Narrated by Ed Stoppard. Directed by Matthew Whiteman. 48 minutes.
One of the surprises of last fall’s move season was Ron Howard’s “Rush,” a drama about the rivalry between two Formula 1 race car drivers back in the 1970s. If you’re a devotee of the sport you may have wondered why it took them so long to make a movie about this historic competition. If you’re like this reviewer and couldn’t tell Formula 1 from Formula 409, you may have wondered who these people were and why you had never heard of them. Indeed, you may have wondered if the story could possibly be true.
Indeed James Hunt, one of the racers, would have agreed with you. At the end of the BBC documentary 1976: HUNT VS. LAUDA, Hunt is quoted as saying, “If you wrote this as a film script people would say, ‘It’s ridiculous. You have to have something believable. You can’t have this farcical story.’” Amazingly, that “farcical story” turns out to be true.
The British Hunt and the Austrian Niki Lauda had very different approaches to racing. Hunt was a dashing young man who pushed himself to the limit. Lauda had a more scientific bent and approached the process as a problem to be calculated and solved. Lauda had been champion of the 1975 season, but Hunt was ready to give him a run for the money in 1976. Hunt was racing as part of the McLaren team from England while Lauda was representing the Italian automotive magnate Enzo Ferrari.
Howard’s film focused on the personal lives of the racers, of which we get only a smattering here. Instead we learn a lot about the politics of auto racing. We hear much about Ferrari fought for every advantage, even getting Hunt’s car disqualified after he had won a race. Given that this is a BBC documentary, it’s not surprising that the McLaren side of the story gets a more sympathetic hearing.
What the documentary does well is present us not only footage and interviews from the 1976 season, but also contemporary interviews with some of the players including Lauda. (Hunt died at the age of 45 in 1993.) We get a real sense why, for racing fans, this was a legendary season where its victor – Hunt or Lauda – was not determined until the 16th and final race. We also see the unholy relationship between racing (really, all sports) and television when the drivers don’t won’t to go out in the last race because of hazardous conditions and they are told the race must go on or else they will lose a lot of the money that had been put up to broadcast the event.
Whether as a supplement to “Rush” or standing on its own, “1976: Hunt vs. Lauda” provides the details of one of the most notable chapters in auto racing history. As with the feature film, it also transcends its subject by depicting the complex and friendly rivalry between two men who were two of the greatest in their field. There are lessons here that apply far beyond the racetrack.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.