“Never meet your heroes or drive the car of your dreams,” says Niki Faulkner cheerfully.
“You can think all your life how great it would be to drive a specific car and it turns out to be terrible. And I had that fear with Niki Lauda, but straight away we got on and he invited me to watch the British Grand Prix with him. He turned out to be a funny guy. He’s got some great stories, none of which I can repeat.”
Faulkner, a former racing driver, now runs a company that provides precision drivers for films and television series. He was born in 1976, the year Lauda crashed his Ferrari on the Fuji track, nearly died and was back on the track a mere four weeks later. Faulkner was named after him.
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl as James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Photo: Supplied
“My father was a massive motor racing fan, wanted an unusual name and really admired Niki Lauda’s comeback,” he says.
So there is some irony in the fact that Faulkner’s role in the new film Rush, a fictional version of the famous rivalry between Lauda and the British driver James Hunt in that calamitous 1976 season, was to stand in for Chris Hemsworth. Some of the key races are shown in relatively lengthy sequences, which demanded the stunt drivers put in real performances.
Hunt was gifted, says Faulkner. “But he really muscled that car around, it was like he was really fighting the car to get the speed out if it, while Niki was very much more on the money with everything”.
He was also emotionally volatile, throwing up before he raced.
“Ron would say: ‘the car drives like a bag of nails, your wife has just left you, you’re angry!’ You act through the car, maybe drive more aggressively.”
More broadly, Faulkner was responsible for finding racetracks that could double for those in the Rush story that no longer exist or were too far away – Brands Hatch, he found, offered several corners that were near replicas to those at Monza - assembling replica cars and training Hemsworth and Daniel Bruehl, the actors playing Hunt and Lauda, to crunch through a racing car’s gears.
Australian actor Hemsworth, he says, “was a very competent driver. We did pitstop practice marked out with cans, so they learn not to hit anyone, and he lit the car up, spun the back wheels, burned out – he wasn’t shy and did whatever we told him to do.”
The three biggest set-pieces, which are shown in the film with mingled action, archival footage and computer-generated imagery, are the races at Monza, Nurburgring and Mount Fuji.
Collectors lent cars including Lauda’s Ferrari and Hunt’s McLaren, which he describes as priceless.
“We built replicas for the wheel-banging stuff. They were a hundred per cent working cars built to the same dimensions, floor plan and specifications, but with two-litre engines for reliability.”
Even at a steady 160km/h, there were no on-set bingles.
Cars run in Faulkner’s blood.
“I was sat as a baby in front of the racing,” he says.
“So I got a job at the karting track in the evenings and they let me have a go.”
He was then eight. By the time he was 17 he was racing cars. He still races for fun on weekends.
‘‘I race a 1964 Ford Falcon in the Masters touring car series. It’s good fun – not as serious as Le Mans, which takes a lot mfore time and energy to do. And I do watch racing in Australia.”
One of the best films for car enthusiasts, he says, is Mad Max.
“You can’t beat an Aussie V8, I tell you.”