The immediate antecedent of Ron Howard’s upcoming racecar movie “Rush,” which depicts the rivalry of the Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, is “Senna.” Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary about the great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, who was killed during the 1994 San Grand Prix after winning the 1988, 1990, and 1991 Drivers Championships, upped the ante for the big-screen presentation of Formula One. It is a spiritual (if agonizing and tragic) character drama, as opposed to a slick montage of action shots.
“Rush,” however, may recall the days when racecar movies were de rigueur for macho leading men. Howard Hawks’s NASCAR picture “Red Line 7000” (1965), starring James Caan, was followed by the likes of “Grand Prix” (1966, James Garner), “Winning” (1969, Paul Newman), and “Le Mans” (1971, Steve McQueen).
The trend overlapped with Formula One’s 1960s heyday but petered out before the glamorous (and lethal years) of the 1970s and ’80s. The Austrian Lauda won the Drivers Championship in 1975, 1977, and 1984. In 1976, he had over twice as many points as his nearest challengers, Hunt and South Africa’s Jody Scheckter, when he suffered a near fatal crash at the Nürburgring German Grand Prix (which he had intended to boycott over safety issues).
Even though Lauda (driving for Ferrari) returned six weeks later for the Italian Grand Prix and finished fourth, Hunt (McLaren) trimmed his lead to three points before the Japanese Grand Prix climaxed the season. Rain forced Lauda to withdraw after two laps, and though Hunt finished third he ended the season a point ahead of his onetime roommate and won the championship.
In 1977, Lauda won three Grand Prix as did Schechter (Wolf) and Hunt. The Italian American Mario Andretti (Lotus) won four, but Lauda topped the standing as the winner of the most points. Hunt finished fifth after a troubled season in terms of his discipline and off-track antics.
The personal differences between the two drivers will feed the drama in “Rush.” Unlike previous British champions Jim Clark, Graham Hill, and Jackie Stewart, Hunt (played in the movie by Chris Hemsworth) was the Grand Prix driver as dissolute rock star – a cocaine and marijuana user and prolific womanizer, who would reportedly snort a line and have sex before races.
On the track he was known for his hair-raising bursts of speed. After his retirement, he cleaned up his act and became a commentator respected for his dry wit and contempt for selfish drivers. Among the drivers he mentored were the two-time Finnish world champion Mika Häkkinen. Hunt was 45 when he died of a heart attack at his Wimbledon home in 1993.
A less flamboyant figure than Hunt, Lauda (played by “Inglourious Basterds”’s Daniel Brühl) was a calculating and fastidious driver. “He was known for his intense behind-the-scenes work testing and refining cars to perfection,” The Guardian’s Ben Child reported yesterday. The trailer for the film (below) has Hemsworth’s Hunt blaming himself for Lauda’s crash – which may be dramatic license.
Scheduled to open in October, “Rush” was written by Peter Morgan, who must have savored writing Hunt’s part in particular. The other “icons” he has scripted lines for include Henry VIII and the Boleyn sisters; the Queen, Tony and Cherie Blair, and Gordon Brown; Idi Amin; David Frost and Richard Nixon; Lord Longford and child murderer Myra Hindley; soccer coaches Brian Clough and Don Revie; and Bill and Hillary Clinton. He also wrote the upcoming Freddie Mercury biopic.
“Rush” co-stars Olivia Wilde as the model Suzy Miller, Hunt’s first wife (and the future wife of Richard Burton); Alexandra Maria Lara as Marlene Knaus, Lauda’s first wife; Christian McKay as Baron Alexander Hesketh, owner of the Hesketh racing team, which Hunt drove for before joining McLaren in 1975; Pierfrancisco Favino as Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni; and Alistair Petrie as Stirling Moss, the pioneering British driver of the 1950s and early ’60s. It was photographed by “Slumdog Millonaire” Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle.
Watch the trailer for Ron Howard’s “Rush”: