By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Weekend of a Champion," a documentary about British Formula One driver Jackie Stewart, went unnoticed for about 40 years until the London film lab where it was stored was closing and asked its producer, Roman Polanski, what to do with it.
The Polish-French filmmaker, 80, had all but forgotten the 1971 behind-the-scenes film that detailed a weekend he spent with his close friend Stewart as the champion driver attempted to win his second Monaco Grand Prix.
"It was an accident, a pure accident," Polanski, the director of films such as "Rosemary's Baby" and Oscar-winning "The Pianist," said about rediscovering the documentary.
"I looked at the film and I liked it after 40-odd years and I decided I would give it a new life," Polanski told reporters in New York via Skype from Paris.
Polanski fled the United States in 1978, fearing he would spend years in jail for a sex crime conviction, and has never returned.
The documentary had a limited release in England and Germany in 1972 but had never been shown in the United States.
With Stewart's approval, Polanski re-edited the film which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and will be released in U.S. theaters on Friday.
He also added new footage showing the two friends reunited in the same hotel suite in Monaco, where Stewart had stayed decades earlier, joking about his sideburns and reminiscing about the sport and themselves.
"When I saw the film again it was like stepping back in history," Stewart, 74 said after a screening in New York.
The documentary, written and directed by the late Frank Simon, captures the glamour and excitement of motor racing and heady atmosphere of Monaco when Princess Grace and Prince Rainier presented the winner's laurel wreath and actress Joan Collins and Beatle Ringo Starr partied with the racers.
Polanski had unparalleled access to Stewart, one of motor racing's most successful champions, for the film. As the camera rolled, Stewart drove the filmmaker around the circuit, explaining his strategy for the race, when he would shift gears, slow down or speed up to handle Monaco's hair-pin turns and hilly, winding streets.
The champion also shared his concerns about the abysmal weather, the wet, dangerous conditions on the circuit and his frustrations that his car wasn't responding as well as he thought it should.
In a sequence with a camera mounted on his Formula One car, viewers are shown Stewart's view from behind the wheel as he raced at heart-pumping speed through the principality's streets trying to shave seconds off his time.
"It was cinema verite in those days," Stewart said after the screening. "At the time Roman called it a docudrama because it was telling a true story with death being part of our life at that time and we were losing drivers all of the time."
In 1971, long before safety was improved to today's standards, Formula One racing was a treacherous sport.
"If I was driving a racing car, as I was, for a five-year period there was a two out of three chance you were going to die because of the lack of safety, which you see all the way through Roman's film," said Stewart.
Stewart lost five close friends to the sport, including Briton Piers Courage, German driver Jochen Rindt and Frenchman Francois Cevert, his team mate who was killed in 1973 in what was to have been Stewart's last race. The team withdrew from the race after Cevert's accident as a mark of respect.
The Scotsman won three world championships and 27 Grand Prix titles before retiring at age 34. A severe dyslexic who says he cannot recite the alphabet, Stewart championed a campaign to improve safety in the sport and is credited by Formula One for saving many lives through his efforts.
Although the film's focus is the sport that both men loved, it is also about a friendship that began when Polanski and Stewart met in Los Angeles in the 1960s.
"I like the bit at the end - when 40 years later in the same suite, in the same hotel and the two of us being alive - apart from anything else," said Stewart.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)