Motor Racing At The BBC: That Petrol Emotion

Tuesday 26 March 2013, 11:27

Francis Welch Francis Welch Producer/Director

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Today Formula 1 motor racing is one of the most popular and lucrative sports in the world, watched by millions and attracting huge sponsorship and television deals.

But when Grand Prix racing originally developed its own World Championship in 1950 it was a different era all together. This is what we wanted to explore when we started making Motor Racing At The BBC: That Petrol Emotion.

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Juan Fangio drives the race of his life in the 1957 German Grand Prix

The brief for the series was very explicit - to make five films which drew exclusively on the BBC's own archive to show what the world of F1 was like before the contemporary era.

The first challenge was to mine the BBC archive, and we soon found that many of these films were in a very poor condition and hadn't been viewed for decades. At the same time as the World Championships started, the BBC was also entering a new phase of broadcasting.

It became clear that there was a wealth of fascinating material, not just of Grand Prix races but of all aspects of motoring and at a time when Britain as a society was changing rapidly.

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The Mini Cooper gives ordinary drivers the chance to connect with motor racing

One of the stars of the first episode wasn't a driver, but the BBC’s own motoring correspondent, former Spitfire fighter pilot Raymond Baxter.

I felt strongly that the series should be made without any narrator and that characters like Baxter would tell their own story in their own words.

There were two major influences for this style: the recent cinema documentary about Ayrton Senna and the BBC's own The Rock'n'Roll Years.

I felt the archive could talk directly to you, the audience, and we would use only short captions where necessary. I wanted you to be totally immersed in the world of the archive.

Some of the archive is shocking - I will never forget watching the footage of British driver David Purley trying in vain to save Roger Williamson from his burning car at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1973. And then learning that he himself had died in a flying accident a decade later, after retiring from motor racing.

With the exception of making documentaries about World War II, I don’t think I have ever worked on a series where so many of the main characters died.

The contemporary era is relatively safe, indeed no driver has been killed on the track since Senna in 1994, but in the 1950s and 1960s several drivers a year were killed, including many of the world champions we feature like Mike Hawthorn and Jim Clark.

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Jack Brabham wins the Formula 1 World Championship in 'spectacular' fashion

But the footage also revealed a lost world of charming and eccentric characters who injected great humour into broadcasting. Many of them featured in Wheelbase, the BBC's first motoring programme and the forerunner of Top Gear.

The Wheelbase presenters helped cement the sport's glamorous appeal with numerous reports from the south of France where its presenters reported from the Monte Carlo Rally and Monaco Grand Prix, but also took in the local vineyards and restaurants.

Through the 1960s and 1970s they covered international races from across Europe, South America and Africa and in the days before many Britons holidayed abroad, these reports offered a glimpse of the exotic.

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Wheelbase reports from Monte Carlo: 'The most glamorous rally in the world'

To help us present this old material in a fresh and stylish way we worked with the graphic design house, BDH. We edited the films at their studio and incorporated their graphics as we cut the material. They created the opening title sequence and the whole graphic look of the series.

As much of the film was mute (the sound had been lost many years ago) we also plundered the BBC's radio archive for material from interviews and race commentaries.

I wanted music to be a driving force and we put together a soundtrack from the period, consisting not only of pop hits of the day by artists like Little Richard and Link Wray but from film scores by composers like John Barry.

We wanted to use the BBC archive to take the audience into a disappeared world before Formula 1 became the big business it is today.

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‘It was an incredible event because you had to pass about 500 or 600 people’

Everyone who worked on the series has their favourite piece of archive – and although it's a tough call I would probably choose the footage of Stirling Moss winning the 1955 Mille Miglia - it perfectly captures what the series is about - the excitement and glamour of a British driver racing to victory through the beautiful and unspoilt countryside of what was then far-off, impossibly sexy Italy.

Francis Welch is the producer of episodes onethree and four of Motor Racing At The BBC: That Petrol Emotion.

Motor Racing At The BBC: That Petrol Emotion continues on Mondays at 8.30pm on BBC Four. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Have watched the first two episodes and have to say, it's brilliant work. This is plenty good enough to appear on a mainstream channel rather than being tucked away on BBC4!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Why is this motor racing series "not available" on iplayer?

    I'd like to catch up then watch the third in the series whenever it is on.

    If there is any chance to, please put this series on iplayer, it's bad enough that F1 is not live on BBC anymore...

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Hello janner_ (#2)
    Thanks for your good question. The answer as to why the series isn't available on iPlayer is due to rights agreements involving the use of the footage contained in the series which don't allow the BBC to make it available on demand. Sorry it's not better news - however the TV broadcasts and repeats will be listed on the episode guide. Episode two is repeated at 9.05pm on Sunday and then the series continues with episode three on Monday at 8.30pm. Thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    You have a music page but the music I want the name and artist for is not on there! What is the music that is played in episode 1 when mike hawthorn is described as passing away after "Ian Black" wins sports personality of the year. It is an instrumental piece. Please help!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Hi, missed the programme last night. I understand there was some footage of a slot racing meeting. Can anyone tell me what meeting it was, or if I can see it again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Yes, this stuff deserves airing more often. Some years ago the BBC made a documentary on Graham Hill, but didn't broadcast it for some unexplained reason. I saw it on VHS and it was fabulous. Why not dig it out of the archive now and show it. Please !

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I understand why therere are rights issues with showing this on-demand, but this is a brilliant series and surely it has wide appeal. So why was it so hard to find it when it aired? There seemed to be little or no trails for it - and God knows everything else is trailed ad nauseam.

    If you show the series again, can you please let us know? This is one series I'd be happy to see repeats of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Have watched the first two episodes of the series and found them fascinating.The second one featured my father,who passed away in 1993.He was sat on the new BRM and was shown for about 10 seconds.Is there any way i can buy/get hold of the film,or any more unshown footage?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    You might enjoy my review of this wonderful series -

    Thank you for making this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    i have only just been told of this programme by a work colleague, and it looks amazing from the clips ive seen! Please repeat the whole series again soon and avertise it for us who have missied it, this was the real days of motor racing when the cars and drivers were one, not like todays corporate money making racing where the driver is just an accessory!
    Please please please repeat the whole series soon!! And if the BBC has such a wealth of motor racing in their archives how about sharing it with us all!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    A fabulous series. It has brought back many childhood memories and emotions. My two young sons have found it fascinating and judging by some of their comments I believe they may grow up to work in Health and Safety!
    If the restrictions preventing it being put on the iPlayer cannot be resolved, get it out on disc ASAP!.
    A huge success. Thank You.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Amazing serious so far. Stumbled across the 1st episode by mistake when bored and scrolling through the channels. I am to young to remember the early footage but has been fascinating to show the differences in tracks, safety,the drivers attitudes and cars.
    Just feel gutted for the people that did not about this serious.
    Best programme/serious of the year.
    Thank you for enlightening me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    But its the end of F1! gone the same way of every sport on the bbc "MONEY" they sold out! to pay for the lavish cloths and locations for programms on shows of the disingbowled past, no longer can the subscribed take in the richness of sport they gave us now we have to subscribe to the fat cat Murdoc empire that rapes our tv. Vini

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Love watching the old archives of grand prix racing. F1 has such a rich history and we as Brits should be proud we have been so profound and have been a part of that history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I've only managed to catch two episodes of this great series, mainly due to its not having been very well promoted. Disappointed that it's not available on iPlayer and agree with others that it ought to be made available on DVD. Also, please advertise/promote programmes like this more extensively, perhaps on the F1 sports page. The BBC must have a wealth of material to produce more programmes like this which, I'm sure, would be of great interest to motorsport fans of whatever age. Thanks for this one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Just seen the last programme. What a fantastic series, lots of footage that i've never seen before. Thanks to the BBC and all the people involved in making it. Only one small thing, think i saw a wrong caption for the 1976 British Grand Prix footage, said it was Silverstone but obviously it's Brands Hatch! Would love to see it released on dvd with extended footage maybe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    ...Definately 'The Glory days of Formula One'.
    Today the cars are driven by boys barely out of school, with it all financed from the 'getgo' by 'racing dads' !
    Brian Henton's private F1 team is considered to be a quaint dream today but was a reality in the 1970's as shown in last night's final episode!
    That's why it was called motorsport back then...Today it's a motor business run for decades by a 'feudal system' promoting elitism...! I don't watch Formula one motor business anymore....I'm sure no one is crying over that fact in the F1 paddock club !

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Got to say . . . Loved the series, remember most of it from a small boy to the great days of the 70's and a bit into the 80's. After this it all went sort of downhill for me, eventually too much control by one man I'm afraid. Anyway back to the real stuff and real cars (not the aerodynamic Airfix kits of now !). Will watch them all again when they come around, is their a DVD series due ? Finally a bit of correction required by your production team. You stated that in 1976 the British Grand Prix was from Silverstone (or at least that's what the opening title said) it was in fact from Brands Hatch. I know cos I was there that day ! I was standing at Druids bend up from Paddock Hill Bend where the major 1st lap crash was ! They used to annualy alternate between circuits in those days. Keep up the good work on nostalgic GP history or maybe a quick look at the Mille Miglia or Targa Florio . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Re: "music that is played in episode 1 when mike hawthorn is described as passing away"
    Yes I would like to know that peice of music too ! Not listed at all?? Sounded great with my headphones on !

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    For Djt1982 and Jim:
    The music listings for the episode are not shown in the order in which they are played in the programme! The instrumental piece you ask about is "The Girl With the Sun in Her Hair", composed and played by John Barry. It was originally the theme for a television commercial. There is more than one arrangement out there, but that used in the programme is available as an mp3, although of course I can't give you a link.


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