Meet the man who drove as James Hunt in Rush


Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX (3515513u) Journalists taken to the McLaren Technical Centre in Woking. - test driver Niki Faulkner PR Shoot at McLaren Technology Centre, Woking  - 16 Jan 2014

The battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula 1 season was so packed with drama, it was almost as if it had been written to spawn a gripping Hollywood movie.

But it has taken almost 40 years for someone to do it filmic justice and that's exactly what happened when Ron Howard stepped behind the lens last year to create a suitably gripping movie that charts the highs and lows of one of the greatest F1 seasons in the history of the sport.

We don't want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn't seen the film (we strongly suggest you do) but we will say it includes tragedy, elation and one of the greatest sporting comebacks ever.

But there was one man who was tasked with making the driving as realistic as possible and that was Niki Faulkner.

Niki is a keen racing driver and the managing director of Driving Wizards, a company that provides precision drivers for film and television.

He has stood in for Clarkson while filming Top Gear, applied his expertise to the re-make of The Sweeney and he recently fulfilled a lifelong dream by making Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Star Trek: Into the Darkness) look convincing behind the wheel as James Hunt.

How did it feel playing one of Britain's most notorious F1 stars?

It was great as I got to get behind the wheel of the iconic McLaren, drive some really great scenes and work with Ron Howard. But I guess embodying the heavy drinking, womanising, playboy James Hunt was quite out of character for me and it was weird because there was more acting than I'm used to. We had cameras strapped to our heads and arms and we were expected to act out gestures while driving along at 100mph. I'd speak to Ron Howard before filming these scenes and cheekily ask "what is my motivation for this?" because I'm not an actor, I'm just a driver. Ron would turn around and say "You're wife has just left you for Richard Burton, you're p*ssed off your head and smoking weed all day and you need to beat Niki Lauda in the world championship"'. I basically had to drive like a hooligan.

How were you approached for the project?

We had just finished filming all of the car chase sequences on The Sweeney and then I got a phone call from Ron Howard saying he wanted to have a meeting. The first question he asked me was "what is the best racing film you have ever seen?" and I found it really hard to think of modern examples. I think I said Le Mans and Grand Prix and that was enough for Ron. He wanted to create a film that engaged fans yet wouldn't alienate those who aren't into the sport. He believes there hasn't been a truly great racing film in a long time.

Did you have to watch a lot of footage of James Hunt before filming?

We watched as much footage as we could but there wasn't anywhere near as much television coverage back then as there is now. A lot of the 1976 season was just before Bernie Ecclestone took over and before live television coverage played a major role, so just three or four cameras covered a lot of the races. I worked very closely with Chris Hemsworth, who played James Hunt, as he was keen to study the racing driver as closely as possible.

Did you have to do much preparation before filming?

I actually had to prepare a lot of the race sequences, which required us to look at storyboards and digital visualisations of the sequences and work out how we could actually make it happen. Thanks to a lack of real race footage from the time, we had to look at race records and lap charts and work out how the race panned out. There was a bit of guesswork but thanks to my racing background I could work out likely scenarios and write the scenes accordingly.

Niki Faulkner talks Rush

Niki Faulkner talks Rush

Did you unearth anything remarkable about the Hunt vs. Lauda story while doing your research?

We discovered a lot of previously unseen still images from the 1976 Formula 1 season that showed James and Niki together. They were very close friends and I don't think a lot of people realise that. They were fierce competitors but there was a mutual respect that the television cameras rarely saw.

Were the vehicles you drove Formula 1 replicas or the real thing?

We were driving some replicas, especially for the scenes where we had to get the cars sideways and really drive them at the very ragged edge. They tended to be converted Formula 3 cars or Formula Renault cars. In fact, if you parked the converted Vauxhall Lotus replica next to the real McLaren, you couldn't tell the difference. There were some real cars in the background of some shots, for example, the six-wheeled Tyrrells that you see were real and driven by their actual owners.

Do you have a favourite scene?

There was one that sticks in my mind where a fellow stunt driver and me were racing wheel-to-wheel at high speed. We must have been feeling cheeky that day as we looked at each other and smiled, then we touched wheels while thrashing down a straight. Ron went completely mad, but in a good way, and asked if we had meant to do it. He then made us do it over and over again to bag the shot.

How much driving did Chris Hemsworth do?

Chris wanted to do a lot of his own driving because he's a typical Aussie bloke; he wanted to get stuck in. The actors all had driver training because there were certain scenes that we physically couldn't drive for them. I remember that Chris had to come speeding into a wet pit lane at around 100mph during one scene, so we had to make sure he could handle the car to keep the actors playing the pit crew safe.

How did the film compare to other projects you've worked on?

It certainly didn't have the budget of say, the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which I was also involved in, but everyone involved in Rush was really into the project. We were all passionate about the story and because of that, we've kept in touch afterwards.

Rush is available available to download now and is released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 27th, courtesy of Studio Canal.

Niki Faulkner talks Rush

Niki Faulkner talks Rush