Lights, camera… F1: The inside story of the first time Hollywood took on Formula 1

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The filming of the Brad Pitt/Apple F1 movie alongside recent races has been an exciting and unusual addition to life in the paddock – but the sport has been here before, all the way back in 1966…

Novelty soon wears off in the Formula 1 paddock. At Silverstone, the APX Grand Prix garage was quite the draw. The production team were engaged in their first trackside filming weekend and, at some point, most people found an excuse to wander down the pit-lane to surreptitiously glance inside. When the garage returned in Budapest, however, nobody really noticed it was there. APX Grand Prix were simply part of the furniture. No doubt this thrills the movie’s producers.

READ MORE > FIRST LOOK: APXGP car from upcoming Apple Original Film

…because, of course, this is the point. APX are supposed to blend in, and common consensus in the paddock is that, if you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t give it a second thought, because it really does look like the real deal.

That’s backed up by cars: F2 chassis kitted with ersatz F1 bodywork created by Mercedes, with the cars operated by a crew from the Carlin team, who know more than a little bit about running single-seaters.

It’s taken a little longer to get used to the cars in action. When they’re running in tandem between the sessions, shooting footage to later be mapped into races, it looks like a demo. Likewise, when they’re tagged onto the back of a grid to do some first lap filming.

When they emerge from the garage and run down the pit-lane, however, there’s a momentary look of confusion on many faces, and a quick glance at the session countdown timers on every garage monitor as they cruise past. The engine note isn’t the real deal and people relax again, content they haven’t got something horribly, horribly wrong – but otherwise, as we said, if you didn’t know better…

07 Sonny Hayes fictional driver represented by Brad Pitt, Apex APXGP, grid during the Formula 1

The mocked up APXGP car looked right at home on the grid at Silverstone

The producers of the as-yet unnamed movie have worked hard to win hearts and minds in the F1 paddock, which, against the standard background level of cynicism is no easy task – but they’ve done a good job.

They’ve held plenty of briefings, keeping everyone abreast of their plans, and the filming blends into the background – because really, no-one is going to notice a couple more cameras at a Grand Prix circuit, and the pervading feeling is that everyone will want a look at the finished product.

READ MORE: ‘It’s massively exciting’ – Hamilton shares more details on Apple’s F1 movie ahead of Silverstone filming

But this isn’t the first time F1 has travelled this road and, in certain corners of the paddock, there’s a benchmark out there against which it’s going to be compared.

Given the current enthusiasm for movie double-bills, it’s inevitable that the APX movie will be back-to-backed with something of a rather more mature vintage: enter John Frankenheimer’s epic 1966 F1 movie: Grand Prix.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 09: Brad Pitt, star of the upcoming Formula One based movie, Apex, and

Brad Pitt alongside the read F1 drivers, shooting scenes at Silverstone

The parallels are exceptional. As director Joseph Kosinski is doing now, Frankenheimer embedded himself, his cast and crew in the F1 paddock for the season, following the circus across the summer from track to track. He had 1961 World Champion Phil Hill driving his camera car, with the 1966 field making cameo appearances either as themselves or as fictionalised team-mates of the protagonists.

And just like the new movie, Grand Prix used chassis from junior formulae in disguise – albeit F3 cars driven by many of the world’s greatest drivers.

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Squint just a little bit and the action footage in Grand Prix seems real. Perhaps it’s the long sequences of uninterrupted, genuine race footage, perhaps it’s the soundtrack of pure, incredibly loud engines, or maybe it’s seeing all those old, familiar places – different yes, but just the same in all of the important ways, and all shot in glorious Super Panavision 70. Or it might be that star James Garner is very, very good.

Garner died in 2014, his on-screen legacy including half a century and more of starring roles with everyone from Steve McQueen to Ryan Gosling – but, having been well-and-truly bitten by the racing bug, he was always happy to reminisce about the making of Grand Prix. “I enjoyed it, I loved it. We stayed right with it all the way from Monte Carlo [May] to Monza [September] and had such a lot of fun.”

James Garner, Richie Gither, Grand Prix of France, Reims-Gueux, 03 July 1966. Hollywood actor James

James Garner with Richie Ginther during the shooting of the film at Monza

Garner is best known for playing the amiable, wry character: as a romantic lead opposite Doris Day; Hendley the Scrounger, in The Great Escape; and on television as Brett Maverick and Jim Rockford.

But Grand Prix’s Pete Aron is a darker, more brooding character, interested in winning and candid about his willingness to trample over friends to get to the top. It was a part Garner actively sought, having been a fan of open-wheel racing since seeing the 1958 Indy 500. It was also a part he very nearly didn’t get.

READ MORE > F1 in America: The Grand Prix stars who tamed the Brickyard – and how F1 changed the Indy 500 forever

“John Frankenheimer wanted to make a film that would have appeal outside the US. He also wanted actors that would do what he wanted, actors that didn’t have their own opinions but the studio needed box office, and so they wanted a big star. They went for Steve McQueen, but he and Frankenheimer had a meeting and just didn’t get on. I got lucky.”

Frankenheimer took his filming very seriously. Refusing to use speeded-up film, he required his cast to mix it with a bemused-but-willing F1 contingent. Actor Yves Montand, playing Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti, had an early season spin, and thereafter often demanded everyone slow down as he considered it too dangerous. He subsequently had his close-ups filmed being towed by a Ford GT40 – but Garner, entirely in the zone, did all of his own driving.

From left to right, director John Frankenheimer (1930 - 2002) and actors Yves Montand (1921 - 1991)

From left to right, director John Frankenheimer with actors Yves Montand and James Garner

Several months before filming Garner began learning his race craft in California under the tutelage of Bob Bondurant, before the cast assembled for a week-long course at Jim Russell’s racing school.

“By the time I got to Europe I could drive, though I wasn’t very accomplished. Being out on the track – at some really magnificent circuits – with the best drivers in the world tested the nerves.”

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Part of the charm of Grand Prix is the number of cameos from the Formula 1 drivers of the day. World Champions Phil and Graham Hill had character parts as team-mates to the principals, everyone else played himself. “We had Jim Clark, Mike Spence, Bob, Jochen Rindt, Jacky Ickx, Richie Ginther… everybody except Jackie Stewart because he was out for most of the season after an early accident.”

For the live action scenes, the drivers and the cast would assemble and film on a section of each track, completing a few corners in front of the cameras then racing back to the start for another take. Natural competitive instincts and high spirits were a problem: in an effort to be first back to the assembly point, Jo Siffert managed to barrel into a set of track signs and knock three wheels off his car.

John Frankenheimer, Filming of "Grand Prix" film, Circuit de Charade, Clermont-Ferrand, 07 October

Filming for the movie continues in France

The film doesn’t pull any punches juxtaposing the glamour of F1 with the danger of the time. Death and serious injury are reoccurring themes throughout, though none of the drivers seemed to have a problem with this. “I certainly never heard anyone say anything bad about the script, and no-one was hanging their heads when we discussed it,” said Garner. “I guess they just accepted the situation.”

He didn’t exactly play it safe himself. Short of time, the scene at Brands Hatch – where Aron’s Yamura bursts into flames – was filmed with Garner rather than a stuntman driving the car. The realism with which Garner than skids to a stop and leaps from the car owes nothing to the actor’s muse.

READ MORE > TREMAYNE ON STEWART: Celebrating the Flying Scot – 50 years after his third and final championship title

“The fire got a lot bigger than I was expecting – it wasn’t a very comfortable moment and I got out of the car in a real hurry.” It’s an anecdote he told with a chuckle – but the scene left him limping for weeks, both legs bruised from thigh to ankle as a result of scraping past his steering wheel as he hurled himself to safety.

The incident led to insurers cancelling Garner’s policy for the final two months of shooting, a threat they had made earlier in the season when an agent caught the star flying through Blanchimont at 130mph during the sort of torrential downpour anybody who watched the 2023 Belgian Grand Prix will be familiar with.

Actor James Garner stars as american Grand Prix driver Pete Aron, who is fired by his Jordan-BRM

James Garner about to make a quick getaway from his car – with the fire “a lot bigger than I was expecting”

Garner again, speaking with the comfort of hindsight, remembered it fondly: “Yes, Spa could be scary in the rain but it’s the best circuit in the world and you wouldn’t want to give it anything but your best.” Interestingly, it’s Spa that Garner named his favourite track, rather than the usual celebrity hang out of Monaco.

Monte Carlo, he said, “…was pleasant, everything that you would expect really,” but his highlight of the South of France wasn’t the atmosphere, but the quiet presence on the set of the great five-times world champion Juan Manuel Fangio.

READ MORE > TREMAYNE ON FANGIO: Why F1’s first record breaker is still revered by racing fans decades after he left the stage

Today, it’s Frankenheimer’s footage at Monaco that allows us to see the debut of Bruce McLaren’s eponymous new team in crisp colour, rather than a few grainy moments of black-and-white newsreel footage – Bruce ruffling a few feathers by running not in the colours of New Zealand but instead in the green-and-white livery of the fictional Yamura team

It’s the sort of blurring of the boundaries threaded through the movie that marks out Grand Prix not only as three hours of enthralling Hollywood drama but also as a vivid, living time capsule, capturing the golden era of F1 like nothing else. If the new F1 movie has the same appeal half a century from now, it will have done its job very well indeed.

Grand Prix trailer