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
Jackie Stewart led a courageous fight for better conditions after being trapped in his car for a full half hour in 1966. This was during an era when F1 drivers had a one in three chance of survival and deaths were common place in all divisions: Jim Clark (Hockenheim ’68), Piers Courage (Zandvoort ’70), Bruce McLaren (Goodwood ’70), Jo Siffert (Brands Hatch ’71), Jochen Rindt (Monza ’70) and Jo Bonnier (La Mans ’72) all perished in accidents.
Few tracks had safety barriers, meaning that cars which left the road were likely to hurtle straight into tree trunks. Not all teams used fireproof clothing. The drivers sat with huge tanks of gasoline on either side of them. They were literally driving mobile fire bombs.
Perhaps the most harrowing footage in the history of sport belongs to the three minutes after Roger Williamson’s car flipped at Zandvoort in 1973 and immediately burst into flames. David Purley was following behind and immediately stopped his car, sprinted up to where Williamson sat trapped in a fireball, pulled a fire hydrant from a marshall and, after failing to kill the flames, tried to push the car wreck back onto its base.
None of the stewards wore protective clothing. Other race cars flash past: it later emerged that they had presumed Purley’s car was on fire and that he was safely standing beside it. Purley said he could hear Williamson screaming and walks away in distress. It is a wonder that the sport was not banned there and then.
That was the dark backdrop to the apparent fun and weightlessness of James Hunts’ life. One habit which Rush faithfully observes is that behind the easy smile and the glibness, he was a bag of nerves, always agitated and frequently throwing up before races. They all had their own way of coping with the fear.
Lauda’s method was to take no risk that was not absolutely necessary. Heavy rain had made the track dangerous on the day of his accident and although he still led the driver’s championship on the last race of the 1976 season in Japan, he elected to retire early rather than risk his life by driving through another torrential downpour. Hunt carried on and drove brilliantly in the closing laps to claim the third place necessary for the first and last championship of his career.
Rush can’t possibly touch the raw power and intimate brilliance of Senna, the unforgettable documentary made by Asif Kapadia two years ago. But the film does hold obvious parallels of the simmering hostility which existed between Senna and Alain Prost.
According to Lauda, who assisted Ron Howard in the making of the film and has become one of the grand old men of Formula One, the film greatly exaggerates the antipathy between the two. But like the documentary, it is an ode to the ongoing fascination with the speed and glamour and ridiculousness of the Formula One carnival and of the unblinking courage of the drivers who somehow managed to laugh and have fun in the face of death.
Lauda, in the end, was one of the lucky ones. James Hunt remained charming and restless and died of a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 45.
“He died too young, too early,” Lauda said recently. “I wish he’ d been here to see the movie. It would have been the best.”