For a film about, as one character puts it, two men “driving around and around in circles” extremely fast, Rush director Ron Howard succeeds in doing right by a world that has proved remarkably difficult to project on celluloid. Set in the high-drama citadel of the self-proclaimed pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1, Rush charts the career-defining rivalry between two real-life racing drivers, Brit-come-good James Hunt and icy Teutonic genius Niki Lauda. The film largely takes place over the course of the battle for the 1976 World Drivers’ Championship, where Hunt and Lauda — and their different racing philosophies — clash on track and off. Hunt is the archetypal F1 driver — a charming and charismatic playboy — while Lauda is the brusque perfectionist everyone loves to hate.
Howard found a story tailormade for Hollywood in the Hunt and Lauda rivalry, but that was hardly an exception — there have been plenty of other scintillating and cinematic rivalries through F1’s postwar existence, like Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna’s, or Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher’s, to name but two of the more recent. Indeed, with the permanent reminder of mortality curling at the edges of every race, the combination of high technology and low politics, and the sport’s glamorous and globetrotting image, F1 would appear to be an ideal hunting ground for future Hollywood blockbusters. Yet, perhaps as a result of never attracting an American audience, which evidently prefers the orchestrated delights of NASCAR and IndyCar, only a handful of films on F1 have ever been made. Even fewer have been any good.
Before Rush, the most recent big feature film in which F1 made an appearance was Iron Man 2, with a big showdown between hero and villain taking place at the Monaco GP. Obviously, the race played handmaiden to the confrontation between two men in metal suits, but the movie also mocked basic F1 rules and its uber-competitive nature when it put billionaire playboy Tony Stark in an F1 car, who surely had enough on his plate between superhero duties and running a company to not be able to keep a superlicence.
Before that came the Sylvester Stallone vanity project, Driven, which was initially envisaged as an F1 film examining the rivalry between French-Canadian-come-good Jacques Villeneuve and Teutonic genius Schumacher. It was rumoured that after one look at the script, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone scotched Stallone’s plans, who hastily transferred the setting to US carts, but kept the characters. When Driven came out, F1 fans could for once rejoice in Ecclestone’s famously tight control over the sport’s branding. One has to go all the way back to 1966 to find a half-decent fictional F1 movie, the unimaginatively titled Grand Prix.
Perhaps another reason these on-screen efforts seem so lacklustre is because the sport itself is so outsized. Despite the vast improvements in driver safety since Senna’s on-track demise in 1994, F1 remains a dangerous sport — just ask Robert Kubica and Felipe Massa — which so many argue is an intrinsic part of its appeal. The cars themselves are marvels of engineering, and F1 has plenty of petty vendettas and longstanding grudge matches for anyone that loves the cut-and-thrust of interpersonal and institutional politics.
Rush, however, succeeds where others have failed in part because it serves to remind us that though F1 has changed, much of it has remained the same. Although 1970s racing cars were very different in appearance from today’s lean machines, and the risk of serious injury or death in an accident was much more real, those who like to hark back to the good ol’ days might discover they weren’t markedly different from today.
Not only does the film treat its leads even-handedly in the face of the no doubt overwhelming temptation to privilege Hunt and his devil-may-care approach to racing over Lauda’s more methodical outlook, it also takes the time to illuminate the more obscure aspects of F1, such as when Hunt’s McLaren is disqualified after a victory for being just a tad too wide. Hunt later calls Lauda, who was driving for Ferrari at the time, a cheat for siccing the stewards on him and his team. Fans of F1 of a more recent vintage will appreciate both the McLaren-Ferrari tussle (which continues today) and the controversial disqualification. More than one world championship, especially between these two teams, has since been contested as heatedly inside the stewards’ offices as on the track. Indeed, film-Hunt’s allegations of Ferrari’s closeness to the FIA — the sport’s governing body — and its willingness to leverage that relationship to suit its position has been echoed by the Italian team’s competitors through the decades. The politics, then as now, was dirty and underhand, and the best thing about Rush is that it muddies the rose-tinted nostalgia just a little.