TORONTO — It was 37 years ago, but Niki Lauda recalls his brush with death as if it happened this morning.
The Austrian Formula One driver had been in a ferocious nip-and-tuck battle for most of the season with his British rival James Hunt when he crashed on a rain-slicked track at the German Grand Prix. Lauda, then 27, was trapped in his burning car for nearly a minute before he was pulled out by other drivers who stopped to help. The skin on his face was so badly burned that, at the hospital, a priest was called to administer last rites.
But a few days later, Lauda got up from his sickbed, signed a release and returned to his rural home.
"I remember hiding in my own house because there were photographers surrounding the place who wanted the first picture of me looking like this," Lauda, now 64, said in an interview last week, gesturing to his still badly scarred face and ear. "But I had a bigger decision: Do I want to race or not? And I put a record on, and then I went down to the lake where I had a nice view, and I said, 'This is the prime of my life, and thank God I'm alive and not dead. So yes, I'm going to race.'"
That decision proved one of the most remarkable in modern sports. Barely six weeks after an accident that should have killed him, Lauda showed up at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza — to Hunt's great shock — and finished in the top 5. The battle with his nemesis was back on.
The clash between Lauda and Hunt — personal, professional, philosophical — is at the heart of Ron Howard's Formula One drama "Rush," in theaters Friday. Auto-racing movies tend to fall under several known genres: heightened action (the "Fast and Furious" franchise) or sports uplift ("Days of Thunder"). "Rush" peels off on a different course.
Written by Oscar nominee Peter Morgan — who spent months conferring with Lauda and poring over footage — the film examines its heroes primarily during that dramatic 1976 season. But while Howard crafts the races with sonic and visual style, he is equally preoccupied with characters' personalities.
As shown in the movie, Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth), driving for McLaren, was a swashbuckler, relying on natural talent more than mechanical savvy or hard work--and as interested in drinking and womanizing as in the nuances of the sport. Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), driving for the superior Ferrari, was a brilliant clinician, a disciplined practitioner who worked every mechanical detail to his advantage. Nicknamed "The Rat" because of his buckteeth, Lauda had a no-nonsense approach that made him as successful on the track as he was unpopular among fellow drivers off it.
Needless to say, there was no love lost between Lauda and Hunt, their rivalry a reminder of a far grittier sports era than the present, when competitors still genuinely resented each other (even though, as the movie suggests, they were also each other's greatest motivating force).
"Young people today have no idea what happened in '76," Lauda said with his trademark curmudgeonliness. He and Bruhl were at a rooftop restaurant at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Rush" had premiered the night before. "It was two different people, two different approaches, one world championship."
Bruhl added: "What I find great about the movie is you have empathy with both guys. It's not a conventional film where you root for one person and not the other."
The actor said he was still trying to understand the risks Lauda took. Formula One was a loose, unregulated sport until the mid-'90s, and serious injuries and fatalities were common. (Fans of the documentary "Senna" will recall how that movie's hero, the Brazilian champ Ayrton Senna, died on the track in 1994. Hunt survived his racing career but died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 45.)
Before the fateful German race, Lauda had argued for its cancellation; rain, he said, made conditions too dangerous. But in part because Lauda was a not-entirely-beloved guy on the circuit, he was outvoted by other drivers, including Hunt.
Bruhl was even more astounded by the comeback at Monza, which was so frightening that Lauda admits that during a test drive he had visions of his head being severed by a guardrail.
"It's hard to find the right approach to think about what he did," said Bruhl, the Spanish German actor known for his role as Nazi war hero Zoller in "Inglourious Basterds." "You try to think about moments in life that are similar, but then you see how ridiculous the comparison is. Even how he analyzed his fear doesn't seem human to me."
To get himself in the proper frame of mind, Bruhl developed a bond with the three-time champion and worked him for off-the-record tidbits. He even accompanied him to the Brazilian Grand Prix, where in the paddock he met with current drivers such as the German champion Sebastian Vettel.
Bruhl also tried getting behind the wheel himself at a Formula Three course.
"There was a funny little accident where the wheel came off the fake Ferrari and I felt uncomfortable for a few seconds," the actor recalled. "I always had a suspicion Ron [Howard] did it so I can get better in the part," he said, laughing, then added, "It felt good to be in the real car but when the wheel came off you could see everyone from the film panicking. I think they were more concerned about the car than me."
The actor said playing the part wasn't easy for more elemental reasons — reasons that also made him resent Hunt. "I would get picked up at 3 in the morning and have to spend six or seven hours in the makeup trailer to get the prosthetics done. And then I would look at the call sheet and it would say 'Chris: pickup at 10, first scene kissing a nurse, second scene making love on a plane. Third scene: Niki Lauda checking his tires.'"