Lauda: 'The movie stirred some emotions I didn't feel at the time...'

The 1976 F1 season remains vivid to all who lived through it, but Niki Lauda believes a Hollywood touch was necessary to make Rush relevant today
Writer Simon Arron

Almost 30 years after he won the last of his three Formula 1 titles, Niki Lauda remains a popular paddock target. In a world distorted by corporate flannel, his forthright opinions are a prized capture. Even in his latest role as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team, he has a tendency to say exactly what he thinks.

Easy to imagine, then, that this most forthright of men might be deterred by a little cinematic polish, but that’s not the case at all.

“The problem,” he says, “is that you and I remember the old days. Rush is for newer generations and viewers won’t know about 1976, or the two main characters fighting for the World Championship. The movie’s target was to educate the audience about what happened and it has been done in exactly the right way. Today, almost nobody knows who I was, or who James Hunt was, so they had to make it this way. It’s a movie, rather than a documentary, but I was surprised how well Ron Howard managed to put it all together.”

Lauda first watched the final edit at a private screening, with about 150 others. “Their reaction was quite interesting,” he says. “They saw everything build up, then the accident happened, the really hard part started and the whole room went quiet. Nobody said a word. There was applause at the end, but beyond that there was silence – in a positive sense. I got up and said, ‘What the hell’s happening here?’ They told me they’d been impressed by the way things came across – the accident, the hospital scenes, so I think Ron did a good job.”

Too good, perhaps.

“I live for today,” Lauda says, “and think for tomorrow, capitalising on the experience I have. That’s how I treat the past. To me, the only difference now is that I’ve watched the movie’s hospital scenes and thought, ‘F***, I really was in bad shape’. When you’re the one lying there, fighting for your life, you don’t think you’re in bad shape, so the movie stirred some emotions I didn’t feel at the time.

“When I first looked in a mirror after my accident, I was shocked – no question – but understood that was the ways things now were. I had no choice. I used to get upset when people talked to me but looked to either side of my head, rather than straight at me. I used to think, ‘Look into my eyes, for f***’s sake’. I didn’t understand why people were so impolite, staring at me in that way just because my features were different. They didn’t cope with it in a proper manner and I never understood this.

“In the movie, however, there’s a scene when the Hunt character walks over to me and turns around. This time I saw myself from the other side and thought, ‘F***! I really look horrible’. There are things in there that make me realise I might have been too aggressive in the past. I wouldn’t have been like that if I’d realised the effect I had on others. From that perspective, watching was quite interesting.”

Lauda is impressed with the way Chris Hemsworth (‘Hunt’) and Daniel Brühl settle into the roles of two men who remained as cordial away from the wheel as they were competitive behind it. “James was one of the few drivers with whom I’d share a beer,” he says, “because we knew each other from earlier in our careers. We were hard competitors, but we also had a good understanding.

“While the movie was being made, Daniel told me, ‘The biggest problem I have is that you’re still alive’. I said, ‘Thanks very much. Why’s that a problem?’ He explained that because I was a well-known TV analyst, people were familiar with how I sounded in both English and Austrian-accented German, so he had to make sure he got those bits right. He came to Vienna to learn how to do it and when I saw the movie I thought, ‘He’s done a very good job with that’. He explained that it was very tough, though, because if you’re playing a dead person you can do things differently.”

Talking of which, has the real Niki Lauda ever had a moment’s regret about his early withdrawal from the 1976 Japanese GP?

“Not at all,” he says. “I thought it was too dangerous because of the rain. We were delayed for about two hours, but when we started there was just as much water as before. Given that choice again, I’d do the same thing…”

We know that voice
Rush through the eyes of the only cast member to appear as himself: our own Simon Taylor

In Hollywood’s current roll-call, Ron Howard is an F1-stature director. Over the past 35 years this former child actor has directed some 23 feature movies, from Parenthood to The Da Vinci Code. A Beautiful Mind won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Apollo 13 was praised for its accurate portrayal of the American space programme and nominated for nine Oscars, winning two.

British playwright Peter Morgan wrote West End hits like Frost/Nixon and The Audience, and has scripted more than a dozen films, including The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl and Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. He lives in Vienna: his wife, an Austrian princess, happens to be a friend of Niki Lauda.

When I heard that Howard and Morgan were collaborating on a major feature film about the 1976 battle for the world title between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, I was intrigued, but concerned. That was one of the most exciting, and most significant, F1 seasons ever, and I was there to witness most of it. But Hollywood’s past efforts to portray motor racing have not always been happy (although John Frankenheimer’s 1966 Grand Prix stands out). Then it emerged that massive efforts were being made to get the visual detail of the story entirely right, and owners of the actual 1976 cars were becoming involved. If anyone could get it right, Apollo 13’s director could.

To help tell the story, Morgan’s script required young actors from various countries to play TV commentators in different languages. One of Ron’s researchers found that I did the live BBC radio broadcast from the final, crucial Grand Prix at Fuji 37 years ago: it’s hard to realise today, but back then it was not covered live on TV. I was summoned to an audition, and found myself cast as the British commentator, effectively playing myself at less than half my current age. Sounds like an uphill task for the make-up department; but in the finished film you hear my voice a bit, but see me very little.

I’m just part of a kaleidoscopic background.

Nevertheless I was needed for three days of filming. A 5.30am car took me to a massive outdoor set built on the old Blackbushe Airport in Hampshire, with a start-finish straight and pitlane. During the night the hard-worked crew – 400 of them – toiled to change it from Monza to the Nürburgring to Fuji: pits, commentary boxes and stands (filled with scores of extras and, for out-of-focus shots, hundreds of cleverly dressed dummies). Sod’s law meant it was raining when we did Monza and bright sunshine when we did the Nürburgring, but clever lighting for the former and huge rain machines for the latter dealt with that. Ron was everywhere, small, bird-like quick, ever-present baseball cap, swathed in two anoraks against the non-Californian cold. To change outfits from race to race, climate to climate, I had my own caravan with my name on the door, making me feel frightfully important. Even better were all the F1 cars, their owners wearing the helmets and overalls of their original drivers, patiently doing take after take as the different grids were lined up.

That was Phase One. Phase Two came months later when Ron Howard’s office called: could I help out with some editing? So I was closeted for eight hours in a tiny equipment-filled suite in Soho with the great Ron himself and his equally great editor, Dan Hanley, who works on all of Ron’s films and won an Oscar for Apollo 13. It was an education watching these two perfectionists working frame by frame through complex scenes, telling them what had happened historically, and arguing through the compromises needed to make the story come alive for a world audience, most of whom have never seen an F1 race and never will. As Ron said, “Will it work in a cinema in Des Moines, Iowa on a wet Tuesday?”

So to Phase Three. In a small preview theatre with about 40 others, I watched an early edit of the whole film, still with a few gaps, still without Hans Zimmer’s music. And, without grinding any axe, I think it’s terrific. It’ll upset the purists, of course: primarily because the film’s whole premise is that Niki and James dislike each other at once. That’s pure fiction, of course. They’d been friends and rivals since Formula 3, and when Niki came to London he used to kip at James’s flat. Other inevitable liberties have been taken with history.

If you’re expecting a documentary, don’t expect to be happy with Rush.

But, like it or not, this is a feature film, and a wonderful evocation of what F1 was like in 1976: not over-dramatised, not over-simplified, but just as I remember it. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, as James and Niki, are movingly realistic, and the attention to visual detail is extraordinary. Using the best modern methods, Rush is technically and atmospherically brilliant. Go and see it.