How Technically Accurate Is The New F1 Racing Movie, ‘Rush?’

A clue to the technical accuracy of the new Formula 1 movie “Rush” comes early when driver James Hunt brings a nurse, whom he had just seduced, to a Formula 3 race. When she asks about the car, its owner, Lord Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, explains, “That’s her, Lotus 59, 1,000cc Cosworth MAE engine.”

The 4-cylinder MAE, which stands for “modified Anglia engine,” actually traces its roots to the late ‘50s. When Cosworth founders Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth got their hands on it, they did exactly what head porters are trying accomplish today: raise the intake ports so the incoming charge has a straighter, unrestricted path to the back of the intake valve. The MAE was one of many engines used in the Lotus 59 but was generally exclusive to the Formula 3 series.

“Rush” recreates the fierce rivalry between James Hunt in his M23 McLaren, left, and Niki Lauda in a Ferrari 312T during the 1976 season.

As you know by now, “Rush” is the latest film from two-time Academy Award winning director Ron Howard. It opens nationwide Sept. 26, but I screened it last week, thanks to officials at Brembo. The movie has already drawn outstanding reviews for its honest and emotional portrayal of the intense rivalry between Hunt and Niki Lauda during the drama-filled 1976 F1 season. I won’t try to analyze the script, which was penned by acclaimed screenwriter Peter Morgan, or critique the performances of Chris Hemsworth as Hunt or Daniel Bruhl as Lauda. You can read a variety of reviews at Rotten Tomatoes or MRQE, as I don’t have the credentials to professionally deconstruct the plot, probe deep into the character development or evaluate Howard’s directorial choices — however, I can explore the production choices with respect to technical details of the racing action.

Director Ron Howard previews the shot during filming of ‘Rush’ on location.

I was truly hooked on the authenticity of this movie a few minutes later at the start the 1976 season. First, let’s set up the context of the movie: Lauda was the defending world champion, having won five races in his Ferrari 312T with a 3.0-liter 180-degree V12 engine and unique transverse-mounted 5-speed gearbox. It was the first time in seven years that the venerable Cosworth DFV engine had not powered the F1 champion. Hunt managed a fourth the 1975 championship standings, despite failing to finish six races in his Hesketh. When Emerson Fitapaldi quit McLaren at the end of the 1975 season, that opened up a seat for Hunt on a proven team. 

The first races of the 1976 season were in Brazil and South Africa, respectively, and both were won by Lauda. All the cars shown in the movie sported tall, narrow air scoops to feed the naturally aspirated 3.0-liter engines. At the next race in the movie, the Spanish Grand Prix, Lauda’s Ferrari and Hunt’s M23 McLaren did not have the tall air boxes. The McLaren had little scoops on each side of the rollbar, and the updated Ferrari 312T2 had NACA-style scoops on the front bodywork — resulting in one of the most beautiful racecars of any era or discipline.

Formula 1 had banned the tall air scoops — a regulation that didn’t go into effect until the season’s fourth race in Spain. Missing from the movie is the third race at Long Beach. As you can clearly see in the videos below, the tall scoops were prevalent on the cars at Long Beach, then missing in the following race in Spain.

I couldn’t discover why Howard didn’t even mention the US Grand Prix West in the movie’s otherwise mostly complete race timeline, but it could have been because American race fans are familiar with the sweeping course that runs along Skyline Drive close to the ocean. It probably would have been a production nightmare to recreate a ‘70s event in Long Beach — and neither Hunt or Lauda won the race, so it may not have been important to the storyline.

Here’s how the cars appeared in ‘Rush,’ with the first 1976 race in Brazil on top and in one of the season’s later races on the bottom. Note how accurate the movie followed the car designs as the rules changed.

Long Beach race missing

But it’s also a shame that some of the dramatic moments from that race couldn’t have been integrated into the movie. Winning that race was Lauda’s teammate, Clay Regazzoni — who was mostly responsible for getting Lauda on the Ferrari team. That episode could have added a little intra-team rivalry spice. Also at that race, Mario Andretti lost his ride on the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team. As Andretti told me a couple years ago while I was researching a retrospect on Colin Chapman, Andretti and Chapman saw each other at breakfast the next morning and decided to team up again in a Lotus 77. More on Andretti later.

Actor Daniel Bruhl plays Niki Lauda in the movie and is portrayed as a disciplined engineer who helps set up the cars. Here he’s with a BRM P160 that is powered by a V12 engine.

1976 was also the year that the unusual-looking Tyrrell P34 made it’s racing debut. Sharp-eyed race fans will only catch glimpses of the Cosworth-powered 6-wheel car for the most of the movie. It does play a minor role in a pit scene during the pivotal German Grand at the treacherous 14-mile-long Nurburgring. Many of the drivers, including Hunt and Lauda, had miscalculated their tire selection at the start of the race and came into the pits after the first lap. 

Here’s where the technical accuracy of “Rush” could be questioned. While certainly not the 3-second marvels of today, the pit stops were probably not as slow as they were depicted for that era. Also, pit boxes seemed to be in rather close proximity. When Lauda is ready to leave, the Tyrrell comes in and blocks the Ferrari’s exit for a rather long time — presumably because it takes longer to change six tires. These delays were likely positioned in the script to increase the pressure on Lauda, who then crashes shortly after when a suspension component breaks. Badly burned in the accident, Lauda sat out two races before a miraculous return to action in the Italian Grand Prix. Director Ron Howard dramatized this moment with Lauda’s blurry POV walking by the Tyrrell before the race. It’s not until season’s final race on a rain-soaked Fuji Speedway in Japan that there’s spoken word about the Tyrrell, noting that Jody Schecter was fifth on the grid behind Hunt and Lauda. 

Mario Andretti won that race, and here’s what he told me about the ride: “People say that race was a deluge and it was anybody’s game. But I was on the pole in the dry and won the damn thing.” Two years later in a Lotus 79, Mario Andretti won the world championship title.

Don’t blink too often during the racing action, or you might miss the unique 6-wheel Tyrrell that is shown a few times during the movie.

There are a couple of other timeline inaccuracies in the movie. I could find no evidence that Hunt and Lauda raced against each in Formula 3, although that’s one of the opening scenes in the movie. Also, Hunt’s disqualification — and later reinstatement — over the rear tire track being 5/8-inch too wide occurred at Spain, not Great Britain, as shown in the movie. However, in reality, Hunt’s victory at the British Grand Prix was disqualified as he restarted the race in a backup car. When Ferrari protested, that  gave the win and the points to Lauda.

Nitpicking aside, those timeline changes do nothing to distract from the movie’s pace and the solid character development of the two lead roles. This is an outstanding movie from both a dramatic and technical perspective. As a gearhead, I’d always like to see more from the pits and garages; but as a movie fan I certainly didn’t walk from the theater away shaking my head. 

Without fail, ‘Rush’ will be compared to John Frankenheimer’s great 1966 feature, ‘Grand Prix’ in which the director used a GT40 camera car and got very close to the action on the track.

By the way, this era also a milestone year for my screening host, as Brembo first equipped the Ferraris in 1975. In fact, Brembo was a technical advisor to Howard’s production crew.

“The story of “Rush” portrays an F1 era quite different from the one we know today,” says Alessio Bonzanni, Brembo’s first F1 race engineer. “In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the teams would let us work on the car: disassembling all the pads and measuring the wear rates for the race, installing new parts and giving us total responsibility for the brake systems. They changed engines continuously in those days, so when they disassembled the rear axle we needed to bleed the brakes every time. Having a great working relationship with the crew chief was even more important back then.”

The ‘Rush’ production team used actual racecars from the era that had been restored for historics racing in addition to stunt vehicles recreated for the project. Since the correct engines were used in many scenes, the engine sounds are very accurate.

About the author

Mike Magda

Mike Magda is a veteran automotive writer with credits in publications such as Racecar Engineering, Hot Rod, Engine Technology International, Motor Trend, Automobile, Automotive Testing Technology and Professional Motorsport World. He was the editor of four national automotive magazines, including Chevy High Performance, and has authored hundreds of automotive technical briefings. In covering nearly every type of motorsport, Mike has collaborated with many of racing's top engine builders and factory engineers.
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