‘Now I understand how people saw me’
Rush, a movie about his death-defying F1 duel with James Hunt in 1976, has been a revelation for Niki Lauda, says Jeff Dawson
Jeff Dawson Published: SUNDAY TIMES CULTURE, 8 September 2013
There’s a story George Best used to tell after his fall from grace — of a waiter delivering champagne to his hotel room and finding him lying on a bed awash with casino winnings, Miss World curled round him. “Mr Best,” the waiter asks, “where did it all go wrong?”
James Hunt was no stranger to the fruits of success, either. World Drivers’ Champion of 1976, he had, within three years, walked away from Formula One. Wind forward a decade and he had hit the skids — divorced, broke, beset by drink problems, he had taken to riding around London barefoot on a battered woman’s pushbike.
“I met him in the King’s Road for lunch,” recalls his great rival, Niki Lauda. “I had to pay, because he had no money. His bicycle had no air in its tyres. I said, ‘Listen, get your act together. If you go on like this, you’re not gonna survive.’” Although Hunt did hang a U-turn, cleaning himself up, he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1993, aged 45.
The year 1976, season of his sole triumph, is remembered equally for Lauda’s astonishing comeback. The Austrian, reigning champ, had been runaway points leader until his horrific crash at the Nürburgring, in Germany. Pulled from a fireball with third-degree burns, he was given the last rites. Yet, 42 days later, in great pain, he was behind the wheel, attempting to claw back the lead Hunt had accrued in his absence, and came within a whisker of doing so. Lauda today has no truck with those who claim Hunt was a victor by default. “It’s a bit unfair, because he did win it. He had some great drives that season.” But the drama, on the track and off, has marked theirs as one of sport’s great duels.
Rush, directed by Ron Howard from a script by Peter Morgan, is all about that showdown. As with the subject of the pair’s Oscar-nominated collaboration, Frost/Nixon, it’s a clash of opposite personality types: Teutonic automaton versus priapic playboy. “Peter writes these unlikely psychological combatants well, and the ‘fire and ice’ idea is something he’s drawn to,” Howard explains. “I also thought this could be visceral, a big-screen movie experience.”
Starring Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and the German actor Daniel Brühl as Lauda, Rush has oddball heroes such as Lord Hesketh (Christian McKay), Hunt’s first patron; villains in the shape of the Ferrari outfit; and the scandal sideshow of Hunt’s wife, Suzy (Olivia Wilde), running off with Richard Burton. “If you had to write a script about the season, you would have written that one,” Lauda says, endorsing it as enthusiastically as he used to do his own budget airline.
“I was approached a couple of times about making a movie about my life and this kind of bullshit,” shrugs Lauda, who, in a remarkable career coda, came out of retirement to win a third world title in 1984. “But Peter said he wanted to do a movie [just] about the 1976 season, and asked me if I would help him.”
The unsurprising consequence of Lauda’s advisory role is that the film feels more his than Hunt’s, which is in no small part down to Brühl, who nails Lauda’s deadpan humour. Brühl recalls: “The first conversation we had on the phone, Niki said, ‘Please just bring hand luggage to Vienna in case we don’t like each other.’” And if the film-makers weren’t thoroughly versed in the technicalities — an early version of Morgan’s script had drivers starting their cars with keys — it could be fine-tuned. “Ron Howard impressed me a lot,” Lauda says, “because he’s like a kid. He knew nothing about Formula One at all and got himself together quickly.”
In Rush, Howard diligently hits the historical marks — Hunt’s ascent to McLaren, Lauda becoming Ferrari’s Made Man. While Lauda hones his “good arse” for driving — “When you drive, you feel what the car is doing, and this was my talent, to link arse and brain” — Hunt’s cheek-work is reserved for the ladies, a wild goose chase through furtive quickies and mile-high grapples.
Meanwhile, Ferrari never misses an opportunity to have Hunt disqualified or denied points. (In real life, they were scathing of Lauda for his ultimate capitulation.) “Enzo Ferrari,” muses Lauda of the capo dei capi. “He was a very warm, Italian, charismatic monster.”
Where Rush takes liberties — an incident where the pugilistic Hunt slugs a tabloid hack is pure invention — you can forgive them for being in the spirit of reality. The biggest licence taken, though, is making Hunt and Lauda sworn enemies: they were in fact great pals, going back to their Formula Three days, when they shared a London flat and Hunt began notching up his reputed 5,000 female conquests. “The only thing [in the film] that upset me was that I was the non-lady man,” Lauda gripes. “I would say I was about 30% of James... let’s say 20%.”
Howard admits that Rush is a departure. “I tend to do stories about groups and families that pull together. Here are two guys who bow to no one.” Interestingly, Rush was due to be directed by Paul Greengrass. Not to suggest his version would have been grittier, but it is noticeable that Howard’s has soft-pedalled Hunt’s fondness for drugs. “We didn’t quite know when in his life that started to be prevalent,” he says in the driver’s defence. “We tried to be a little selective so as not to tilt the scales.”
Inevitably, on screen and off, it all comes down to the final race in Japan, the clincher that played out as farce. A near-monsoon had rendered the Fuji circuit undriveable, until the authorities ordered a delayed start due to the demands of TV. “At four in the afternoon, the same flooding, the same rain, the race director said, ‘We’re gonna start now.’ And I said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Lauda bristles. Three points clear, he needed to finish within reasonable proximity of Hunt. But, mindful of his own mortality, troubled by grafted eyelids that barely blinked, he pulled into the pits and out of the contest.
Lauda rates the devil-may-care “Hunt the Shunt” as one of the greats. “James was one of the quickest guys when he got his act together. One of these guys you always remember. A lot of people die, you don’t remember.” Hemsworth, an Australian and a keen boardsman, recognised in Hunt something else. “He looked like a Californian surfer and considered himself a hippie, you know.” A self-styled nonconformist, Hunt had a dislike for shoes and washing, and was indecently underdressed, whatever the function.
With Rush, there is an elephant in the room — the superlative 2010 documentary Senna. A similar story featuring Yin-Yang drivers, the late Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, it was compiled from genuine footage. Howard cites it as an inspiration, raising the bar regarding what was required to simulate racing a car at 200mph.
Certainly, Lauda feels Rush’s re-creation is authentic, as is the restaging of his crash. Typically, he had always dismissed it as a mere occupational prang, his memory of it blacked out. Only once, years later, did he have a flashback of his near-death experience, he says, while puffing on some superstrong marijuana: “I saw myself falling backwards into a big hole.”
The film has given him a fresh perspective on events. “When I saw the movie, I realised how other people looked at me. Some had a shock when they saw me after the accident. In the old days, I was always upset when people didn’t look in my eyes. When they were talking to me, all they wanted to do was see if my other ear was still there. Now I understand.”
Lauda saw the film for the first time in the company of other Formula One drivers. “Lewis Hamilton was sitting next to me. He asked me, ‘Was it really like this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’” Hunt’s two sons have also seen the film, Howard says, and are pleased their father has been presented at his peak.
Rush begins with Lauda reflecting that, of the 25 drivers who started every season back then, two would be killed. “Who else does a job like that?” Is it too safe now, I ask him. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “The element of danger has gone completely.”
Rush opens nationwide on Friday