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James Hunt and Niki Lauda are two highly skilled race car drivers who first develop a fierce rivalry in 1970 at a Formula Three race at the Crystal Palace circuit in England, when both their cars spin out and Hunt eventually wins the race. Hunt is a brash, young Briton with a penchant of vomiting before every race, while the Austrian Lauda is a cool, calculating technical genius who relies on precision. After a falling out with his father, Lauda takes a large bank loan and buys his way into the BRM Formula One team, meeting teammate Clay Regazzoni for the first time. Meanwhile, Hesketh Racing, the fledgling racing team Hunt drives for, enters Formula One as well. Lauda then joins Scuderia Ferrari with Regazzoni and wins his first championship in 1975. Hesketh closes shop after failing to secure a sponsor, but Hunt manages to land a driving position in McLaren after Emerson Fittipaldi leaves the team. During this time, Hunt marries supermodel Suzy Miller, while Lauda develops a relationship with socialite Marlene Knaus.
The 1976 Formula One season starts with Lauda dominating the first two races while Hunt struggles to catch up. Hunt wins the Spanish Grand Prix, but is disqualified after a post-race inspection rules that his car is too wide. Struggling to comply to F1 rules, Hunt suffers a series of setbacks on the next few races, and his situation is further exacerbated when Suzy is discovered to have a relationship with Richard Burton. Following his divorce, he regains his competitive spirit and his disqualification in Spain is overturned, reinstating the points he lost and putting him back into championship contention. Meanwhile, Lauda marries Marlene in a private ceremony; he starts to have concerns about the effects of his marriage to his racing career.
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