A clash of titanic egos between Formula 1 racing drivers, beautiful women and stunningly fast cars. Sums up director Ron Howard’s new movie,Rush, right? Well, not so fast.

Mr Howard’s film, which opens on 27 September in the US, depicts the battle between the McLaren team’s James Hunt and Ferrari’s Niki Lauda during the 1976 racing season. It is a theme that repeated during the late 1980s, with a clash of wills between Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna (pictured below) and Frenchman Alain Prost. That stormy relationship is the subject of the fine 2010 documentary, Senna.

Rush sketches the rivalry between Hunt, portrayed by Marvel-movie hunk Chris Hemsworth, and Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl, in cars boasting newfound speed courtesy of more powerful engines, wider tires and massive wings pressing them down onto the track. The trouble was that Formula 1’s mostly European tracks were little changed from their pre-World War II days, when skinny-tired contraptions chugged around them at a much slower pace.

Determined men in incredibly fast cars on hazard-ridden circuits led to numerous deaths during this era, until the old tracks were improved or abandoned. The north loop of Germany’s famed Nürburgring circuit, first opened in 1927, is no longer used in Formula 1 because its whoop-de-dos launched cars in the air, something that is vividly depicted in Rush.

The incendiary drama that resulted in 1976 propelled the excitement in the racing season (when the championship came down to the very last race) and in Rush.

Then try…

A decade later, a young Brazilian driver arrived in Formula 1 was so fixated on the task of lapping at maximum speed that his rival drivers were seen as no more than distracting annoyances to be swatted aside.

When, in 1989, Aryton Senna was paired as a teammate with the veteran Alain Prost at the powerhouse McLaren team, the expectation was for dominance. That did happen, but at the cost of a titanic collision, both figuratively and literally, between the drivers.

Unlike Rush, in which scenes were reenacted and reinterpreted by Ron Howard, the documentary Senna uses only real period race footage. Senna’s director, Asif Kapadia, obtained access to never-before-seen films shot at the time, and the result is a a documentary that watches like a Hollywood action film. 

Reviewers agreed, giving Senna an 8.5 score on IMDb.com and a 92% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com, plus the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary and the 2011 LA Film Festival Audience Award for Best International Feature. For all of Rush's gorgeous photography and comely actors, Senna may well be the more lasting viewing experience, providing a glimpse of its charismatic title character close-up and in person, rather than through the interpretation of an actor best known for depicting a hammer-wielding Norse god.