Niki Lauda and James Hunt are Formula 1 legends, and their rivalry was just as famous — or infamous. Rush producer Brian Grazer called them “a fire and ice combination”: cold, disciplined Lauda and hot-blooded adrenaline junkie Hunt were incredibly competitive, often unlikable, and could not have been more different. Hunt was a rockstar, an artist in his approach to racing, and Lauda is the businessman, a scientist, exacting. Racing is equal parts primal and strategic, and Hunt and Lauda represented these elements — like two halves of a whole, they needed each other. Their rivalry pushed them to win. Ron Howard’s Rush documents and embellishes the rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) leading up to the 1976 Formula 1 season. Rush centers its narrative on Hunt, at least at first, but the story eventually yields to Lauda and his remarkable comeback after a near-fatal accident on the track. Neither man is ever portrayed as the villain, and we root for both racers as they navigate the gauntlet of the ’76 season.
Peter Morgan’s screenplay takes only a few liberties with Lauda’s and Hunt’s story. For example, their competition was real, but the tension didn’t stop the men from forming a friendship: the men drank together after races, and they even briefly shared an apartment. Though Rush tweaks some of the details, the film commits to authenticity where it counts, and the drama of the season is real, brought to vivid life by Hemsworth’s and Brühl’s pitch-perfect performances. Brühl in particular is a dead ringer for young Lauda, with his iconic red baseball cap and prominent (prosthetic) front teeth that earned him the nickname “The Rat.”
Rush masterfully recreates the world of Formula 1 racing. Niki Lauda consulted on Rush, and the film’s tech advisor was Alastair Caldwell, the chief engineer and manager for the McLaren team in 1976 when the British Hunt drove for them. The men who organized the Formula 1 races and the private collectors who now own, restore, and race the historic cars were present on set to scrutinize the film. Thanks to them, Rush had use of the McLaren M23 and Ferrari 312T2, Hunt’s and Lauda’s cars respectively. The collectors drove the cars themselves and refused to let stunt drivers touch them.
In addition to the McLaren and the Ferrari, Rush features a Lotus 77, a Lotus 59 with a four-cylinder MAE engine exclusive to the Formula 3 series, a Penske PC3, even the 6-wheel Tyrrell P34. The real cars that the production had on hand included two McLaren M23s, a Ferrari 312T and a Ferrari 312T2, two Lotus 77s, and two Tyrrells, but replicas were also commissioned. The replicas included the ‘hero’ cars as well as examples the production couldn’t find: a Ligier-Matra, a Brabham-Alfa, and two 1973 BRM P160s. Changes to the cars in each race in Rush reflect the sport’s evolving rules: Formula 1 banned tall air scoops during the 1976 season, so that the cars featured in its first races (Brazil and South Africa) all have the tall air scoops, but no longer have them during the fourth race, the Spanish Grand Prix. Instead, the McLaren has little scoops on either side of the rollbar, and the Ferrari had a NACA duct on either side of the cockpit. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives the cars as much attention as the film’s protagonists, treating them like characters and showcasing their beauty.
Mantle explained the look of Rush: “The aesthetic was a very painterly and, what I thought, an inspiring, visceral, sexy color palette, and not the desaturated, golf-ball-grain sadness of ’70s. In Monaco, I was particularly struck by the yellow, cyan, and red. It’s not pristine—it has grit. The drivers were eccentric and raggedy; they had dirty underwear and bad hair, in comparison to multi-millionaire motor racing drivers now and their entourage.” To capture the 1970s and Formula 1, Howard explained, “We used every tool.” Howard and Mantle used archival footage, replica cars, and CGI. They combined digital cameras with old lenses from the ‘60s and ‘70s, using up to 30 cameras at a time on set. Mantle customized cameras and placed them everywhere: on the track, on the cars, under the cars, up the hose pipes, on the roof, underneath the roof, on the drivers’ helmets just inches away from the actors’ eyes. Drivers in camera cars kept up with the racers. Mantle even got into Lauda’s wreckage in a burn suit to capture the flames. Because of Mantle’s ingenuity, Rush captured more in-camera footage than Howard thought possible. Howard’s and Mantle’s approach to shooting Formula 1 creates a visceral experience: an intimacy with the racers and an immediacy.
Even the sound design in Rush syncs with the cars on screen. Ron Howard said, “…everybody who loves F1 talks about the sound. If you go to a race, you hear the cars before you [saw] them, and you’ve already had an experience before you laid your eyes on the cars. And it was vital to get it right. People can tell the difference between the various engines.” When you see Lauda’s Ferrari in the film, you hear Lauda’s Ferrari. The sound recordist picked up the audio of all the cars. Rush’s attention to detail extends not just to the sound design and the cars, but to the look of the ‘70s as well, from the production design to the clothes. Howard recounted a conversation he had with producer Brian Grazer: “He called me up about halfway up through the film and said, ‘Boy it’s going great, it looks fantastic. I don’t want to be insulting here, but I didn’t know you would make a movie that was this pretty.’”
What makes Rush a compelling race film isn’t just its beauty and historic perspective, but the two characters at its heart. Dynamic and charismatic, Hunt and Lauda shared a will to win, ready to risk it all for greatness. Brühl called them, “modern knights constantly facing death.” Maybe the most well-known event of the ’76 season was Niki Lauda’s crash at Germany’s Nürburgring. Lauda’s Ferrari caught fire after his tires lost grip in the rain: “Another 10 seconds and I would have died,” Lauda recalled. Lauda was badly burned, inside and out, and his condition was so dire, he received last rites from a priest. But it didn’t stop him—Lauda returned only 6 weeks later to compete at Monza.
Howard doesn’t hold back when depicting Lauda’s painful recovery. In a brutal sequence, Lauda has his lungs vacuumed. In another scene, Lauda tries to put his helmet on over his bloody bandages. These moments feel more grueling and raw than any Rocky training montage. When Lauda returned to racing, he took fourth at Monza, but Hunt won the F1 title in Japan that Lauda fought so hard to claim. The circuit was flooded, and conditions that day were some of the worst Lauda had ever seen—they were forced to start the race anyway because of a television deal. Lauda prioritized his own safety and only raced one lap. Rush is the Rocky of racing movies: Technically Lauda doesn’t win the championship, but he pushes himself so hard to get back in the driver’s seat that his determination is its own victory.
Jackie Stewart once said, “When I was in F1, sex was safe and motor racing was dangerous.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many racers since then. Death was an accepted fact, the car was “a little coffin,” “a bomb on wheels.” For some racers, it was a calculated risk; for others, it was the reason they raced, part of the exhilaration. Rush showcases just how dangerous racing used to be, and what drove men to do it. When asked by The Guardian in 2016 what era he’d choose if he got the chance to drive again, Lauda responded: “Today. Because they get 10 times the money and there’s no risk. Honestly, safer. At the same time it gets boring. [ . . . ] We want some of the lost excitement to come back.”