James Hunt was before my time. When I started to pay attention to Formula One, he was a witty and rather dry commentator who served as a pretty good brake for Murray Walker’s high-octane enthusiasm, even though he seemed to have it in for the otherwise innocuous Riccardo Patrese.
It was a bit later that I found out that he’d won the world championship in one of the most exciting seasons in the history of F1. In a sense, James Hunt was very much a 1970s sort of hero; a larger-than-life character who smoked like a chimney, boozed into the wee small hours, didn’t give a damn about dress codes and was as famous for his exploits in bed as he was for his driving – which was of the devil-may-care variety.
Recently, interest in his rivalry with Niki Lauda has been revived by the movie Rush which has appealed to people far beyond the relatively small group of F1 fans – no small feat, as F1 doesn’t have a very good track record (no pun intended) when it’s made into movies and that’s before you take into account the obvious fact that it has little appeal to the American market. I’d been looking forward to this film for months, and last Tuesday I went to see it.
The team behind this film are writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard, who have previously been responsible for making a political interview into a very good movie (Frost/Nixon). What they have done with Rush is to turn an exciting sporting rivalry (albeit one of limited appeal) into a truly electric cinematic experience.
In my opinion, the setting is as responsible for this as the Hunt-Lauda rivalry. On one level, the 1970s were an exciting time for F1. Technology was being pushed to limits that are seen as highly innovative even now – this was the era of ground effect, Tyrell’s six-wheeler (which can be seen in the film) and the Brabham fan car, all of which are illegal nowadays. TV was also starting to get involved in a bigger way than before; the title-deciding Japanese Grand Prix of 1976 was the first to be broadcast around the world via satellite, and the BBC’s coverage of F1 – complete with the ever-excitable Walker and the iconic theme tune (Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain) properly got going two years later.
But there was a darker side, and that was the ever-present risk of danger at appallingly high levels that simply aren’t acceptable nowadays. Just a couple of minutes of looking at old footage on YouTube or on programmes about the history of F1 that occasionally get shown on BBC4 will show you cars running four abreast, big crashes and near-primitive safety standards – think poorly-equipped and under-trained marshals, and everyone smoking in the pit lane mere feet from all that high-octane petrol. Even at the time, people were calling for change, and not just any people but multiple world champions like Jackie Stewart, who knew at first-hand what the risks were and stuck his neck out by protesting against them.
Hunt and his contemporaries were well aware that whenever they lined up on the grid, there was a very real chance that not all of them would be alive by the end of the race; in the world of F1, it had been thus for as long as the sport had existed (although it would soon change) and goes some way towards explaining the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality of drivers like, well, Hunt himself – who lost his appetite for F1 following the death of his friend Ronnie Petersen at Monza in 1978 (for which he blamed Patrese, which explains his later commentary-box antagonism towards the Italian).
That’s before you get to the circuits, some of which just hadn’t evolved over the years as the cars had got bigger and faster. The most notorious was the truly terrifying old Nürburgring, a fourteen-mile circuit in the Eifel mountains of western Germany with more corners than anyone could remember. The ‘Green Hell’, as Stewart himself called it, was a throwback to the 1930s with much of the circuit not being protected by crash barriers and marshals being non-existent for most of the route. There were blind crests where the cars momentarily took off, bits that were dangerously narrow and such was its length that choosing between wet and dry tyres was impossible as parts of the circuit could be waterlogged while other bits were dry (a point emphasised in the film).
At the centre of Rush is the German Grand Prix at this circuit – a pivotal point in the season. It was at this race that Lauda, having failed to get the race cancelled on safety grounds, suffered an horrific near-fatal accident when his car spun and burst into flames. He had to be dragged from his car by four fellow-drivers (who, unlike the marshals, wore fire-proof clothing), and was then airlifted to a hospital where his injuries were so severe that a priest gave him the last rites. The circuit was never used in F1 again. Miraculously, Lauda was back racing six weeks later, and the battle for the championship went down to the last race of the season, in Japan.
As you’ve probably guessed, I really enjoyed Rush. The use of restored and replica 1970s F1 cars, filmed at some of the circuits that were actually used in the 1976 season, was spot-on. The lead actors have done a great job. Chris Hemsworth brilliantly plays Hunt as a fun-loving a party animal who lives life to the full, while Daniel Brühl has done a great job in revealing the vulnerability of Niki Lauda that existed beneath the cold, calculating surface (heck, he even looks a bit like Lauda did before his accident). In real life, Hunt and Lauda were good friends despite their differences but it suits the film’s narrative to portray them as rivals – although the film does reveal a sense of camaraderie between them, as evidenced by the scene where Hunt beats up a journalist for insulting Lauda and the closing scenes.
OK, so there were a few parts of the story that didn’t fit with the historical record – for example, it wasn’t really Lauda who dobbed the McLaren team to the stewards after Hunt won the Spanish Grand Prix, and Hunt is shown as having not been disqualified after winning the British Grand Prix. I guess that that iconic shot at Brands Hatch where the two cars disappear behind some trees with Lauda in front, only to emerge with Hunt in the lead, was too good an image to sully with another disqualification argument.
I’m usually the first person to pick up on historical inaccuracies in films but, do you know what? In Rush, they didn’t matter.
The film really was that good.