Film review – “1976: Hunt vs. Lauda”

[Originally posted to Blogcritics]

I haven’t yet seen Rush, Ron Howard’s film about the rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, but the big-budget Hollywood treatment of this subject matter has caused a resurgence of interest in that exciting but dangerous era of motorsport.

The documentary 1976: Hunt vs. Lauda originally aired on the BBC, and tells the same story featured in Rush. During that unforgettable F1 season, two very different drivers — sober, technically gifted Austrian Niki Lauda, and dashing British playboy James Hunt — battled for the world championship right up to the very last race. Early in that year, Lauda (driving for Ferrari) had a seemingly insurmountable edge over the rest of the field, but Hunt and his McLaren team started to close the gap as time went on.

Along the way, there were legal battles, with each side accusing the other of cheating. (Interviews with team personnel from both teams show that the bitterness hasn’t completely healed almost four decades later). There was also a near-riot at the British Grand Prix, in which outraged fans pelted the track with beer cans when it looked like their hero Hunt may not be allowed to rejoin the event after the multi-car crash on the track.

And then came Lauda’s devastating accident at the fabled – and dangerous – Nürburgring circuit in Germany. The Austrian was nearly burned alive, and was so far gone that a priest was brought to his hospital bed to perform last rites. But despite disfiguring burns to his face and hands, he only missed two races.

At the final round of the F1 season, in Japan was delayed for hours because of a brutal rainstorm. But with a worldwide TV audience growing increasingly impatient, the race started. Lauda, who had already come perilously close to death just a few months earlier, withdrew after a few laps – leaving James Hunt to heroically drive to the third-place finish he needed to win the title by a single point.

There has never been a Formula One season quite like 1976, and the racing footage featured in this documentary is absolutely thrilling. Team officials from each side are interviewed, and it is amusing to see traces of the old rivalry lingering all these years later. Unfortunately, 1976: Hunt vs. Lauda, confined to a 48-minute running time, leaves out much of the story.

Very little information is given about the drivers’ backgrounds, for example. Lauda struggled with the March and declining BRM teams before joining Ferrari, and Hunt was so crash-prone he was known as “Hunt the Shunt” before his first win (for the unsponsored Hesketh team, run as a lark by a British nobleman – in 1975). There’s a lot of interesting back-story here, for both drivers, but this documentary barely scratches the surface.

It would have been nice to see some of the other big stories from the 1976 F1 season acknowledged in the documentary as well. (The Tyrell team entered a pair of six-wheeled cars, for crying out loud – and they finished 1-2 at the Swedish Grand Prix.) Perhaps most egregiously, the names of Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl — the drivers who helped to pull Lauda from his burning car — aren’t even mentioned.

Just a few months ago, another documentary about classic F1 racing – 1 – covered much of the same ground, but also told much more about the period. 1976: Hunt v Lauda is briskly paced and interesting, but it pales by comparison.