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


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.

Mutual contempt
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.

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.

Dark backdrop
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.”