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Jackie Stewart and his wife Helen in 'Weekend of a Champion' (Photo: Pathe)

With the Monaco Grand Prix taking place this weekend—and the new season of Top Gear premiering Monday—it’s a perfect occasion to take a look at Weekend of a Champion, Roman Polanski‘s documentary about Jackie Stewart, his friend and three-time Grand Prix winner, in the famed race in 1971.

Although you can now watch the movie on Netflix, until very recently it had been unseen for four decades. In fact, as Stewart and Polanski tell the story, it was at risk of being lost altogether.

Forty years after the movie’s very limited release in Europe, Polanski got a call from Technicolor’s London labs, which was discarding all its old negatives, including that of Weekend of a Champion.

“They asked me what they should do with the film,” Polanski said. “My instruction was, ‘Hold on, wait a second.'”

Polanski decided to re-release the movie, slightly re-editing it and adding a 15-minute epilogue in the form of a conversation between himself and his old chum.

The two reflect on racing and the way it’s changed in the ensuing years—and also about ’70s hairstyles and outrageous sideburns. “It seemed to be the longer the sideburn, the faster you went,” Stewart says in the film.

The new version, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, offers a fascinating snapshot of another era and a moving portrait of a racing giant, whose sense of humor shines through, especially when he’s joking with Polanski.

When Stewart cuts himself shaving, he turns to Polanski and says, “It’s great for your movie—you love blood in your movies.”

And commenting on Polanski’s driving, Stewart says, “As a racing driver, you’re a very good film director.”

The movie mesmerizes as, in the days leading up to the race, Stewart drives the streets that make up the Grand Prix route, the camera giving us a front-windshield view of the track. Stewart is poetic in describing how to brake just the right way on a Monte Carlo turn as well as riveting when he discusses the dangers of racing.

Stewart, who is known for his activism on the issue of racing safety, says in the movie that he understands that part of the appeal to racing audiences is the threat of disaster.

“I don’t think they want to see anyone die. They want to see danger,” he says. “They want to see violence every time a race car goes off the road. It’s a tremendously destructive thing. It’s such a volume of violence that it would be difficult to interpret it any other way.”

For drivers, the largest fear is not losing the race—it’s that you might not live to make it to the finishing line.

In the film, Stewart’s wife, Helen, says that the couple had lost their five best friends in racing accidents.

“I suddenly realized that these five people are the closest people we had ever come to in racing,” she says. “There’s nobody left in racing as far as we were concerned.”

In the epilogue to the movie, Stewart says that, back then, there was only a one-in-three chance that an F1 driver would survive over a five-year period.

“That’s two out of three, I’m going to be killed,” he says.

Polanski points out that because of safety campaigns like Stewart’s, the sport is significantly safer today.

As of the filming of the epilogue, Stewart observes, it had been at least 17 years since a driver had died in an F1 race.

“When we become flippant,” he says, “we say that in the ’60s and ’70s motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe.”

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By Paul Hechinger