Hunt Vs Lauda: rivalry at speed

We take a closer look at one of the sporting world’s most thrilling duels that pushed racing to the very limit.

February 22, 2015

A sport is defined by its heroes, but it is the rivalries that determine an era. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the Yankees and the Red Sox, cricket’s Ashes and the short but dramatic contest between McEnroe and Borg – even such contests from decades ago are still analysed today and held up on a pedestal of all that is great about sport.

Formula One’s rivalries have been among the most dramatic. From the bitter duels of the 'Fifties between Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio, to the mesmerising contests involving Alain Prost and the late Ayrton Senna, grand prix has thrown up far more noteworthy contests than one would expect from a sport that features at most just 20 races a year.

The reason for this is as distasteful as it is expected: that delicious variable of absolute, acknowledged danger that makes a duel between two drivers especially gladiatorial on the track. When a tennis player takes a risk, the results will never be as dramatic as when an F1 driver tries to seize the upper hand and gets it a even just a fraction wrong.

These days, though, the sport is heavily controlled, but up until Senna’s untimely death during the San Marino grand prix in 1994, safety was rarely a consideration. And this was especially the case in the 'Seventies, when James Hunt and Niki Lauda were in their pomp. Niki Lauda and James Hunt. “What kind of person does a job like this? Each year, two of us die,” Niki Lauda once famously said of his Formula One career after escaping one of the sport’s most horrific crashes ever in 1976. Indeed, by that year, 63 drivers had perished in the sport and racers had a one-in-fifteen chance of surviving the season.

The real-life images are burnt into the minds of every Formula One fan. While leading the German Grand Prix at the legendary and dastardly dangerous Nurburgring track, Lauda snapped his car into a right turn, spinning the Ferrari 312T2 through the fencing and into an earth bank. Immediately enveloped in flames, the car bounced back onto the Tarmac where it was then hit by two other cars.

Meanwhile, television pictures streamed the drama to millions of homes. “Forty gallons of high-octane fuel burning viciously,” said the commentator. “And after 40 seconds, which feels like hours, Lauda is finally dragged clear from the burning inferno by three of his fellow drivers.”

The Austrian was airlifted to hospital where he was soon given the Last Rights. Even if he pulled through, nobody believed they would ever see him again in race overalls. Niki Lauda and James Hunt crash Affectionately known as “the Rat” for his lean and gawky appearance, Lauda had been defending his 1975 world title and going strong at the head of the championship until that sickening inferno.

At the same time, a public-school-educated Englishman known for his golden hair, luck with the ladies and bohemian approach to motorsport, had been carving his way up the points table and providing a tense challenge to the Austrian as he slowly closed the gap between the two drivers.

“James Hunt didn’t think the way other people did; he certainly didn’t act they way other people did,” recalled veteran Formula One commentator Murray Walker of his friend and colleague. With his good looks and charm, and the fact that it was all fun to him, James was no drab conformist. He was always the centre of attraction. But under his devil-may-care manner, he was always serious about getting to the top.”

“For me [Hunt] was one of the most charismatic personalities that has ever been in Formula One,” Lauda said of his adversary after Hunt’s death in 1993, aged 45. James-Hunt with ladies The Rat and the playboy, Beauty and the Beast, the old-school technical racer and the new boy who relied on risk and intuition: the real-life story has always been ripe for Hollywood, and sure enough, the tale of their rivalry was later immortalised in the 2013 film, Rush.

Once Hunt jumped into the Formula One scene in 1973 with the maverick Hesketh Racing team and secured his first win two years later, he had already developed a reputation as a bon viveur with an anti-establishment approach to what had become a corporate sport.

“Hunt was very well educated and although he would turn up to races wearing a T-shirt and sandals – or even no shoes at all, something the authorities and the sponsors certainly didn’t approve of – he knew exactly what he was doing. He was very careful about creating his image,” said three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart of Hunt, against whom he raced during his last year of Formula One.

This is one of the initial and pivotal differences between Hunt and Lauda. The Englishman was the last of his generation of gentlemen thrill-seekers, whereas Lauda was the first of a new set of professional racers – besides The Rat, he was known as The Computer Brain for his clinical attention to driving detail. Their approaches to driving couldn’t have been more different. Lauda Versus Hunt Before the start of the 1976 season, nobody even considered Hunt to be a championship contender, never mind a winner. He had only won one previous race, with Hesketh, and had only just moved into a McLaren seat.

While Hunt was getting used to his ride, Lauda began the new season where he had left off the previous year, winning five of the first six races, with the Englishman taking one, in Spain – having first had the victory removed for a technical issue, he was later reinstated.

Ironically, Lauda feared the Nurburgring, a classic track carved out of hillsides in the 'Twenties and perfect for classic car racing, not a sport that now averaged speeds of 180kmh. That year, he had called a meeting of his fellow drivers in an attempt to have it replaced on the race calendar. The move failed, although later events that year would ensure the old track was never put on future schedules.

Meanwhile, Hunt’s McLaren had become increasingly more competitive due to a small technical change to the car that gave it greater stability, and he was quickly closing the points gap on Lauda. At the British Grand Prix at Brand’s Hatch, the Englishman won in controversial style, having first been involved in a collision with the two Ferraris – one of which was Lauda’s – and later overtaking the Austrian to take the chequered flag. But because Hunt limped into the pits from an unconventional entry point, he was subsequently disqualified following an appeal by Ferrari. Lauda burns If the rivalry between the two men had been simmering up to this point, it had started to boil over by the next race, at the Nurburgring. Five days after Lauda’s crash, he was taken off the critical list, and what comes next makes this story seem like it was forged by Hollywood scriptwriters, not real life.

Over the next two races, Hunt continued to close the gap with a brace of wins, taking him to within two points of the hospitalised Lauda’s tally. “He was catching up fast,” said the world champion. “I had to do something about that.”

So he did by turning up to the next race, in Monza, and setting the pace as the fastest Ferrari in practice. While Hunt, forced to start at the back of the grid following allegations that McLaren had been using illegal fuel, crashed out, the resurgent Lauda took fourth place, to extend the lead.

The twists and turns of that 1976 season continued right until the very end, and going into the final race in Japan, Lauda led Hunt in the championship by just three points. Japan rain 1976 On the day of the race it rained heavily, causing massive puddles of standing water to be left out on the track. As the the race got underway, the rain continued to fall and the conditions became so hazardous that after just two laps, Lauda entered the pits and withdrew from the race in protest, saying it was far too dangerous.

This left Hunt needing to finish in third place to take the title and, ever the competitor, he fought his way to the end of the race, finishing in third, claiming the points he needed for the championship and reinforcing one of the greatest sporting rivalries ever.

What was surprising, though, about this Anglo-Austrian contest, was that it was not about the battle of personalities and personal differences that has come to characterise later Formula One rivalries; it was all about the action and drama on the track.

Indeed, although utterly competitive, both Lauda and Hunt had great respect for each other. “[James] is the only man whose life I really envied. Even towards the end, when I saw him in scruffy trainers, you knew there was a man who had lived life to the full,” said Lauda. Lauda Versus Hunt “You’re the only man I know who could be in a fire and come out better-looking,” quipped Hunt with gallows humour on seeing Lauda’s badly burnt face and ear after he returned to Formula One.

This attitude contrasts with later confrontations between drivers, like Senna and Prost, who despised each other on a personal level. And then in more recent years, now that corporate professionalism has taken over, with racers becoming icily insular to the point that even feuding teammates can go for weeks without speaking.

The heyday of the Lauda-Hunt rivalry lasted just that one year, after which Lauda took two more world championships while Hunt’s career went downhill in an increasingly less competitive McLaren. But while it lasted, it managed to distil the speed, tension and danger of grand prix racing at its most perilous.