Garner plays Pete Aron, an American driver who is fired by his team after causing an accident that seriously injures his British team-mate Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford). While Stoddard recuperates and deals with his doubts that he can live up to his illustrious brother's reputation, Pete Aron has an affair with Stoddard's wife and signs up with the Japanese Yamura team - a new and so far unsuccessful outfit. Meanwhile over at the historic Ferrari team, veteran and former champion Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is cynical and burned-out while his team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) is a young up-and-coming charger.
The movie follows these four drivers through the season until the championship comes down to one last race. Aron wins and is reconciled to Stoddard, but it is a hollow victory: Sarti has been killed in an accident earlier in the race and Aron is left walking the circuit alone.
John Frankenheimer peppers what could have been a cheesy melodrama with stunning racing sequences - a combination of scenes filmed during the 1966 Formula One season, stunt driving by some of the top F1 drivers of the day and modified Formula Three cars driven by the actors themselves. James Garner in particular did all his own driving and indeed would often best the "real" drivers in races among the cast.
Several of the characters wear the helmet designs of the drivers of the day: James Garner sports New Zealander Chris Amon's helmet, Brian Bedford wears the tartan stripe of Jackie Stewart and Yves Montand swaps partway from John Surtees' lid to Mike Parkes as Parkes replaced Surtees at Ferrari midway through the season in real life. The "real life" drivers appear as extras throughout the racing scenes, even with the occasional line. In fact, real-life champions Phil and Graham Hill (no relation) were even given minor roles and character names.
The film won Oscars for Best Sound Effects, Best Sound Design and Best Film Editing, with Saul Bass providing some memorable graphic sequences with tiled images while the racing sequences were accompanied by no incidental music, rather the loud blare of V8 engines, the squeal of tyres and an excitable commentator.
This film contains examples of:
- Anyone Can Die: Sarti gets killed in the film's climax at the Italian Grand Prix.
- Artistic License History:
- The Italian Grand Prix is shown to be held at the 10 kilometer, combined course (road course + oval) configuration of Monza. While the real combined course of Monza was used for several Formula One races in real life, it last held a Formula One race in 1961; Formula One had stopped the usage of the oval following Wolfgang von Trips' fatal accident at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix (which actually occurred at the flat Parabolica curve leading onto the home stretch, not on either end of the high-banked oval).
- The actual 1966 French Grand Prix was held at Reims-Gueux (the last time the track would host a championship Formula One race), but the producers eventually decided to held the French Grand Prix at Circuit de Charade (aka Clermont-Ferrand) because it provides more beautiful shots than Reims.
- The order of the races is changed somewhat from the real 1966 F1 Season. The real season went Monaco - Belgium - France - Britain - Netherlands - Germany - Italy - United States - Mexico, whereas the film's season goes Monaco - France - Belgium - Germany - Netherlands - United States - Mexico - Britain - Italy. Since the races in the United States and Mexico were not filmed at, and mentioned but not seen in the film, this allowed the season climax to take place at a race that was acutally shown in the film.
- Badass Driver: Considering it's a film about Formula One, it's not surprising at all to see the film be full of this.
- Between the four lead actors, James Garner turned out to be one. Garner was so competent at driving, he ended up becoming a part-time racing driver later in his life, and some of the professional drivers that took part in the film said that Garner could have been a successful Formula One driver if he hadn't gone into acting.
- Bittersweet Ending: Pete Aron wins the Italian Grand Prix and the championship, and is able to reconcile with Stoddard, but Sarti has been killed in an accident earlier in the race. The final scene of the film shows Aron walking up the front stretch of Monza alone.
- The Cameo: A lot of the drivers participating in the actual 1966 Formula One season ended up making cameos in the film, and some of them were even shown talking to the cast of the film.
- Cool Car: Much like Rush (2013) and Le Mans, every car on the grid is this.
- Fake Shemp:
- Brian Bedford couldn't drive at all, thus his character, Scott Stoddard, had to be played by then-future three-time Formula One champion Jackie Stewart for all scenes where Stoddard is shown driving. The only time Bedford's face was shown while he was in the car was during close-up shots that show Stoddard's face. This is also the reason why Stoddard wore balaclavas: to hide the fact that it's actually Stewart driving.
- As the Yamura manufacturer was a fictional one, the producers had to strike a deal with Bruce McLaren's debuting McLaren team to have their cars painted in the white-green colors of Yamura.
- During filming, two cases of Fake Shemp of a Fake Shemp happened as a result of the production team needing to film Yamura racing footages despite the McLaren's absence in the actual race weekend:
- In the Belgian Grand Prix, McLaren had to withdraw their car before the race due to wheel bearing issues. The producers quickly painted Bob Bondurant's BRM in the Yamura colours, but this ended up being in vain as Bondurant was among one of the many drivers to crash on the very first lap of the race.
- For the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, the McLaren once again was unable to take part because the Serenissima engine that the car used had failed in practice and the McLaren team did not bring any backup engines to the track. This time, Mike Spence's Lotus-BRM was painted in the Yamura colors for the race itself. Spence was able to make it to the checkered flag in fifth place, albeit three laps down from race winner Jack Brabham.
- Fatal Method Acting: In-Universe with Sarti's fatal accident at Monza.
- No Antagonist: While many of the characters are fairly unlikeable, none of them is presented as an outright villain.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Ferrari team principal Agostini Manetta is very obviously based on real-life team boss Enzo Ferrari.
- Spectator Casualty: Two spectators at Spa who illegally jumped into the track were killed after being struck by Sarti, who crashed out after the front-left suspension of his Ferrari failed.
- That One Level: In-Universe, considering this is from an era where safety is pretty much an afterthought, a lot of the tracks that the drivers race were this. Nürburgring and Spa-Francorchamps (back then still running the 14 km layout) were the most notable among the many dangerous tracks the drivers raced.
- Truth in Television: Grand Prix racing of the day was ridiculously dangerous. Of the 32 professional drivers featured, five would die in the cockpit in the next two years and another five in the following ten.
- Undercrank: Averted; Frankenheimer believed audiences would be able to tell the difference, and filmed the cars at normal speed.