In the early 1970s, race car drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt are the big rivals for the lead position in the Formula One. Their personalities couldn't be more different: While Lauda is highly disciplined and ceaselessly works to further his career, natural talent Hunt enjoys a debaucherous jet-set lifestyle and is in a high-profile marriage with world famous model Suzy Miller. The two competing drivers also continue their rivalry off the track, frequently engaging in heated verbal exchanges. The media relishes the controversy, since Hunt versus Lauda reads playboy against perfectionist, rock star against strategist.
In 1976, Lauda is ranked number one in the championship, but during the Nürburgring race, he crashes his car on the rain-soaked track and sustains grave burn wounds, which have Lauda's wife Marlene fear for his life. Against all odds, Lauda fights his way back onto the track in a very short time. Just a few weeks after the crash, he and Hunt face each other in their big duel at the Japanese Grand Prix.