Parvathi Nayar suggests a bunch of films, starting with Senna, that will make you feel an adrenaline rush

Even if you know nothing when it comes to Formula One racing, do watch Rush — and here’s a speedy method to really enjoy it: first watch Asif Kapadia’s brilliant 2010 film Senna.

And not being a petrol-head, I really didn’t get the skill involved in car racing; the sport felt as incomprehensible as modern art to the uninitiated. From the outside, it looked like men with a death wish going round and round, faster and faster. But all that changed when I watched Senna, a documentary that unfolds as a nail-biting thriller.

Kapadia takes the finesse of narrative non-fiction into the realm of documentary filmmaking to give us the story of the gifted Ayrton Senna — the wunderkind of racing, who held three championships when he died in a 1994 car crash.

The sleek, stripped-down documentary tells the Brazilian Formula One champion’s story entirely through documentary footage. Senna emerges as a compelling hero — good-looking, competitive, talented, spiritual and most important, not a player of politics.

And not the least is the footage from the cameras on Senna’s car. It gives us some idea of the kind of talent, nerve and precision needed to maintain control, lap after lap, given the unimaginable speeds at which he was driving. You begin to understand the adrenaline rush of the sport. As Senna tells one interviewer, a Formula One triumph is, “something so strong that once you experience it, you search for it all the time.”

Real-life rivalry

And then there is the excitement of the Ayrton Senna-Alain Prost rivalry. Duels between similarly talented, but wholly opposing, personalities make for great cinematic content. Such real-life rivalry is also the driving force of Ron Howard’s new film Rush — between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, skilfully played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl.

It’s an engrossing film that takes its characters seriously without getting heavy-handed. Rather, it is even-handed to both drivers as they clash again and again — almost to the point where you might wonder if there were any drivers besides them racing at the time. Howard keeps the rivalry at the centre of the film while leading up to the climactic battle for the 1976 championship.

While car chases have always been a staple of thrillers — think Steve McQueen’s Bullitt — there haven’t been that many great films on Formula One racing, perhaps, because the sport isn’t that popular in the U.S. Still, if you are now hooked on Formula One, there is a well-considered 10-DVD collection titled Grand Prix Heroes, each dedicated to a Formula One champion, such as the aforementioned Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

Or, if it’s just speed that you’re after, coming up next year is the much-anticipated Need for Speed (2014), the big screen version of the popular game franchise, featuring currently red-hot Aaron Paul. What next? Perhaps in a nice circularity of fate, and given his success with Rush, Ron Howard should try his hand at another Grand Theft Auto — based on the video game franchise, and not to be confused with his similarly titled 1977 car chase comedy.

Movies on cars and racing

Le Mans (1971)

Always-compelling Steve McQueen is the champion driver returning after a terrible crash to participate in the gruelling 24-hour car race.

Days of Thunder (1990)

It’s undemanding entertainment, watching Cole Trickle (a young Tom Cruise) shift gears to find one that will let him win at NASCAR. In-the-know racing enthusiasts enjoy the references to real-life racers, with Cruise, for instance, playing a version of Tim Richmond.

Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)

The Ferraris and Lamborghinis make for the drool factor, when retired car thief Nicolas Cage is asked to steal 50 dream cars in one night to pay off a debt.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker have gone pedal-to-the-metal with the franchise that began with street racing. Currently into its seventh avatar, the films show no signs of slowing down.

Cars (2006)

An amusing, animated film on a star race car (voiced by Owen Wilson), chasing speed, but who is forced to slow down and find his soul.

Speed Racer (2008)

The Wachowski siblings’ follow-up to Matrix offers a curiously-torqued mixture of Japanese anime meets psychedelic colour meets speedy racing thrills.

Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling, in a career-defining role, as the in-control Hollywood stuntman and getaway driver, whose life spins out of control.

Turbo (2013)

A tale on a snail (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), who dreams of winning at the Indianapolis 500, sounds as improbable as the speeds at which racers drive, but zooms in as a surprisingly good family entertainer.