Rush – James Hunt and Niki Lauda
“My name is Niki Lauda, and racing people know me for two things. The first is my rivalry with him [James Hunt]. I don’t know why it became such a big thing. We were just drivers busting each other’s balls. To me this is perfectly normal, but other people saw it differently. That whatever it was between us went deeper. The other thing I’m remembered for is what happened on 1st August 1976, when I was chasing him like an asshole…”
– Niki Lauda
Rush (2013) recounts the rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s, culminating with the 1976 season in which both highly skilled drivers risk it all to win the Formula One World Title. The movie contrasts the distinctly different styles of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), both personally and professionally.
Hunt was a brash, handsome English playboy that approached race driving with recklessness, while the methodical Austrian Lauda raced with calculated precision. The two racers developed a rivalry during a 1970 Formula Three race at the Crystal Palace circuit in Britain. In their first encounter, both racers’ cars spin out and Hunt eventually wins the race.
Over the next few years, both men make their way into Formula One racing with Hunt driving for Hesketh Racing and Lauda for Scuderia Ferrari. Hesketh Racing eventually goes under when they cannot secure a sponsor, but Hunt is able to join the McLaren team. Meanwhile, Lauda wins his first championship in 1975 with Scuderia Ferrari. Both men also enter personal relationships; Hunt marries supermodel Suzy Miller, and Lauda develops a relationship with Marlene Knaus.
Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry intensifies as the 1976 Formula One season begins. Lauda wins the first two races in dominant fashion, and five of the first six races. Hunt manages to win the Spanish Grand Prix, but is disqualified when the post-race inspection reveals that his car is too wide; worse, Lauda, who had finished second, was awarded the win. Hunt’s McLaren team continues to struggle with the mechanics and the handling of his car through the next few races, which sets Hunt further back in the standings. Things get worse on a personal level as well when his wife Suzy begins to develop a relationship with actor Richard Burton. As James and Suzy get divorced, Niki and Marlene get married.
Despite his personal problems, Hunt experiences a professional resurgence – his disqualification from the race in Spain is overturned, and he begins to slowly catch Lauda in the standings for the Formula One season championship. At the German Grand Prix in Nurburgring, heavy rains make the track extremely dangerous and Lauda urges the Formula One committee to cancel the race. However, Hunt argues to the other drivers that canceling the race benefits Lauda because it would be one less race for them to catch Lauda in the standings. Hunt succeeds, and the drivers vote to move forward with the race. During the race, a suspension arm breaks off Lauda’s Ferrari and he crashes into an embankment before the car bursts into flames and is hit by other cars. Lauda is pulled from the wreckage with significant injuries, including third-degree burns to his head and face, and internal burns to his lungs.
The accident causes great guilt within Hunt, who feels responsible for Lauda’s injuries and his competitive drive subsides. For the next six weeks, Lauda fights through an excruciating rehabilitation while watching Hunt dominate the Formula One circuit during his absence.
Hunt: I feel responsible for what happened.
Lauda: Watching you win those races while I was fighting for my life – you were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.
42 days after the accident, Lauda returns to the track and finishes fourth at the Italian Grand Prix while Hunt fails to finish the race.
Their rivalry, and the 1976 Formula One season, climax at the Japanese Grand Prix. Prior to the start of the race, the two drivers salute and nod to one another as a sign of mutual respect. Like in Nurburgring, it is raining and the track is wet when the race begins. Hunt quickly takes the lead and his tires splash water on all the cars behind him, including Lauda’s. Hunt is the only driver with clear vision in front of him. As they begin the second lap, all Niki can see is a blind windshield and images of his wife, Marlene. He decides to slow down, pull his car into the cockpit, and tell his crew that it’s too dangerous. He walks away from the racetrack with his wife, having no regrets. Hunt finishes the race in third place, giving him enough points to overtake Lauda by one point for the championship.
Shortly after the end of the season, James and Niki meet at a private airfield in Bologna to reflect on the very emotionally and very physically taxing year for both men. Lauda suggests to Hunt that he focus on defending his championship, but Hunt responds that he plans to enjoy the moment and not take everything so seriously.
For James, one world title was enough; he had proved what he needed to prove – to himself, and to anyone who doubted him.
The two men depart with a mutual understanding that their differences are what made them better drivers and men.
Rush – Real Life, Reel Differences
- The film portrays both men as fierce rivals who generally don’t like each other but develop a strong mutual respect over the 1976 season of Formula One. However, Hunt and Lauda were friends before the season began. Lauda was quoted as saying, “I knew him before we met at Formula One [at Formula Three]. We always crossed each other’s lines. He was a very competitive guy and he was very quick. In many ways we were the same. I had a lot of respect for him on the circuit… He was a very solid driver.”
- The film suggests that it was a rear suspension failure which caused Lauda’s crash at Nurburgring. In reality, Lauda does not have any memory of the crash so he can’t really explain what happened. What is known, however, was that the rain had stopped before the race started and there were parts of the track which were still wet. After the first lap, Lauda and several other drivers changed to slick tires that are designed to go faster on a dry track. Actual footage of the crash (approximately 2:08 mark) shows Lauda’s car fishtail as he enters the bend and crashes into the wall; it’s possible that he hit one of the remaining wet spots on the track and lost control. In the movie, director Ron Howard films the crash at the exact same bend as when it occured in real life:
- Although Lauda did quit during the Japanese Grand Prix, it was not only because of the rain. It was also because he had damage to his tear ducts that made it very difficult for him to blink naturally and during the race, his eyes started to water excessively. It’s worth mentioning that Hunt had argued against racing that day, which irked McLaren because he couldn’t win the world championship without the race. The organizers decided to move forward because of the money from TV contracts.
- While Lauda wasn’t living the same carefree lifestyle as Hunt, he also wasn’t as serious and cutting as Daniel Bruhl played the character in the film. Lauda was quoted on the subject, “I was not as strict as I appeared in the movie, but I was more disciplined than he [James Hunt] was. I would never drink before a race. Certainly after it; I had to. Every race could have been my last.”
- In the film, Hunt punches a journalist for insulting Niki Lauda; this never happened in real life, although many people who knew Hunt suggested that it would have been in his character to do so. After spinning off during the Canadian Grand Prix in 1977, he punched Ernie Strong, a volunteer race marshal who had come to his assistance.
- In the film, Lauda is shown wearing the same helmet before and after the accident. In reality, his helmet came off during the accident and Lauda sued the manufacturer. He switched to another manufacturer who created a new helmet with a different shape.
- In the film, The Nürburgring racetrack is referred to as “The Graveyard”, but its real-life nickname was “The Green Hell”.
- Driver François Cevert was not decapitated in his fatal accident at Watkins Glen but rather, split in half. The incident depicted in the film combines two different crashes, one in 1973 and one in 1974. Lauda witnessed the Cevert crash in ’73, but the car was inverted on top of a guardrail. It was Helmuth Koinigg’s crash in ’74 where the car drove under the guardrail, decapitating him.
- In the final race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix, Hunt was overtaken by Patrick Depailler, not Mario Andretti. Furthermore, the commentator states that Hunt must finish in third place or better to win the title but in reality, a fourth-place finish was enough.
- At the British Grand Prix on July 18, 1976, Hunt is shown winning the race but in reality, he was disqualified and Lauda was crowned the winner. After a crash at the first corner, Hunt took a shortcut to the pit via an access road. Ferrari argued that, according to the rules, drivers must remain on the course to finish the lap prior to entering the pit. When Hunt took the shortcut, he technically did not complete the lap and at a two months later, Hunt was disqualified and Lauda was awarded the win.
- In the movie, Lauda’s first Formula One race is the 1973 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen but in reality, that was the last race of the 1973 season.
- In the movie, car number 32 has an accident while practice before the ’76 Nurburgring race; in reality, there was never an accident during the practice laps that year, nor was there a number 32 car in the field.
- Following James Hunt’s wedding ceremony, Hunt learns that Ferrari had signed Lauda to the team. In reality, Hunt’s wedding was in October 1974; by then, Lauda was wrapping up his first season with Scuderia Ferrari, finishing fourth in the standings.
Where Are They Now?
James Hunt would race for another three years after the 1976 season, but was not able to contender for a Formula One championship again. He went on to become a motorsports broadcast commentator after retiring in 1979. Hunt attempted a comeback but he was unable to get the support to get back behind the wheel.
In 1993, James Hunt died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of only forty-five. He passed away only a few hours after proposing to his girlfriend Helen Dyson over the phone. Hunt had been living a cleaner living and had was survived by his two sons.
Niki Lauda won the Formula One championship a total of three times – 1975, 1977, and 1984, after a brief retirement between 1979 and 1982. Niki first retired after the 1979 season to focus running a charter airline which he called Lauda Air, and he focused on that enterprise until 1982. He returned to racing in order to secure money for the business and retired for good in 1985.
In 1991, he and Marlene divorced; at the same time, he sold Lauda Air to Austrian Airlines. He began another airline that eventually became a subsidiary of Air Berlin. He also managed the Jaguar Formula One racing team from 2001 to 2002 and as of 2013, Lauda has taken on the role of chairman of the Mercedes Formula One team.
He was approached by many to tell his story, but declined to do so until Peter Morgan asked him to help write the script specifically about the 1976 season. During the filming of Rush, Niki Lauda gave input into the script, shared memories, and advised a lot of the technical aspects of the sport to make it as realistic as possible. He also spent a lot of time with actor Daniel Brühl who portrayed him. Here is an interview where Niki talks about how it all came together:
1976 Formula One World Championship was the first feature in BBC TV’s “Clash of the Titans” series. It was originally released on 10/06/1996, approximately 20 years (10/24/1976) after that historic 1976 Japanese Grand Prix was held, and documents the relationship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda: