Formula One in Film: Why now is the right time

The monumental success of the film “Senna” has sparked great enthusiasm for the upcoming drama, “Rush”. What director Ron Howard aims to do with his latest creation is capture the tension, uncertainty, shock and awe of the 1976 Formula One season which saw James Hunt and Niki Lauda duke it out for the world championship. If Ron’s most famous films like “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind” are anything to go by, then “Rush” should not only be brilliantly written, acted and directed, but complex and gripping.

We all look back at the famous Formula One rivalries of yesteryear with a rather corny sense of nostalgia. We wonder why the characters that used to be F1 drivers seemingly disappeared, and why the sport has been tamed in terms of the power of the cars and tightened up in terms of technical freedom. The truth is, though, Formula One is no longer what it used to be, and I think that is a good thing. Times have fundamentally changed the sport. Some say for the better, others say for the worse. This hasn’t, however, taken away from any of the on-track rivalries. If anything, they have improved over the years.

Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkionen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton are arguably the four best drivers in the sport at the moment, and they have all had their own historic seasons. The 2007 battle between Kimi, Fernando and Lewis for the world championship comes to mind, as does Fernando’s epic battle with Michael Schumacher for the 2006 world championship. There is a wealth of historic racing in Formula One these days, and it seems to get better and better each year.

What “Senna” and “Rush” have taught us is that Formula One is now a viable platform for a successful film. This will certainly make fans happy, and hopefully, the integration of the sport into more mainstream popular culture will build up a new fan base. F1 has been criticized for fighting a losing battle in terms of its accessibility to fans. The sport would do itself a favor if it took a look at what NASCAR does to give access to its fans. Obviously, NASCAR is a completely different environment to Formula One; it is not uncommon to see normal spectators just walking around in the paddock. That is an impossibility these days in Formula One. Perhaps we are asking too much from the sport in terms of physical fan accessibility, as back in the days of Hunt and Lauda, Formula One security was laid back to say the least. There is a way that the sport could recapture that sense of intimacy, though It’s presence in social media has been scarce, to say the least, with the individual teams taking it upon themselves to connect with their legions of supporters in various forms of social media. They have all done a wonderful job, but there is a sense, for me at least, that something more could be done. If Formula One doesn’t take it upon itself to make a more concerted effort to connect with fans in social media, this is where films take a more commanding role.

Before we all flock to the movie theaters in search of a Formula One film every weekend, we must first delve into what has made “Senna”, and most likely “Rush”, so successful: Rivalries. Hunt vs. Lauda, Senna vs. Prost. These two rivalries are arguably the most highly discussed and debated in the history of the sport. I do understand that these aren’t the only famous rivalries to have come out of Formula One, but there is a reason that the two mentioned are now immortalized on the silver screen.

What makes a great rivalry, though? Well, there needs to be a protagonist and antagonist. For Prost and Senna, this could have gone either way between the two of them. Some related to the relentless speed and determination of Ayrton Senna. They loved the way he could make a car dance, that he could find grip where no one else could. Others, perhaps a minority, struck accord with the precision and accuracy of “The Professor”, Alain Prost. Both are legends of Formula One and will be for the rest of time, now that their story has been cemented in film. I will concede that “Senna” was hugely biased towards the Brazilian, but his tragic death at Imola in 1994 was all we needed to realize that he will forever be considered one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, Formula One driver in history.

But why was the Senna/Prost rivalry so popular? Back in the late-80’s and early-90’s it was nigh on impossible to find someone who didn’t have a favorite between the two. Their on-track narrative was one of the most captivating aspects of the sport and, when tensions grew too volatile in Mclaren and Prost went to Ferrari, the rivalry only grew. Prost’s move to Ferrari in the early 90’s was, in my humble and non-expert opinion, what cemented the Senna/Prost rivalry in the history books. Not only were they rivals as drivers, but now they were in rival teams and nothing, other than their personal safety, kept them from fighting race after race after race. Their years as bitter rivals were some of the most captivating in F1 history and this is why we look back at that era with such an emotional sense of nostalgia.

The same can be said for the Hunt/Lauda rivalry on which “Rush” is based. Hunt, the playboy racer who’s laid back attitude to the sport made him attractive to many, up against Lauda, the very intense, but enthusiastic Austrian who, after a terrible and life-threatening accident, had to fight back to get into the championship battle. The drama of Lauda’s accident coupled with the badass attitude of Hunt sets up the perfect basis for a dramatic story.

There hasn’t been a lot to compare those times with. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything.

If Formula One is to build up a larger fan base in places like the Middle East, Asia and America, it first needs to make sure that not only past narratives of the sport are documented and made into film, but that the contemporary rivalries that grip us today, have a place to go when new eras in the sport resign them to the history books. Luckily, this is a relatively easy thing to do these days, and the sport needs to utilize that availability. Films are a very easy way to convey a message to a large audience and thus, the perfect vehicle for expressing the message that the sport wants to get across to potential fans.

We need to understand what the message is that Formula One wants to convey to the world. Arguably at the center of the sport is technical innovation. There is something about focussing on technology, though, that is not as appealing to a normal audience as intense personal and emotional struggle. Obviously, there were a lot of differences between the sport in 1976 and 1990. Along those lines, the Formula One of 1990 is completely different than the Formula One of 2013. Because of this, the sport has, and needs, to focus on the drivers. For example, if the 2012 Formula One season was being made into a movie, would you rather it be centered around the development of the Coanda effect in exhaust systems and the debate over the passivity of double drag reduction systems, or would you rather it focus on the monumental fight of one man in a car that wasn’t good enough against another who was let down by fate and luck and another who just won the championship by the tiniest of margins? Seems like a simple answer, right? The truth is, there is more personal drama in Formula One than I think we give the sport credit for.

Now comes the trouble of portraying this on film. Contemplating a contemporary Formula One movie is really tricky. It is difficult to definitively say who would be the protagonist, antagonist, and how the characters would build throughout the story. Coming up with the storyline would be a very difficult job and it most likely would upset some fans once the film came out in the theaters. One of the problems some people had with “Senna” was that it was too one-sided. There was a sense that even though it was a documentary about Ayrton Senna, the film portrayed Alain Prost as too much of the bad guy when, as many dedicated Formula One fans know, Ayrton was no angel himself.

With all of this in mind, not all is lost for another Formula One film. “Rush” will undoubtedly have a lot of pressure on it to not only accurately portray the events it covers, but to not completely isolate one of the characters in a way that overly upsets fans of either Hunt or Lauda. “Rush” has the difficult job of being a dramatization. Thus, events will not always be portrayed completely accurately. Unfortunately, fans may not be too pleased with that.

Try and imagine that the 2012 season was going to be made into a drama. Now try and imagine which driver would be portrayed as the hero. Would it be Alonso, Vettel or another driver? Who would be the enemy of the hero? These types of unanswerable questions are the reason, I believe, that a Formula One drama has taken so long to come about. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to build characters or to establish a clear plot throughout the season. Which events are the most important? How to we know what their lives were like away from the track? There are a lot of unknowns about the sport these days and that is what makes “Rush” such a bold and daring film. However, if “Rush” proves to be the fantastic success its trailer will have us to believe, this will open the floodgates for more F1 films.

Formula One has a brilliant platform for securing long-term fans. The ephemeral nature of social media is not the way to secure the sport’s place in history. Creative interpretations of some of the most thrilling and spellbinding events of the sport’s past sixty-plus years is the perfect way for fans and newcomers alike to come together and enjoy what makes the sport great. Formula won’t last forever, and it is our job to make sure that the best moments are captured in a way that everyone, not just fans, will be able to enjoy.

If you haven’t yet seen the official trailer for “Rush”, here it is.

Tell me what you think! Which Formula One season/rivalry would you like to see captured on the silver screen? Do you think that rivalries have gotten more or less intense over the years? Let me know by commenting below.

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