You can’t have failed to notice that the cinemas are full of a new Formula 1 blockbuster, called Rush.
If, like me, you’ve been following the marketeers’ drip-feed of information – those first, grainy shots of a Marlboro-liveried M23 being hustled round the Nurburgring, images of a rainy Blackbushe airport decked out like Fuji, YouTube trailer after YouTube trailer arriving in my inbox, then, more recently, hoardings on the sides of bus shelters and print adverts in the newspapers – then you’ll invariably know that Rush is very much in the public eye.
Indeed, last week I became another of the many thousands of salivating fans who put down their own hard-earned to sit, popcorn in hand, and watch director Ron Howard’s much-touted Formula 1 biopic.
And I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact, I can assure you that the movie will be a veritable feast for all McLaren fans. And while I’m perhaps not wholly representative of the film’s intended target audience, may I firmly state that it was the iconic McLaren M23 that, for me, took centre stage.
Howard has managed to squeeze so much brain-rattling detail into his film that you cannot fail to be impressed by the level of devotion visible across the entire production. That even extends down to the perfect reproduction of the livery carried by the M23s and Ferrari 312T2s during that defining title battle.
Of course, my view in no way detracts from the brilliantly authentic performances from both Chris Hemsworth, who plays James Hunt, and Daniel Bruhl, whose creation of Niki Lauda is masterful.
And while I’m too modest to admit it, well, I really should be able to tell whether both actors nailed it: I was a sports reporter watching trackside at every single one of James and Niki’s Formula 1 races. And, while you mention it, I also covered most of their minor-league Formula 2 and Formula 3 races too!
“The most impressive single thing about the film is that they found somebody even uglier than you to play your part,” I jokingly told Niki when I last saw him. The Austrian always enjoyed a bit of playful banter and duly agreed with what I can only describe as a schoolboy chortle of approval.
The inordinate level of detail even extended to some of the minor characters: for instance, the elegant hairstyle of Niki’s girlfriend Mariella Reininghaus, a brewery heiress from Salzburg, took me straight back to the ’70s. I have to confess, I had something of a crush on Mariella back when Niki was still somewhat regarded as a bit of a spindly drip with racing ambitions beyond his station.
Mariella had a little more vision than I, though, because she clearly saw something special in Niki, whereas I didn’t!
The Rush producers also did a magnificent job of re-working Surrey’s Blackbushe airport into an extremely good imitation of the Japanese Fuji Speedway – the venue where the final twists and turns of a fascinating title battle were played out in a torrential rainstorm. In fact, the production crew also very skillfully used the rolling, sweeping Donington Park circuit as their on-track model for Fuji – and it works perfectly on screen.
But, as I said at the beginning, the real star of the film was the trusty old McLaren-Ford M23.
By the early years of the 1970s, McLaren were perceived as solid contenders, but Lotus and Ferrari were the ‘super teams’ to beat. Lotus, in particular, had raised the bar with, first, the 49 – the brilliantly simply DFV-engined car that so memorably won on its debut in 1967 – and then the 72, a car that completely re-packaged the grand prix into a size and shape that we still recognise today.
But then McLaren really raised the stakes at the beginning of 1973 when their chief designer Gordon Coppuck penned the superb, side-radiatored M23 chassis. Denny Hulme drove the new car to pole position on the car’s race debut at that year’s South African GP at Kyalami. Halfway through the season, at the Swedish GP at Anderstorp, Hulme took the M23 to the first of its 16 grand prix wins.
The M23, clearly, was something a bit special.
Coppuck had taken over his role at McLaren after Robin Herd left for a senior post with Cosworth, the eponymous F1 engine specialists. In a very real sense, you could describe Gordon as a ‘local boy’ – he hailed from the Hampshire town of Fleet, about 17 miles from Woking. A keen motorcyclist and a very nice all-round chap, with a dry sense of humour coupled to a rather laid-back and ironic approach to life, he was also perceived as far too modest to be involved in such a high-profile activity as F1.
Coppuck arrived at McLaren quite early in the team’s story, joining them in 1965 and taking over detailed design work on the upcoming 3-litre M7A, the famous orange car that would scoop the team its first F1 victories in 1968. It was also characteristic of Gordon’s modesty that he asked that a more senior engineer be brought in over his head as he didn’t feel he had the necessary strength-in-depth of experience to take over the chief designer position!
While it would probably be fair to say that the M23 followed more design cues than it actually set, the car was so successful because it was such a solid platform upon which to build. Both Emerson and James – the car’s two world champions – both raved about its neutral handling, and the car’s ability to be pushed naturally, and without undue hustle, to its limit, a quality that made it so eminently raceable.
Coupled to that rock-solid platform was McLaren’s rock-solid teamwork and consistent development programme. Since its ‘birth’, in the early races of 1973, the M23 was still achieving podium finishes until halfway through ’77, and finally saw the end of active service at the end of 1978, albeit as a customer chassis.
In the modern era, where a car is binned after just one year, it’s almost unthinkable that a race-winning car such as the M23 could enjoy a five-year lifespan, but it just goes to show how resourceful those McLaren boys were in wringing more pace from a car that was decidedly long in the tooth by the time it shuffled off to that great pit-garage in the sky.
Indeed, a total of 14 M23 chassis were built between the start of 1973 and the middle of 1977, including both works cars and a number of customer chassis that were run by a number of independent teams – again, another unthinkable concept in the modern era.
Of course, in Rush, there’s only one M23 that matters – the red and white rocket driven by James Simon Wallis Hunt to six incomparable victories in 1976 (seven, if you prefer to include his win at Brands Hatch, from which he was later disqualified; six, however, if you consider his disqualification (then subsequent reinstatement) from Jarama due to excessively wide rear-track to have been justified, but let’s not stir that particular hornet’s nest!).
No, let’s remember the M23 at its best; a muscular little terrier of a car that could, and did, out-perform the best on many, many occasions, and which carried two of the most legendary and charismatic champions of the sport to two incredible world titles.