Tuesday, August 12, 2014

James Hunt -vs- Niki Lauda: The Real Story Behind The Movie

Ron Howard’s latest film Rush was originally presented at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. It is an adrenalin-fueled account of one of Formula 1’s most infamous rivalry between McClaren’s James Hunt and Ferrari’s Niki Lauda.

Rush (2013) remained faithful to the events surrounding Niki Lauda’s horrific crash during the 1976 German Grand Prix at Nürburgring. It is an earnest attempt to reconstruct the events interpreted in a Hollywood script. At the time, Lauda was the championship leader having won four of the first six races and coming second in the other two -by the time of his fifth win of he year at the British Grand Prix, he had double the points of his nearest rival McClaren’s James Hunt.

Before the race at Nürburgring, Lauda, despite being the fastest driver in qualifying tried to persuade his fellow drivers to boycott the race at what he saw as safety concerns due to the horrendous rain. The drivers narrowly voted against him and the race went ahead anyway. On the second lap, Lauda’s car swerved off the track, possibly due to a rear suspension failure — hit a wall, rolled back onto the track, and burst into flames.

Because Lauda was wearing a modified helmet, it was dislodged during impact — leaving his head exposed. By the time he was pulled-out of his Ferrari and from the flaming wreckage, he suffered third-degree burns to his face and scalp, losing most of his right ear -including hair on the right side of his head, and his eyelids. He also suffered lung-damage from inhaling toxic fumes and fell into a coma.

Niki Lauda was a relative unknown when Enzo Ferrari put him in charge of turning the Scuderia’s fortunes around. The Prancing Horse had endured a torrid campaign in 1973, but were resurgent the following year with Lauda immediately making a difference, he came second in his first race. However, while Lauda’s ability was evident, a lack of experience and mechanical problems meant he finished fourth in the championship that year. His talent was evident though and it wasn’t before long he began to dominate the sport. 

Not a flashy driver, Lauda’s success was in his studies and methodical consistency. He won the championship outright in 1975, but the never one to take up the trappings of success, he gave away his trophies to his local garage in exchange for his car being washed and serviced. He was a humble and quiet strategist who completely differed in personality to his closest rival James Hunt.

Hunt, on the other hand was the epitome of the eccentric, daring-do English motorcar racer. His reckless style of driving earned him the nickname ‘Hunt the Shunt’. His off-track behavior made him the motorsports media darling, his womanizing, drinking, recreational drug-taking, often having sex and taking drugs minutes before a race, appearing at events barefoot, and dining at expensive Mayfair restaurants with his dog Oscar all contributed to him being the inspiration for a generation of young people falling in love with the sport of Formula 1.

Niki Lauda and James Hunt rivalry: the real story behind Rush movieLauda’s crash allowed Hunt to dominate the 1976 championship and he won the next two races. However, in the meantime Lauda had awoken from his coma and foregoing reconstructive surgery, choosing only to have his eyelids rebuilt, shocked the world by returning to the fray to fend off Hunt’s title challenge. Six weeks after the crash, Lauda gave a press conference before the Monza Grand Prix still wearing the bandages on his head. The incredible drive of the Austrian may in some ways have been of dealing with the trauma of what had happened to him but it was considered one of the most inspiring comebacks in sporting history.

Despite being absolutely terrifie w/ a shaky start, Lauda finished a heroic fourth in Monza. Formula 1 journalist Nigel Roebuck recounted how he saw Lauda in the pit peeling his blood-soaked bandages from his head. During his absence, however, Hunt had reduced Lauda’s lead to only three points ahead of the last race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix. Lauda qualified third for the race, one point behind Hunt, but on race day there was torrential rain, and Lauda was forced to retire on the second lap, saying he felt it unsafe to continue, particularly as his fire-damaged tear ducts were causing his eyes to water badly. Hunt led the race until a puncture sent him down the order, he recovered to finish third, thus clinching the championship by a single point.

Niki Lauda and James Hunt rivalry: the real story behind Rush movie
Hunt and Lauda, despite their on-track rivalry remained firm friends away from circuit. They shared an apartment in their younger days as aspiring drivers. The Austrian described the Englishman in his autobiography ‘To Hell and Back’ as ‘an open, honest to God pal. Lauda’s already strained relationship with Ferrari never recovered from his decision to withdraw and although he won the championship the following year in 1975, Lauda quit following Ferrari’s decision to bring in unknown Gilles Villeneuve.
Howard’s film captures the raw energy and chaotic and lax attitude to safety that saw 13 drivers die between 1967 and 1975. A golden period for Formula 1 racing, a time that allowed Hunt to cohort with young models in the pit while smoking and drinking is almost unrecognisable to the sport of today. But t was this time that led to the sport establishing it’s supremacy over all other motor sports and the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt has a special place in the history of motorsport for that very reason. While the story is familiar to the European audience, the Americans will through ‘Rush’ maybe begin to understand the world’s unending passion for the sport of Formula 1. The very European and vintage feel of the film is sure to appear exotic to the Americans who extoll the merits of NASCAR over F1.

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