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Formula 1

How Steve McQueen lost the race to create the first F1 film

by Jack Benyon
4 min read

A new Sky documentary using never before seen footage tells the story of the lost Formula 1 film started by mega star Steve McQueen in the 1960s.

Narrated by legendary talkshow host and reigning Indianapolis 500 winning team owner David Letterman, Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie takes us back to 1965 when a war broke out between two Hollywood movie studio giants over who would get a film about Grand Prix racing to screen first.

It was triggered in part by the book The Cruel Sport by Robert Daley, which brought home the danger of 1960s Formula 1 and the staggering number of lives being lost in the sport.

At this point already a keen racing driver, McQueen and director John Sturges had just worked together on The Great Escape – which helped elevate McQueen to a new stratospheric level. It also intrinsically linked him to danger and stunts.

Mcqueen: The Lost Film

The gritty world of danger and death behind the glamorous facade of F1 racing was the perfect story then for the world’s biggest film star to portray on screen.

But The Lost Movie explains a chance encounter at a dinner event where fellow director John Frankenheimer was seated next to Sturges and told him how he and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were about to announce a new film, also about F1.

This was down to The Cruel Sport; author Daley’s representative had reportedly shook hands with Sturges and Warner Brothers over the rights to the book but Daley had worked a deal with MGM.

The two picture houses proceeded full steam ahead, but both knew it was a race between them to get a film out first as being the second F1 film to hit cinemas in a year would surely put off viewers.

Named ‘Day of the Champion’, McQueen’s film got off to the best of starts. It was the first to begin filming at the Nurburgring in 1965, and attracted Stirling Moss as an advisor as well as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart.

Clark would go on to complete the unprecedented feat of winning the F1 title and Indy 500 that year, making it an ideal period for a movie founded on authenticity, something McQueen would again later demand in his 1971 film Le Mans.

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It’s here in 1965 this documentary really excels. It’s slightly slow-paced as it sets the scene of McQueen’s childhood – not desperately needed here given how many documentaries on McQueen exist – but the ‘new’ footage is worth the watch alone.

Yes, Letterman as host, some well-respected industry insiders and motorsport journalists are a nice accoutrement – even Stewart is interviewed – but nothing can rival onboard and helicopter footage of the Nordschleife in never-before-seen film reels of unrivalled quality from the era.

The documentary’s archive consultant Richard Wiseman is constantly behind some of the best footage finds when it comes to motorsport pictures and it’s no surprise to see his name associated with this documentary. He told The Race how, bafflingly, this was one of his easier treasure hunts…

“This I found on a footage library’s public-facing website while looking for something else,” says Wiseman. “I did a double-take, and thought, “Shit! Is that what I think it is?!”

Sadly, for all the effort that went into Day of the Champion in period, its secondary filming phase was delayed as the later Oscar-winning Sand Pebbles movie delayed McQueen out in Asia.

Mcqueen: The Lost Film

He and many of the cast were struck down with illness and a host of delays on the McQueen/Sturges project meant Frankenheimer was able to commit to a large amount of filming across 1966.

He was able to persuade many of the drivers and even Ferrari about the seriousness of his picture through his omni-presence at races while McQueen – desperate to return and film his dream movie – was stuck in production delays.

Warner cancelled The Day of the Champion, and Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix hit cinemas to high acclaim in late 1966, starring McQueen’s Great Escape co-star James Garner. Garner’s accepting of the role had not gone down well with his Hollywood neighbour, McQueen.

It’s hard to disagree with Letterman when he says: “This is the untold story of the best movie never made…”

It has Sky’s typical flawless finish and a great ‘supporting cast’, but it’s the unseen archive footage of the Nurburgring in 1965 that really is astounding, and something any motor racing fan should love.

Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie will be available on Sky’s streaming platform on Jan 1, and will also be aired on its ‘Sky Documentaries’ channel at 0200hrs and 2100hrs on the same day GMT

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