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'Rush' relives F1's death or glory days

By Matthew Knight, CNN
September 13, 2013 -- Updated 1549 GMT (2349 HKT)
A promotional image for the new Formula One film "Rush." Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays the hedonistic James Hunt (left) while Daniel Bruhl plays his on-track nemesis Niki Lauda. A promotional image for the new Formula One film "Rush." Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays the hedonistic James Hunt (left) while Daniel Bruhl plays his on-track nemesis Niki Lauda.
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'Rush' the movie
Bitter rivals, best of friends
The playboy
The perfectionist
'Rush' world premiere, London: Niki Lauda
Ron Howard
Jenson Button
Tom Hunt
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Formula One in the cinema spotlight with release of two feature-length films
  • "Rush" dramatizes battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda for 1976 F1 title
  • New documentary "1" tells the story of how F1 transformed appalling safety record
  • Formula One drivers were routinely killed at races during the 1960s & 1970s

London (CNN) -- During the 1970s, Formula One really was car crash telly. Drivers were routinely maimed or killed as safety took a back seat.

The wacky races run during that era provided the sport with some of its most celebrated and reviled moments which are now the subject of two feature-length films released this autumn.

'Rush'

Directed by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, "Rush" tells the true story of the battle between James Hunt and Austria's Niki Lauda for the 1976 F1 World Championship.

The pair were polar opposites. Hunt, played by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, was a swashbuckling, hedonistic Brit. Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), on the other hand, was a deeply fastidious character known as "The Computer."

A glorious battle of egos ensues amid a season marked by arguments over car and fuel regulations off the track and near-tragedy on it when Lauda spectacularly crashes out of the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

Trapped inside the burning wreck of his Ferrari, Lauda is eventually pulled free by fellow drivers but not before enduring terrible burns to his face and lung damage.

Both of these guys were so truthful and so competitive and there's not a hypocritical bone in either of their bodies
Ron Howard, director of "Rush"

Not only does Lauda beat the odds -- at one point a priest is called to administer the last rites -- he also defies all logic, returning to race 43 days later at Monza where he finishes fourth in the Italian Grand Prix.

"I was happy to stay alive. Normally you get killed in this kind of accident," Lauda told CNN at the world premiere in London earlier this month.

"It was clear that the challenge now was to say: Can you ever come back, and how much time does it take? This was really my challenge. It was not Hunt at the time. So I fought my way back five weeks later in Monza."

Lauda's miraculous return makes for a thrilling climax to the season which, naturally, ends on a controversial note at a rain-lashed Fuji Speedway in Japan.

"Both of these guys were so truthful and so competitive and there's not a hypocritical bone in either of their bodies," director, Ron Howard told CNN.

"They just did things their way. They would have scars of some of those decisions, but they also got to own their own triumphs and you have to admire that. To me, that's the nobility of the story."

"Rush" goes on release in the U.S. on September 20.

'1'

Serious injuries and fatalities are thankfully rare in F1 these days, but it wasn't so long ago that the sport would consider itself very lucky to get through a season without someone being killed.

"1," a new 90-minute documentary narrated by Michael Fassbender, tells the story of the fight to improve safety told by the men who survived the sport's most deadly era.

"The racetracks hadn't changed, the medical facilities hadn't changed and suddenly the cars were going almost twice as fast," explains three-time world champion Jackie Stewart during the film.

Director Paul Crowder, vividly recalls his teenage self watching F1 during the 1970s in an almost permanent state of disbelief.

The racetracks hadn't changed, the medical facilities hadn't changed and suddenly the cars were going almost twice as fast
Jackie Stewart speaking in the documentary "1"

"The thing I always remember about it was thinking: another one has died. It's crazy. I couldn't quite fathom (it). It happened so consistently."

Crowder speaks to the survivors -- Stewart, Jody Scheckter, Emerson Fittipaldi and others -- who share stories of camaraderie and their battles with the sport's governing body, the FIA, to take safety more seriously.

"All the drivers were trying, but the biggest key was the FIA. Basically their attitude was: 'If you think it's dangerous, slow down,'" Crowder says.

"I think they thought we were gladiators," Stewart says. "They were blind to the reality. They didn't know those drivers. They didn't know the driver's wives, fathers and mothers."

Improvements eventually came, but it wasn't until the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994 that safety regulations started to be transformed, says Crowder.

"That was the point at which they had the technology and the will, and they had Max Mosley running the FIA."

Today, whatever the sport may have lost in terms of raw excitement, it has gained the total acceptance that the preservation of human life comes first. "Whatever is happening to a car, there should be no reason to die in a car," seven-time Michael Schumacher tells Crowder.

"1" will be shown at the London Film Festival in October and is available for download on iTunes in the U.S. from October 1.

Customers who watch "Rush" and "1" may also like ...

'Senna'

Ayrton Senna
Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

This moving portrait of the late Brazilian resonated with both critics and moviegoers becoming an instant classic when it was released in 2010.

Directed by Asif Kapadia, "Senna" tells the story of Brazil's three-time world champion from his karting days in the late 1970s to his tragic death, aged 34, at Imola in May 1994.

Senna was compassionate and charismatic off the track and fearless, sometimes reckless, on it. The combination made him a global superstar that transcended the sport.

Rare archive footage and interviews with a string of ex-drivers, officials and journalists combine to create a searing portrait of arguably the greatest driver to ever race an F1 car.

'Grand Prix'

James Garner filming 'Grand Prix' at Brands Hatch
Victor Blackman/Express/Getty Images

The 1966 Oscar-winning tale of a fictional motor racing season remains a classic of the motorsport genre.

American actor James Garner heads an international cast which includes British world champion Graham Hill and cameos by many of his famous racing contemporaries.

Beautifully directed by John Frankenheimer, "Grand Prix" includes some memorable racing scenes from Monaco, Brand's Hatch, Spa-Francorchamps and some terrifying footage around the high-speed oval at Monza.

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