Jackie Stewart on his Polanski film’s Cannes return

Jackie Stewart and Roman Polanski. Picture: Contributed
Jackie Stewart and Roman Polanski. Picture: Contributed
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OVER forty years ago a film by Roman Polanski captured Jackie Stewart on a Monaco Grand Prix weekend. That film has been reworked and will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival, but for the former Formula 1 world champion, it brings back some painful memories.

There was a time when Sir Jackie Stewart would stride through the glitz and glamour of the Cannes Film Festival with the swagger of Brad Pitt, but the flat-capped Scotsman hadn’t expected to be the star attraction at the age of 73. The festival gets under way tonight but next Wednesday Sir Jackie and Lady Stewart will be guests of honour at the epicentre of movie-unveiling with a film, Weekend of a Champion, produced by Roman Polanski over 40 years ago.

A still from Weekend of a Champion. Picture: Contributed

A still from Weekend of a Champion. Picture: Contributed

“I know, bizarre isn’t it?” said Sir Jackie from his Buckinghamshire office this week. “We’re in there among all these great new films, the stars of Hollywood and world cinema, at the Cannes Film Festival, the red carpet, and it’s a 40-year-old film. I haven’t even seen the finished article yet. I’ve seen the footage from 40 years ago but not the up-to-date stuff, so I’ll be seeing it for the first time. It has me excited.”

Since retiring from Formula 1, Stewart has remained closely linked to the multimillion- pound industry, so six-star hotels, opening nights and being treated like royalty has not left his life altogether. But the dyslexic boy who grew out of Dumbuck Garage in Milton, Dunbartonshire, to become lauded worldwide is usually a quietly spoken, considered character, so the excitement emanating from him this week is intriguing.

So, what is the movie all about? The name Polanski gives you an idea of the quality of film-making, although Polanski, the man behind Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist, brought American Frank Simon in to direct Weekend of a Champion, and the fact that it focuses intimately on the life of an F1 driver at the peak of his powers brings a pulsing, sporting dimension. But there is more in this crafted documentary, which is what attracted those who decide what’s hot in Cannes.

The premise for the film was simply following Stewart, the 1969 World Champion, on a Monaco weekend in 1971. Polanski said recently: “I was very interested in motor racing and I was friends with Jackie. We saw each other often back then. I wanted to make a film about a friend, a great champion and a fascinating man. He was already famous. He was a kind of rock star who was very popular, who represented the fun and freedom that characterised the 1970s. But he was also very disciplined, intelligent and a champion of safety. It was thanks to him that we now have all kinds of security measures such as guard rails, and red lights behind when it rains.

“Jackie fought for all that, along with other drivers, but he was the leader, the one who negotiated with the organisers and auto manufacturers to get things changed and make the racetracks less dangerous. You realise now that all the drivers in the scene where they line up to shake hands with the Prince of Monaco have died in racing accidents.”

That is the thread that links the original film from a weekend in the 1970s to the present day, and what makes it a unique piece of theatre. It was distributed at the time, but documentaries rarely attracted much interest and so one showing on UK television and a Berlin Film Festival prize was all that it garnered.

It was only when a film lab contacted Polanski four years ago to say they were throwing out old negatives that he asked for a print and sat down and watched it again. He was mesmerised. He ordered a master and, working with Stewart’s son, Mark, a filmmaker in his own right, improved the original film – cutting 30 minutes from it, and adding archive material and sound. He then sat down with his old friend the racing hero to reflect on that weekend, and the 40 years since, a camera capturing their thoughts.

And that is what makes this film come to life, the contrast between a highly dangerous motorsport world of 40 years ago, the grainy images and Stewart’s rock-star long hair and sideburns, and the world of change to cars, tracks and Sir Jackie since. The closeness of the pair is evident, Polanski and Simon having also turned the camera on Sir Jackie’s wife, Helen, and shown some of what an F1 driver’s wife experiences, which came through the relationship Polanski and his wife Sharon had with the Stewarts.

It is debatable whether there have been great racing drivers to garner such public affection in any one decade since, but over four there have been a number of colourful and diverse men in racing machines, and as a commentator on that period of major change Sir Jackie provides masterful insight. Not least on life and death.

“It has been 19 years and nine days since a driver was killed,” he said when we spoke a few days ago. “In that window where I was racing at my peak, 1968-73, there was a two out of three chance every time you raced that you would be killed. 66 per cent chance of dying in a race. A one-in-three chance that you would come out of the car at the end of the race alive. Kids won’t believe that. My great friend Jimmy Clark died on 7 April, 1968 at Hockenheim; on 7 May, 1968 Mike Spence – who’d taken over from Jimmy at Lotus – was killed at Indianapolis; on 7 June, [Ludovico] Scarfiotti died on a hill climb in Germany; and on 7 July Jo Schlesser was killed in the French Grand Prix.

“The next race was at Nurburgring on 4 August and the rain was teeming down. The race would never have been allowed to start now, but off we went, crazy, and I managed to win by four minutes. But with the weather and the way the track went off into the wilds then if someone had gone off as drivers we wouldn’t have known, so the first thing I said when I got out of the car was, ‘Is everyone alright?’

“We’d also lost John Taylor and Lorenzo Bandini just before that year, and then Gerhard Mitter, Martin Brain, Piers Courage, Jochen Rindt, Jo Siffert, Roger Williamson, Francois Cevert – all in F1 Grand Prix after that. You look at the film and you’ll see the kerbstones we raced around in Monaco. Big kerb-stones, normal kerbs, like the ones you have in your street, not the flat kerbs they actually ride over now. When we hit a kerb you’d burst a tyre or break a wheel at speed, and that caused an almighty accident.

“It was part of racing and accepted, but it wasn’t right. I have been to far more funerals and memorial services than anyone I know. But I think that period in my life was the making of me. It could have been the breaking of me. But that is why I have worked hard to have safety changed.”

Sir Jackie and Polanski discuss this throughout the new film and compare the drivers of then with the “rock stars” of now. After the recent spats between Jenson Button and his McLaren teammate Sergio Perez, after touching wheels at 300kph (186mph), Stewart says: “They still have to be careful because they are driving finely-tuned machines over 200 miles per hour, but I do think that Jenson, [Sebastien] Vettel, Lewis [Hamilton] and even Michael [Schumacher] do not realise how much safer it is now.

“The progression from the 1960s to now has been enormous so that even when accidents occur we know with the way the cars are now built, the guard rails etc, that they will collapse protecting the driver on most occasions. That’s why we haven’t had a death for 19 years and nine days. But, the drivers are still the same animal. We are a certain type of animal. I don’t think [Fernando] Alonso is any different to me. Vettel, [Kimi] Räikkönen, Schumacher, [Emerson] Fittipaldi, [Nelson] Piquet and back to Stirling Moss and Fangio before me.

“It’s the same sort of person who gets in a car and drives it at that speed, the kind you see jumping out of helicopters onto the tops of mountains and then skiing down extremely steep gradients. An F1 driver has a split-second to calculate risks, and they do it very, very well. Actually, it’s a moment on the track, but very few things happen there that are unrehearsed, that they haven’t studied and worked out in their mind, but I rest easier now knowing that when they do get it wrong, be it the driver or mechanical failure, they are safer now.”

That is the subtext of the film, the current of danger that courses under the excitement of watching a world champion at his work, which brings a depth to Weekend of a Champion. The documentary film Senna of the last F1 driver to be killed in competition, Ayrton Senna, was gripping, but this is different because it comes from the perspective of just two men essentially, Polanski and Stewart, and the closeness between them is clear.

Polanski’s wife, Sharon, was murdered by members of the Manson family in 1969, which Sir Jackie recounts with difficulty, while Polanski faced his own demons when he was charged in the US, and pleaded guilty to sex with a minor, a 13-year-old girl, after a photoshoot in 1977, but fled sentencing and was effectively on the run until 2009, living in London and his birthplace of France, when he was arrested by Swiss authorities and then released. Whatever that might have done to their relationship, Stewart is not about to reveal. He sees only a close friend who shares a deep love of motorsport.

“You look back and realise 40 years is a long time, and actually in many ways it’s not,” he says. “The strange thing is that Roman had no idea how that weekend would turn out, and neither did I. I could easily have had an accident at the first bend and that would have been it. No win, no film and no Cannes.”

Stewart is a unique kind of sporting survivor and this film will add new insight to the history of world motorsport.