RUSH, Ron Howard's new film about Formula One in the 1970s, might be one of the most important automotive movies of all time. But why is that? And what's it about? And what is Formula One? And why does Daniel Brühl look so pissed off? Before you go see it, this is RUSH, explained.
Remember, you can see RUSH before anyone else in America this week at the Jalopnik Film Festival, but only about a dozen tickets are left (buy them here). If you're in New York this week you've gotta come check it out.
Let's begin by discussing why RUSH is shaping up to be so significant. It can be pretty easy to screw up a car movie, as Driven taught us, and that's a damn shame. Make a mediocre monster film, and nobody blames the monsters. Make a terrible racing film, and suddenly an entire sport loses credibility.
Lucky for us, then, that RUSH is already getting some pretty stellar reviews. Paired with Senna (which is double lucky for us, as it will also be at the JFF), the two films may be the one-two punch that racing movies need to finally erase the memory of Stallone's ambitious-but-rubbish movie-making misdemeanor.
(Warning: As RUSH is based on actual events, some spoilers, in one form or another, lie below. I'll try to keep them to a minimum.)
To understand any film you have to understand the setting. Taxi Driver wouldn't be Taxi Driver without gritty 1970's New York, and RUSH is much the same way. In 1976, Formula One was different from what it is today, to put it lightly. Until the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in 1994, F1 teams were more focused on how to pick up points rather than how to save drivers on the track.
Drug use was rampant, and with every race weekend being potentially each driver's last, they had a sort of live-for-the-moment attitude. Cars were pushing the limits of what was technically feasible back then, with machines like the Tyrrell P-34, with its four tiny front wheels and two massive ones in the back tearing up the track.
It's in that spirit that we meet our two heroes, James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
James Hunt, portrayed in the movie by Thor's Chris Hemsworth, was to racing what Keith Richards was to rock. F1 stars of today like Sebastian Vettel wouldn't dream of picking up a cigarette lest it add a tenth to a laptime, but Hunt was the kind of Englishman that started smoking at age 10. Oh, and because it was the 1970s, there was of course marijuana and cocaine, too, just for good measure. Nicotine and other, more illegal substances weren't his only distraction of choice though as he had an insatiable appetite for women as well.
Before he died tragically at the age of 46 due to a massive heart attack (cigarettes, gasoline, and cocaine can do that to you), Hunt claimed to have enjoyed the company of over 5,000 women, including 33 British Airways flight attendants in the two weeks leading up to the 1976 title race. He even had a patched sewed onto his race suit that said "Sex, the Breakfast of Champions."
Not that all that helped with nerves, or anything. He still supposedly threw up before most races.
Niki Lauda, in many respects, was everything James Hunt was not. He wasn't known for being an extreme partier, he wasn't known for being out of touch with his own mortality, and he certainly wasn't known for being an Englishman (he's Austrian).
The 1976 German Grand Prix was scheduled to be held at the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife, a 14-mile long narrow and heavily forested track known as the "Green Hell" because it was widely regarded as one of the most difficult and lethal race courses in the world.
Lauda tried to prevent the race from happening, as he was concerned about the dangers of racing on such an archaic course with few safety features, but he was outvoted by the rest of the drivers. The Austrian wasn't coming from a position of cowardice, however. He was the only one out of all of them to finish the circuit in under seven minutes. He certainly knew how to handle his car.
Unfortunately, the 1976 German Grand Prix is now infamous for the crash that nearly took Lauda's life. Coming down through the Bergwerk corner, Lauda's car jerked to the right and he smashed into the barrier before coming to rest back on the track, completely engulfed in flames. To make matters worse, his car was then struck by two other cars.
Lauda was horrifically burned, losing part of his ear, the hair on the right side of his head, his eyelids, and incurring damage to his lungs. He only agreed to reconstructive surgery to the extent that they would restore his eyelids, everything else was to remain. He did this in order to go back to racing in only six weeks, despite his head still being wrapped in bloodied bandages. To this day, Lauda wears a hat to cover up much of the scarring.
James Hunt was declared the eventual winner of the 1976 German Grand Prix.
Unlike Hunt, Lauda remains alive and well today, where is he the current non-executive chairman at the Mercedes F1 team. He has also founded and run two airlines, Lauda Air and FlyNiki, the latter of which I once took on a flight from Vienna to Belgrade and there was an extremely cute German flight attendant who fell over during some heavy turbulence and then she hissed "scheisse!" and it was all very lovely.
Yeah, that's the end of that story. Like Niki Lauda, I am no James Hunt.
The 1976 Grand Prix Season
If you think Formula One is ridiculous now, what with its exploding tires and silly regulations, then you would have loved the sport in 1976. The concept of "gamesmanship," which I will maintain is one of the worst things to ever befall sports since their invention, was in full force.
James Hunt raced for McLaren, and Niki Lauda raced for Ferrari. This was a rivalry that raged for decades before the MP4-12C and 458 Italia were ever gleams in their creators' eyes. McLaren and Ferrari have been going at it for decades now, and that rivalry was foremost on display in that fateful season. At the time they were running 3.0-liter engines — a flat 12 for Ferrari, a Ford V8 for McLaren — with about 500 horsepower.
That year featured Hunt and Lauda alternately winning races and getting disqualified in another, as well as lengthy appeals processes, allegations of cheating, psychological mindgames, and Jody Scheckter, another future world champion, winning in Sweden in a six-wheeled monstrosity.
Even the regular cars looked like freaks of nature compared to racecars of today, with enormously mutated rear tires paired with miniature ones in the front, drivers with their exposed heads sticking straight up out of cockpits, and surprisingly little downforce. These elements made watching any race a death-defying thrill that we don't, thankfully, encounter today.
When Lauda had his fateful crash, the surprise wasn't that it occured or the extent of the damage, but rather that he survived at all.
In the interest in preserving the surprise, I won't tell you who won, but it's a matter of public record at this point. I'll give you a hint: it was Hunt or Lauda. Oh, and Ferrari or McLaren won the constructor's championship. Either way, you're bound for plenty of surprises.
Photo credits: Universal Pictures/Wikicommons