Revealed: 10 great motorsport documentaries from the archives

Elizabeth Blackstock
Jean Alesi in action for Benetton, subject of a 1997 documentary

Benetton F1: A Year in the Fast Lane - the original Drive to Survive

We all know Senna is one of the most stirring racing documentaries ever made, but there are so many stories from the archives that deserve attention, too.

These docs were filmed and released while the stories they tell were contemporary, between the 1950s and the 1990s — which means they offer views on legendary racers like Juan Manuel Fangio or Jim Clark that aren’t colored by retrospect.

Take a trip back in time with these 10 exceptional motorsport documentaries pulled from the archives.

The Racing Scene (1969)

Released in 1969, The Racing Scene follows actor James Garner’s foray into the racing world by following a broad spectrum of events.

Garner had fallen in love with motorsport to the point where he actually founded and funded his own team, and this documentary follows that team’s entry into events as diverse as the Baja 1000, the Daytona 24, and open-wheel Formula 5000 races.

Coming in at just 90 minutes, it’s a fairly short documentary, but it offers an incredible amount of insight into the various racing disciplines of the era.

Weekend of a Champion (1972)

In Weekend of a Champion, controversial filmmaker Roman Polanski spends the weekend of the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix with Tyrrell’s Jackie Stewart.

The original documentary premiered at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival and remained unscreened again for 40 years. The action shots aren’t the star here; instead, you’re getting some critical insight into just what it was like to be a racing driver in the early 1970s, and it’s a fantastic learning experience.

The Quick and the Dead (1975, 1978)

You might know this film by any one of its various names: One by One, The Quick and the Dead, or Champions Forever: The Formula One Drivers.

The premise of the documentary, narrated by Stacy Keach, is to focus on the fragility of life in F1 during the 1970s. It includes interviews with racers like Peter Revson and François Cevert, men who would go on to die in pursuit of their passion for speed, and was re-released several times to be updated as more drivers unfortunately passed.

The film is heavy on footage of fatal crashes, so it isn’t for the faint of heart — but the exceptional interviews with racers of the era easily make up for that.

On Any Sunday (1971)

Directed by Bruce Brown and funded in part by Steve McQueen, On Any Sunday is a classic documentary that attempts to showcase the various skills and personalities required by racers in different disciplines.

That said, it primarily follows the world of motorcycle racing and highlights the mindsets it takes to race in the desert as opposed to on a dirt track. A fantastic film, it went on to inspire generations of children to compete on BMX bikes.

La Caracas (2011)

While La Caracas is technically a more modern release, the film draws heavily on vintage footage from a 1948 event known as “La Buenos Aires-Caracas,” a 10,000-kilometer event featuring some of the most incredible South American and Argentine drivers of the era.

It can be a difficult film to source, but if you get your hands on it, you’ll be rewarded with some fantastic racing footage. recommended reading

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Benetton F1: A Year in the Fast Lane (1997)

This six-part docuseries is something of the original Drive to Survive; Benetton F1: A Year in the Fast Lane follows the iconic F1 team throughout the 1997 F1 season.

If you know your F1 history, you’ll know that 1997 was really Benetton’s final competitive year before it kicked off a downward spiral, but you’ll easily be delighted by the interviews with crew members, driver chats, and “overheard” conversations in busy restaurants.

The Sound of Speed (1962)

The Sound of Speed is something of a mini-documentary; it clocks in at just under 20 minutes in duration, but each second of those 20 minutes is gorgeous.

The short film follows British-American driver Lance Reventlow as he tests his Scarab ahead of the 1960 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix at Riverside. No words are spoken; instead, you’re able to bask in the test session as if you were there yourself.

9 Days in Summer (1967)

9 Days in Summer is technically a promotional film made by the Ford Motor Company, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic documentary.

The title is a reference to the nine F1 cars that Team Lotus entered as part of the 1967 F1 season, but it also follows the development of the Lotus 49 and the iconic Ford-Cosworth DFV engine that came to dominate the F1 world.

If You’re Not Winning, You’re Not Trying (1973)

The 1973 Formula 1 season was one of the most fascinating on record, and If You’re Not Winning, You’re Not Trying is a fly-on-the-wall style doc that follows Team Lotus throughout the year.

The film is only an hour long, but it includes incredible footage of Colin Chapman and racers Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson as they battled for a Championship that ultimately went to Jackie Stewart.

Fangio, el demonio de las pistas (1950)

Fair warning: this film is in Spanish, and it’s also technically more of a scripted film than a documentary — but it’s a delightful contemporary biopic about Juan Manuel Fangio’s first season in Formula 1 racing that features cameos from the man himself.

While it’s not strictly a true story, it does give some amazing insight into the way Fangio was perceived as a hero in his home nation.

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