James Hunt and Niki Lauda drive a tale of dangerous lives in the fast lane
‘Drive’ portrays a time when Formula One was rife with glamour and danger
James Hunt was all about instinct, thrill and, most importantly, the fun of celebrating. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Niki Lauda was constantly obsessed about the aerodynamics of the car, the risk involved in racing and the constant need to improve and to work and to stay disciplined. Photograph Getty Images
One of the best things about Rush, Hollywood’s cheerful account of the scintillating 1976 Formula One season dual between James Hunt and Niki Lauda is that it leaves the audience rooting for both men.
If, as has been speculated, the flashy and highly-enjoyable revival of an era that reeks of Old Spice and burning rubber makes a run at this year’s Oscars, then the pity is that Hunt himself won’t be around to make what surely would have been a flamboyant appearance. Because Hunt is dead a full 20 years now, it is easy to forget just how a big a figure he was in the 1970s.
Only England could produce a character as wonderfully absurd as James Hunt: the blond, irresistible dissolute toff who gave George Best a run for his money when it came to chasing girls, blowing cash and quaffing champagne, all the while speaking impeccable Queen’s English and insisting on his right only to have a smashingly good time.
If Rush presents even a remotely true reflection of Hunt’s lifestyle, then he was not only driving while under the influence, he was winning races. Hunt’s idea of conformity was to carry his Rothmans cigarettes in the Marlboro packet whose logo he wore on his uniform.
Sport needs its opposites and Formula One was blessed that Niki Lauda landed on the scene at the same time as Hunt. If Hunt was God’s gift to ’70s England, Lauda was portrayed as dour and scheming and charmless. He defied his father, spurned his familial wealth and forced his way into Formula One through a combination of stubbornness and cleverness and the fact that he could drive cars brilliantly.
Rush wastes little time in establishing the pair as rivals in life as much as racing, with a mutual contempt for one another’s worldview. Hunt was all about instinct, thrill and, most importantly, the fun of celebrating. Lauda was constantly obsessed about the aerodynamics of the car, the risk involved in racing and the constant need to improve and to work and to stay disciplined.
What transpires is great fun but the story revolves around the appalling crash in which Lauda was badly burnt at the Nurburgring in the middle of the 1976 season. Even if it does so tangentially, Ron Howard’s film is a reminder of what a truly insane sport Formula One was back then.
Even casual fans of F1 will be familiar with Lauda’s crash, where his car careens into a barrier, combusts into a fireball even as it spins across the track and then, an instant after it comes to a standstill, is smashed by an oncoming car. Lauda’s life was saved by his fellow drivers, who helped to haul him from his where he sat trapped and burning alive. The skin around his forehead and temple effectively melted and in the hours after the race, the prospects for his survival were dim.
He has said that his wife Marlena fainted when she first saw his appearance and he returned to racing badly disfigured. The one barbed moment in the film comes when Lauda, who hauled himself from his hospital bed and back onto the grid in a matter of weeks, sat in a press conference and noted that Ferrari had hired a replacement driver before he had even reached the hospital on the day of the crash.
It is a brilliant, acidic line and offers just a hint of the casual disregard with which F1 had treated the lives of its drivers. Hunt and Lauda were fortunate to burst onto the scene when the generation that preceded them had fought tooth and nail for basic safety standards.