by James Kraus
I had a scrumptious multi-course feast last week while watching Grand Prix (1966), my favourite motor racing film. This is the third time I have done so.
And it was all due to Olivier Gendebien. Olivier was one of the top racing drivers in the golden era. He was an accomplished driver across the spectrum, winning the Rome-Liège-Rome rally of 1955 in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, securing second place at the 1960 French Grand Prix in a Cooper-Climax, and claiming victory for Ferrari at Le Mans in 1958 and from 1960 thru 1962.
In 1961, he pulled off a triple, winning Le Mans, Sebring and the Targa Florio. After his fourth victory at Le Mans, he retired from racing and settled near Les Baux de Provence.
In the Winter of 1999, I participated in the 10th Monte-Carlo Challenge. After the final event festivities in Monte-Carlo, I stayed in the South to unwind and relax. While waiting for the Carnivale to get underway in Nice, I drove to St. Remy de Provence, where I ensconced myself at the Domaine de Valmouriane, a hotel located just outside the village. The Valmouriane is home to the Salon de Gendebien, filled with mementos of Olivier’s career.
It was there that I chanced to meet a fellow enthusiast at the bar, where I was sampling some local aperitifs. After much discussion, it was insisted that I come to his home the following evening and watch his videotape copy of Grand Prix. I was interested since I had only ever seen bits and pieces on television – never the entire three-hour long movie.
It was an evening to remember as we watched the film while dining like Medieval Provencal Counts. One can put away quite a lot in three hours time.
We started with boiled eggs and vegetables with aioli accompanied by a bit of Pastis 51. Following that came a fine Pebronata (veal stew with peppers) with a couple of bottles of Cuvée Louis David from the nearby Mas Sainte Berthe winery (who also produce a fine olive oil.) Finally, as the Italian Grand Prix at Monza was getting underway on the screen, we finished our meal with a Tarte au Citron paired with a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.
When Grand Prix was finally released on DVD in 2006 in proper wide-screen format, I bought a copy straight away. Before watching, I set about figuring a way to properly pay homage to that memorable viewing seven years earlier.
I eventually arrived at a plan. I would watch the film while partaking of a fine feast, but this time basing the menu on the regional cuisine associated with the various race circuits featured in the film.
I set a date and invited others who shared the necessary qualifications of vintage motoring enthusiast and accomplished amateur chef. Each of us would be responsible for preparing one course and selecting an appropriately matching beverage.
If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend it highly. It is at once a fictional story and a fairly accurate documentary on Formula One racing in the mid-sixties. Not only were real drivers (Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Phil Hill, Richie Ginter and others) and journalists (Bernard Cahier) used in minor roles; the fictional scenes are intercut with scenes shot of the corresponding genuine GP races of 1966.
Helmed by automotive enthusiast (known for his fondness for Ferraris and Mercedes-Benz 6.3 and 6.9s) and director (Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May) John Frankenheimer, Grand Prix set a high bar for racing films that has yet to be equaled.
Seeing the DVD version in the original wide-screen format was a revelation.
This was the golden era of F1 racing and one of the last years before cars and drivers became mobile advertising billboards. The bodies were sleek, smooth monocoques with no add-on aerodynamic addenda and simply and elegantly painted in the national colors of their teams. Best of all for the technically inclined, the engines were completely exposed.
During shooting in the rain at Spa, a number of accidents took place that were not in the script. These were kept in the final film, adding another layer of realism.
It is not just the spectacle on the track that delight, the paddocks are filled with a number of period treasures, including a beautiful Ferrari 330 GTC, a Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman and one of the very stylish 1957 burgundy-and-red Fiat 642 RN2 Ferrari Automobili transporters by Carrozzeria Bartoletti.
The film was shot in ultra-wide-screen Super Panavision 70 and features wonderful split and mutiscreen images by inimitable graphic designer Saul Bass. Cinematographer Lionel Lindon took pains to fully fill the expansive 2.20:1 65 mm frame in every shot, each rendered in rich, vivid Technicolor.
Another feast for the eyes is the lusciously beautiful French songstress Françoise Hardy, who plays the girlfriend of fictional driver Nino Barlini (a character based on real-life F1 driver Lorenzo Bandini.)
Since a couple of years had passed, we decided to repeat our Fête de le Grand Prix. This year the dishes were as follows:
The opening “Monaco” course was Pissaladiere with Bandol Rosé from Domaine Tempier. Pissaladiere is a classic delicacy of the Riviera; a pizza with onions, olives, garlic and anchovies. And of course nothing says Côte d’Azur better than a bottle of good Rosé.
Our “Spa” dish was a classic Belgian preparation; moules (mussels) steamed and served with broth of beer with bacon, shallots, leeks, Dijon mustard and a splash of cream.
The “Brands Hatch” course served as the entrée this time around; lamb chops with a red currant and white-wine vinegar reduction with roast potatoes. This was of course accompanied in the storied British tradition with a fine Claret, in this case a 1994 Château Troplong-Mondot St. Emilion.
Our “Monza” course served as dessert with biscotti and Ramazzotti Amaro. Ramazzotti is a classic Milanese digestivo with a good balance of bitter and sweet with a hint of orange peel. Italy’s original bitter liqueur, it was first produced nearly 200 years ago.
Fans of the Principality will have a field day watching Grand Prix as the classic atmosphere of Monte-Carlo is displayed in the film at length. By 1966, there were already a few high-rise buildings in Monaco, but not nearly as many as today. The tunnel that forms part of the race circuit was but a small narrow archway, and the circuit hairpin was still known as the Station Hairpin because it was next to the train station.
The DVD also contains a worthwhile making-of documentary, updated with interviews and comments from journalists Simon Taylor and Peter Windsor. As to why I prefer Grand Prix above all other race films, I most likely could not express it any better than Peter Hall and Simon Arron in their tribute that appeared in the Telegraph.
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