It is 37 years since James Hunt and Niki Lauda battled for the Formula 1 World Championship. It was a storyline that one could never have invented. It is why there are so few successful motor racing novels; reality is so weird that there is little room left for fiction.
The Hunt/Lauda story was important because it played a crucial role in getting F1 on to worldwide television in the years that followed.
I was too young to have been there at the time, but I have seen them both race and I have known the pair. I worked with James for a couple of years, in a strange role as a “ghost commentator”. At the time, the BBC did not send a crew to the flyaway races and so I would call the races down a phone line and James and Murray Walker would commentate from London. You always knew that James hated the subterfuge. “I can’t quite see from where I am sitting,” he used to say. It was a message to the BBC to cough up and get him and Murray to all the races. Sadly, he died before that happened.
James was not easy to like. He took a while to get to know but in the end we found a way. Niki, too, was a special character. He is 100 percent blunt and honest. If you want to hear it as it is, ask Niki. It is not always easy to like him, but – wow – how can one not respect a man who has lived his life?
So the characters and the story are there, and it was down to writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard to sell the movie. They were nothing if not ambitious. American interest in F1 is limited. They had to raise the cash to make the film but they made it happen and I have to say that I thought the movie was great.
I was shocked by Daniel Bruhl’s ability. He WAS Lauda. OK, he had the advantage of knowing the subject, while Chris Hemsworth had a more difficult task to recreate Hunt, without being able to meet him, but Bruhl’s performance was Oscar quality and I hope that this will be recognized accordingly. Hemsworth did a very decent job, with the right kind of earthy sex appeal that Hunt enjoyed, but he was not always helped by the script. One can understand a writer’s desire to create dramatic moments, but having Hunt coldly beating up a journalist – warranted though such a thing might have been in the circumstances portrayed – was simply not something that James would have done. It was not his style… Hunt was a glamorous babe-devouring party animal, but ruthless violence was not at all his thing…
That was the one thing that jarred for me. As a whole I though the movie was terrific, but much depends on whether you go into the cinema wearing an old racing anorak and looking for things to complain about, or whether you go in with an open mind with the view that the film is fundamentally good for F1 and the film-makers can be forgiven their little sins. My view was very much the latter, with the one proviso being that the integrity of the characters had to be left unchanged. With the exception of the violent scene with the journalist this was the case.
It has been a very long time since Hollywood did a proper racing movie and technology is such that one is amazed by what can be recreated. It is not all comfortable. Lauda’s accident and his recovery are painful to watch, as Howard has been brutal with his reality. But rightly so. F1 was painful in that era.
You end up feeling good about both characters – warts and all – and one must credit Morgan and Howard for achieving that. They have made a great – and believable – movie about Formula 1 and that has got to be a good thing for the sport. Did they tweak reality and play up the rivalry? Yes, but it did not matter. Apart from the scene with Hunt and the journalist – which they might be wise to replace – the film is terrific.
A good feature film about Grand Prix racing was long, long overdue. This is it. Don’t miss it…