Niki Lauda, the subject of the Formula One film Rush, talks to John Hiscock about his great rival James Hunt and explains why he agreed to the film.
Former Formula One world racing car champion Niki Lauda estimates he has been approached 30 times over the years by people wanting to tell his story.
But it was not until the British playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) contacted him that he finally agreed. "Oscar nominations, good writer, top man," he told me succinctly when we talked at the Toronto Film Festival. "I started talking to him and he developed the story about the 1976 racing season and the rivalry between me and James Hunt."
The result is Rush, which had its premiere in Toronto and is being widely viewed as a possible Oscar contender. The Australian actor Chris Hemsworth does a creditable job portraying Hunt, the hard-living, fast driving playboy who died of a heart attack in 1993 aged 45, while Daniel Brühl, who is also in the Julian Assange story The Fifth Estate, portrays the methodically brilliant Lauda.
Lauda, the defending Formula One champion, was critically burned when his Ferrari crashed at the Nürburgring, but only six weeks after the near-fatal crash he returned to the track. He retired at the end of the 1985 season and ran his own airline, Lauda Air, before selling it to Austrian Airlines in 2000.
"I had to ask my wife who Daniel Brühl was, to be honest," said 64-year-old Lauda. "She told me right away, then I met him and I liked the guy right from the beginning. He said it was very difficult to play me because I was still alive and people knew me from television and knew my body language. I spent a lot of time in Vienna with him and then I flew him to the Brazilian Grand Prix to show him Formula One racing because he had very little knowledge of it.
"I think he did an incredible job because when I first saw the movie, I said, 'S---! That's really me.'"
Rush was directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard, who, said Lauda, knew nothing at all about motor racing. "It was really funny because he had no idea about racing at all and he was like a little kid – he couldn't stop asking questions. Then the whole thing came into gear."
Although the film portrays Lauda and Hunt as two drivers who disliked each other in the early days of their careers, Lauda told me that in fact they used to go out on the town in London together and on at least one occasion he spent the night in Hunt's flat. Then he added with a smile and a wink: "But not together. There were four of us."
On the track, he said, Hunt was a tough competitor. "There are good drivers and bad ones and then there are the really talented ones who are difficult to beat and James was one of them. We respected each other very much because in the old days, to drive 300 kilometres an hour side by side towards a corner, if someone makes a mistake, one or both are killed. Hunt was someone you could rely on to be really precise.
"The sad thing is that he isn't here now. I wish he could have seen the movie because I know for sure he would have enjoyed it."
Rush is now open at UK cinemas