviews from the BBC Film

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Grand Prix The Killer Years: Extended Interviews from the BBC Film

Author: John L Matthews (ed.)
Publisher: Bigger Picture Films
Published: 2014
Pages: 204
Price: £19.99
ISBN: 9781783015559

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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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  • 7 comments on “Grand Prix: The Killer Years book review”

    1. My chief problem with The Killer Years was the inappropriateness of the footage they chose to use. If you’re telling a story about the dangers of grand prix racing in the sixties then it is misleading to illustrate it with footage of a crash from the Indianapolis 500, which was run by different people to different rules. Worse, some of the grand prix footage which did appear was used in a tasteless and gratuitous fashion.

      In similar fashion there are a lot of Youtube videos titled ‘best of 2014’ that include Bianchi his crash. Tasteless and unrespectfull if anything!

    2. I cannot agree enough, Keith, the book suffers the same crass flavour the TV programme did. Michael Cannell, a former colleague of mine, navigates a delicate topic with infinitely greater finesse in his book The Limit. What I enjoyed about Michael’s book was the tone of retrospective disdain versus the post-war context that he so elegantly suggests made Grand Prix tragedies less of a sensation than they would be in modern times. Grand Prix: The Killer Years is too much of tragic timeline of narrative, whilst Michael cast real critique whilst also considering cultural and social discrepancies. Disappointing…

    3. I simply can not understand why anyone would recommend Stewart’s autobiography. What a terrible book, almost impossible to get through. Just parts of it (the first half) were about his racing career. Now I know he did a whole lot more than race, but especially the second half of the book was just trying to come across as being interesting by dropping celebrity names. I’ve seen plenty of people with the same criticism, this is the only website that has such high praise of the book.

    4. Is Jo Ramirez’s book any good?

      1. Assuming you are the author of the book and not just someone impersonating him (you can’t take these things for granted online) it’s a pity you couldn’t be bothered to address any of the criticisms I raised instead of lamely pointing everyone in the direction of a fawning and uncritical review.

    5. Just saw (again) the documentary and would have to completely disagree with the comments above. There is nothing gratuitous about showing what is quite graphic footage to illustrate the point in that era, Grand Prix, and by the same token, all motor racing, was ridiculously unsafe with a callous disregard for human life by our standards. Looking at a burning car with no marshals to be seen says everything that can be said about a complete lack of preparation for the inevitable accidents. What I consider a valid point WAS to juxtapose the attitudes in the 60s and 70s toward safety, which was essentially non-existent. This does not judge those attitudes, but it does provide a stark contrast of what WAS considered acceptable back then. The lack of any regard for safety in the early 60s was not confined to Grand Prix racing, but was the same across all forms of racing, so if there was footage from other races (I’m no Grand Prix historian) it would not have bothered me. Lastly, the footage of Roger Williamson’s death at the end was extremely poignant, with the despondent David Purely unable to put out the flaming car, and was a good place to end as that accident and it’s TV coverage ushered in a new era of safety in motor racing.

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