‘Ferrari: Race To Immortality’ relives glory and horror of F1’s early years

(CNN) — The 1950s were the golden age of motorsport but amid the glory and glamor there were many dark days — especially for Ferrari.

The first decade of F1 was an unprecedented success for the Italian team which won 29 grands prix and four world titles, helping lay the foundations for the brand that became the most prestigious in the automotive world.

But with the triumphs came a series of human tragedies as “Ferrari: Race to Immortality,” a new documentary about the rise of the Italian team tells in graphic detail.

The film focuses on the stories of five Ferrari pilots: Italians Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso, Spanish aristocrat turned racing driver Alfonso de Portago, and British stars Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.

Four of them ended up paying the ultimate price, dying on track in a horror-strewn 18 months for Ferrari.

In March 1957, Castellotti was killed while attempting to set a lap record at the Ferrari test track in Modena. Two months later he was followed by de Portago when the Spaniard crashed out of the Mille Miglia (a 1,000-mile Italian road race).

Worse was to follow when Musso was fatally injured at the French Grand Prix in July 1958, a month before Collins spun off at the treacherous Nurburgring while competing in the German Grand Prix.

Hawthorn survived his F1 career, retiring at the end of 1958 after becoming world champion. But three months later he was also dead — crashing off the road on his way up to London from his home in Surrey.

They were all pushed to their limits by the autocratic Enzo Ferrari who famously heaped pressure on his drivers, pitting them against one another in the belief that it would improve performance.

But they all did it willingly.

“Ferrari is a dictator,” de Portago says at one point in the film. “If he doesn’t like you he won’t sell you a car but as far as I’m concerned he’s a wonderful guy.”

The film is peppered with graphic footage of crashes and their aftermaths, including the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race which killed 82 spectators, but there are also many unguarded moments off the track.

“It’s got some brutal elements, but also at the same time it’s got some beautiful elements,” the film’s director Daryl Goodrich told CNN.

“It’s that contrast of the beauty of the era, but with that came the danger.”

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Goodrich spent 18 months trawling through the archives — 80% of the film draws on footage shot at the time.

The mood of the story was transformed, he says, with the discovery of cine film shot by fellow F1 racer Wolfgang Von Trips who captured the drivers off track and on their travels to and from races.

“It was kind of a game changer,” Goodrich says of the footage shot by Von Trips, who also died behind the wheel of a Ferrari, crashing at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix killing himself and 15 spectators.

“It gave a different feel to the film, made it much more personal, much more candid. Because it was so behind the scenes it draws viewers in.”

What emerges is a portrait that conveys the gut-wrenching horror of the era, but also its human essences and the passions that drove F1’s pioneers.

“Fundamentally, I think they were very fortunate,” Goodrich said. “They were lucky in as much that they were in a position to do something they loved.

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“They were also incredibly brave, putting their life on the line, week in, week out. It was a lottery whether they were going to survive. But nobody forced them to do it.

“I don’t think that’s any different from the racing drivers of today.”

“Ferrari: Race To Immortality” was released in cinemas on Friday November 3 and on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital platforms on Monday November 6