Niki Lauda – James Hunt: from flat mates to title contendersWritten by 'Αγγελος Φωτσεινός
Translated by Nikos Arvanitis
In Ron Howard’s “Rush”, a story from Formula One’s past revived on the big screen.
Date of 1st publication: 13/09/13
Spectators around the world had the chance to see a film adaptation of the 1976 Formula One World Championship, based on the dipole James Hunt – Niki Lauda.
Skillfully though was presented to the audience the image of two drivers with a completely different temperament: on the one hand, the uncompromised playboy James Hunt and on the other hand the level-headed Niki Lauda.
In the context of the movie, that diversification was reasonable, because the clash of personalities was the grid on which the scenario was based.
In fact, the reality is a bit different.
Both Hunt and Lauda were “impregnated” with the 70’s madness.
They shared the dream to race at the pinnacle of motorsport, just as they shared an apartment back on the days they were racing at British Formula 3.
The talent these two had was clearly visible since then (even if Hunt had the reputation of fast but frivolous driver, hence the nickname “Hunt the Shunt”).
The road to recognition required money for the rental of a Formula 1 car, the “easy way” for a young driver to debut in the sport.
Hunt was lucky at this point, because he met the eccentric lord Alexander Hesketh, a man of the same temperament.
Lauda on the other hand, despite the fact that he was member of a wealthy family, was on the verge of seeing his dream destroyed rapidly.
The Austrian’s family didn’t approve his plans and was not willing to fund his ambitions.
For that reason, Lauda got a loan twice in a span of 3 years, so as to secure a place on the grid.
Things though didn’t go as he had expected and at the end on the 1973 season, he was “on the edge of the cliff”, without a racing seat for 1974 and, mostly, in debt.
Then the solution came as “manna from heaven”. After a disastrous 1973, Ferrari was searching a restart in 1974.
Enzo Ferrari asked Clay Regazzoni’s opinion about Lauda, with whom they were team-mates at BRM the previous season.
Regazzoni’s answer was in favor of him (traducers said that he did so because he believed that he had the Austrian at hand) so Lauda signed a contract.
Thus, it can be said that the Swiss saved his team-mate’s career.
But it was rather… James Hunt who saved Lauda’s career!
In mid-1973, long before Regazzoni signed with Ferrari, Luca di Montezemolo invited at Maranello lord Hesketh.
Ferrari wanted James Hunt for the 1974 season and offered the supply of Italian V12 engines in return, but the Lord’s answer was negative.
By the end of 1975 season, Hunt and Hesketh separated ways.
Just after his first Formula 1 victory (1975 Dutch GP), which was also the only Hesketh F1 Team win in history, Hunt was left without a drive.
The reason of the break-up was the unwillingness of lord Hesketh to fund sufficiently the team ahead of the next season.
Then, his refusal to hand James Hunt to Ferrari 2 years ago, looked like a terrible decision.
Different routes for the old flat mates: one without a seat ahead of 1976 season while the other one was 1975 World Champion and the favorite to retain the title.
Soon the “manna from heaven” came for Hunt too.
Emerson Fittipaldi quitted unexpectedly McLaren for Copersucar, his brother Wilson’s team, and Hunt signed instead of him.
After the British GP, the ninth race of the 1976 season, it all looked like Lauda could retain his title.
With 4 wins (Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, Monaco) and 58 points, he was on top of the standings, whilst second James Hunt was 23 points behind (35) and had a victory less (Spain, France, Great Britain) than Lauda .
The winner of the British GP would change 3 months later, by decision of the FIA court.
Until then though, a crash would intervene, that could set the championship on fire.
German GP, August 1st, 1976.
Formula One’s circus went to the “green hell” of Nordschleife, with drivers’ worries over the low security standards of the circuit more evident than ever.
Lauda encouraged in vain his drivers to boycott the race.
Intuition or not, the Austrian found out that he was right.
On the second lap of the race, the rear suspension of Ferrari collapsed and Lauda crashed onto the barriers.
Guy Edwards avoided instinctively the crash, but Brett Lunger was not as lucky as Edwards.
Ferrari caught fire and the two aforementioned driers along with Arturo Merzario and Harald Ertl made desperate efforts to save their team-mate, the same moment when Hans Joachim Stuck was calling the rest of the drivers for help.
With severe burns and having inhaled toxic gases, Lauda is led to hospital and falls in coma.
If Enzo Ferrari was distinguished for one thing, for sure it was not his compassion.
Considering Lauda a “dead loss”, he gave order to Di Montezemolo to find a replacement driver as soon as possible.
Ferrari would not take part at the Austrian GP as an act of protest, believing that FIA
Favored McLaren in Spain and Great Britain, but in Monza a second driver should take part, apart from Regazzoni.
Di Montezemolo contacted both Emerson Fittipaldi (who took the plane from Brazil and found out in Bologna airport that there was no possibility of collaboration between the two sides!) and Ronnie Peterson.
But Lauda, who had woke up from coma, at the moment he learned who were his potential replacements, set himself ready to race!
Having undergone only a blepharoplasty, arrived at Monza and his burnings were still fresh.
Carlos Reutemann had been hired, for any case, as a replacement driver.
The champion’s stubbornness was bigger than the recovery pain and Lauda finished 4th, an excellent result for his condition.
13 days after the Monza race, the decision of the FIA court about the British GP was announced. Ferrari claimed that race winner James Hunt should not participate at the restart of the race, because he hadn’t completed the necessary one lap after the first start crash.
Scuderia’s appeal was accepted and the victory went to Lauda’s hands in a very crucial moment for the championship, because the standings had changed.
After Monza, Lauda was ahead of Hunt, having 61 points over the British’s 56.
That decision deprived from James Hunt 9 points of the victory in Silverstone, whilst Lauda won 3 points more, being promoted from 2nd to 1st.
The result was the rise from 5 (61-56) to 17 (64-47) points of difference.
Hunt’s two wins in Canada and USA brought him within reach of the championship leader Niki Lauda, with only one race remaining.
The finale would take place at the soaking wet Mount Fuji circuit.
At the second lap of the race, Lauda decided to retire.
Being unable even to blink his eyes, he assumed it was dangerous to race in such difficult conditions.
Hunt desperately tried and finished 3rd, and won the championship by a margin of a single point.
The one flat mate (Lauda) handed the title to the other (Hunt), who would return it to the first one in 1977.
Both would be remembered in Formula 1 history as 2 champions in and out of track.
In track, numbers show Niki Lauda’s prevalence, out of track though, the scene is different:
“James Hunt claims he has slept with around 5.000 women, I have slept with around 30% of that number”.
Thus spoke Niki Lauda, without other comments…