One sport that I have followed since I was a tween is Formula 1. In fact, I define myself as an F1 fan.
In 2015, French driver Jules Bianchi’s death shocked the F1 world, not only because he was young and promising, but also because the sport had been considered relatively safe since the tragic death of legendary Ayrton Senna back in 1994. Apart from a few freak incidents, we’re thankfully far from seeing the tragedies that plagued this sport from the 50s to the 80s. In those days, cars were less resistant to high-speed impacts – they easily got mangled or caught fire – and the drivers’ attires weren’t as protective as they are today. All that, as well as the configuration of some race tracks, made this a dangerous job for these drivers. No wonder many of them lost their lives.
Yet sometimes, either by luck or by willpower, some drivers survived serious accidents. And when it comes to Formula 1 survivors, the first name that should come to everyone’s mind is that of the Austrian Niki Lauda. For, on the 1st of August of 40 years ago, not only did he survive a fiery crash at the German Grand Prix in Nürburgring but also managed a strong comeback after just a few weeks.
Besides his accident, which left him disfigured, Lauda was known for his rivalry with British driver James Hunt. Both the 1976 accident and all the events surrounding it have been portrayed in the 2013 film Rush. Thanks to the talented director and producer Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), young F1 fans as well as those who have never followed the sport were able to discover these two great sportsmen and what led them to become notorious.
So on this occasion, I am remembering the Hunt vs. Lauda 1976 battle by reviewing Rush and by seeing how it depicted Formula 1 in the 70s.
If you already know all the facts about Lauda and Hunt, or if you don’t want to spoil the movie, you can move straight to the last section.
Hunt vs. Lauda: the start
Twenty-five drivers start every season in Formula One, and each year two of us die. What kind of person does a job like this? Not normal men, for sure. Rebels, lunatics, dreamers. People who are that desperate to make a mark, and are prepared to die trying. (Niki Lauda in Rush)
James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) couldn’t have been more different from one another. Practically like night and day. Hunt is tall, blond, charismatic, and reckless. He’s in the racing world for the fun of it. Lauda is ‘rat-like’, serious, reserved and logical. His approach to racing is data-driven and business-like. Both are competitive in their own ways, with Hunt going all in for the win while Lauda relies on his technical expertise. Both could come off as smug.
They entered Formula 1 around the same time but in different manners. Lauda bought his way in with a bank loan and joined the BRM team with Clay Regazzoni. Hunt, meanwhile, had his golden opportunity when his Formula 3 team Hesketh decided to enter F1. Niki soon imposed himself as a great, technical driver and, eventually, he tagged along with Regazzoni to Ferrari. James shone in his own way too. However, he almost remained without a seat as Hesketh struggled with sponsorship. Until he finally signed with McLaren. That was the start of the showdown between him and Lauda, who had by then won his first championship with Ferrari.
1976: battle for the title
The 1976 championship was truly epic. Lauda started off well by winning important points, but Hunt remained close to him. They became the stars of the paddock and the symbols of the huge rivalry between Ferrari and McLaren. The season was filled with drama, especially from the legal point of view (at one point, the McLaren car was deemed illegal), but it soon turned into a quasi-tragedy on the 1st of August at Nürburgring. Ironically, Lauda had been against driving here because of the poor safety conditions of the track. Still, the majority of the drivers – Hunt included – were in favour of racing and therefore no changes occurred. Lauda would be proved right to his own expense when, on the second lap, he crashed, and his Ferrari went up in flames.
Niki suffered severe burns to his head, which left him scarred, but the fumes which he inhaled were the worst issue. His condition was life-threatening. Nevertheless, after just six weeks, he was back in his car for the Italian Grand Prix, where he finished 4th, thus keeping alive the battle for the title. The final race of the season was held in Japan under a torrential downpour. There were only 3 points of difference between Lauda and Hunt. Yet Lauda was unable to race in such dire conditions, and he spontaneously retired. Hunt managed a 3rd place which was enough for him to take the crown. That was the first and last title for the Brit, before retiring a couple of years later and entering broadcasting. Lauda would become champion once again in 1977 and in 1984.
Rush: between facts and fiction
Besides Lauda’s horrific accident and the two drivers’ battle for the crown, Rush shows some details from the two men’s love lives, focusing as well on their diverse personalities. As with all biographical/historical films, some events are exaggerated or invented.
Another exaggeration is the competitive aspect between Hunt and Lauda. In reality, they were also good friends, and the perceived rivalry was mainly exacerbated by their respective teams. Despite the film’s focus on their antagonism, the truth becomes evident in the last part, where Niki Lauda himself makes a cameo and speaks about Hunt’s death (at the age of 45) and his friendship with him. There was, above all, respect between the two drivers. The film here jumps from fiction to reality with archive footage of Hunt and Lauda (the real footage of Lauda’s accident is also shown at one point when Hunt-Hemsworth is watching it on TV). This convergence makes for an emotional conclusion.
Notwithstanding the changes for cinematographic purposes, nothing in the film is overly exaggerated, and it looks quite realistic. Niki Lauda himself commented positively about it, and that’s important. I thought that the atmosphere of Formula 1 in the 70s was portrayed accurately, with all its glamour and dangers. The effects accompanying the scenes which show the races and the pit stops are adrenaline-filled and exciting to watch (particularly the cool graphics that summarise some of the 1976 races). Hans Zimmer’s score makes it even awesome.
The main actors, Hemsworth and Brühl, were great too. For Hemsworth fans: yes, he looks yummy in this movie as well. After all, his character is a womaniser, therefore expect nudity and smooching. Personally, I liked Brühl in particular; I thought that he had studied Lauda well. When I heard him speak, it felt like I was listening to Niki himself.
I still think that documentaries are a better way of discovering historical facts. That is why, besides the Bluray of the movie, I had also purchased the documentary Hunt vs. Lauda (that’s how fascinated I am by their story). However, movies like Rush are essential, especially because they let non-F1 fans discover this sport and these drivers. One doesn’t need to be into Formula 1 to enjoy this movie. It’s packed with drama and thrills like any action film, and it’s superbly made.
But most of all, it gives an insight into the mentality of Formula 1 drivers. Such people know about the dangers of the sport, yet they still do it, fully accepting responsibility. I think there’s nothing wrong about an individual who enjoys what he has chosen to do and who provides entertainment to the audience. That is why I admire the courageous Niki Lauda and the crazy James Hunt.