At long last, a film for which many of us have been drooling in anticipation comes to theatres: RUSH, Ron Howard's adaptation of the legendary 1976 F1 championship duel between Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
The early 70's were turbulent times for the sport; F1 was wildly popular, but the consistency of driver deaths (relatively steady throughout the 50's, 60's and 70's) was becoming more and more of a black eye on its reputation. Mistakes were severely punished by hard crashes in monocoques that, by today's standards, were death traps. Breaking one's legs was classified as a "lucky" shunt.
As Sir Jackie Stewart notes in the new documentary 1: "..the racetracks hadn't changed, the medical facilities hadn't changed and suddenly the cars were going almost twice as fast."
Nowhere did this become more evident than at the 1976 German Grand Prix, the last F1 race to be held at the Nurburgring Nordschleife (subsequent grands prix have taken place on the revised south course). In the five years after the 'Ring was resurfaced and given safety upgrades, lap times continued to plummet until they broke the 7-minute mark (for the record, modern F1 cars could do it in about 5'15", per BMW engineers in 2006).
Despite the fact that Stewart had already been campaigning for changes in the sport since his harrowing Spa crash a decade hence, safety at the track could simply not keep up. Track marshals were still ill-equipped, speeds were too high, dangerous bumps were still present, runoff areas were negligible at certain spots and they could not staff enough medical cars around the 14-mile circuit to respond quickly enough to serious accidents. Niki Lauda attempted to boycott the race but the drivers voted against it. On lap 2, he lost control at a fast left kink before the Bergwerk corner and crashed heavily into the Armco barriers, bouncing back onto the track and being hit by multiple cars thereafter. The accident knocked his helmet off and his car caught fire. He spent nearly a minute trapped in the inferno.
The web is peppered with lots of interesting information about the accident and the chaos that preceded the start, some of which you may not have already read. This article is translated from a German magazine and, interestingly, features Austrian driver Harald Ertl talking about how this was a "normal" racing incident, and that the safety features of the Nurburgring worked just fine.
Ultimately, Lauda came within a hair's breadth of losing his life. It only took the medics 40 seconds to get to him, but even that was too slow; without the assistance of four fellow drivers pulling him clear of his burning Ferrari, he wouldn't have stood a chance.
These days we watch in amazement as sports stars tear ACLs, undergo Tommy John surgeries, fracture vertebrae, and yet miraculously (sometimes, ahem, too miraculously) recover and return to the field faster than seems humanly possible. But nothing could ever trump how Lauda went from near-death to back in his Ferrari cockpit in six weeks flat, even opting out of further corrective surgery to repair the disfigurement caused by the accident. He finished fourth that race, at Monza.
The title fight with Hunt came down to an anticlimactic end in Fuji, where the weather sadly did not cooperate - Lauda opted to retire in light of the terrible conditions (and possibly for other reasons related to his previous injuries), saying "my life is worth more than a title". (Note in the race broadcast at 47:45, the British interviewer asks Hunt what his immediate plans were upon becoming world champion. Hunt's plainly-stated response: "I shall be getting drunk." Classic.)
Please join us for the RUSH premiere at Regal North Hills 14. Tickets are $11.25 each if you want to buy in advance on Fandango; the movie starts at 7 PM, but as with all movie premieres you will want to get there a little earlier to grab a decent seat.
Afterwards we'll head over to Yard House (on the other side of Six Forks) for post-movie libations. Can't wait!!