James Simon Wallis Hunt was born in Belmont, Surrey on the 29th August 1947, one of six children. Whilst on a family holiday in Wales, Hunt learned how to drive a tractor under the instruction of the local farm owner. He grew frustrated with changing gears however, as he lacked the required strength. He passed his driving test a week after his seventeenth birthday. Then, just before his eighteenth birthday visiting his tennis doubles partner, Chris Ridge, Hunt saw Ridge’s brother preparing his Mini for a race at Silverstone that weekend. Hunt attended the race with the Ridge family – and his passion for racing ignited.
Hunt began his motor career racing Minis. This venture didn’t last long though and he was soon competing in the Formula Ford series in 1968.Through a hire purchase scheme, Hunt bought a Russell-Alexis Mk 14 which he drove during his first race at Snetterton. During the race, Hunt’s engine lost 15mph due to an incorrect ignition setting but Hunt continued and was able to finish in a more than respectable fifth place. He went on to claim his first win at Lydden Hill and also set the lap record at the short circuit at Brands Hatch.
Hunt went on to race in Formula 3 before the inevitable transition up into Formula 1. Once there, he spent his first three seasons racing for Lord Hesketh in the Hesketh Team. His most successful year with the team was in 1975 where he came fourth overall in the World Driver’s Championship. When Lord Hesketh couldn’t find any sponsors for the team ahead of the 1976 season, Hunt began looking to McLaren for a seat. Unable to go with anyone else, Marlboro’s John Hogan arranged a contract with Hunt that would pay him £200,000. 1976 as it turned out, would be one of the most closely fought seasons in F1 history.
Niki Lauda was born in Vienna, Austria on the 22nd February 1949 and was someone who never let anyone or anything get in the way of achieving his goals. His family disliked the notion of him motor racing so he had to find his own way into the sport. He did this by taking out a £30,000 bank loan after his motor racing career stalled – secured with a life insurance policy – to buy his way into the March Formula 2 team. It wasn’t long before he joined the F1 team.
Lauda went from March to BRM as his F1 career continued but both were relatively fruitless ventures. When his BRM teammate, Clay Regazzoni, left to re-join Ferrari, Enzo Ferrari asked for his opinion on Lauda. Regazzoni spoke so highly of Lauda that Ferrari signed him for the 1974 season. Ferrari’s gamble paid dividends as Lauda finished in second place on his debut race for the team at the Argentinian Grand Prix. The signing of these two drivers, together with the appointment of Luca de Montezemelo as the team principle of Ferrari allowed the Italian outfit to make a much needed resurgence in the sport. Due to a series of technical errors as well as getting to grips with the car, Lauda was only able to win one more race that season – the Dutch Grand Prix. But, he also managed to achieve six pole positions and came fourth overall in the Drivers’ Standings.
1975 got off to a slow start for Niki but, after the fourth race, driving the new Ferrari 312T, he went on to win four of the next five races. He later won for a fifth time that year at Watkins Glen in the U.S. but by this stage, Lauda had already achieved his dream. When he finished third in Monza, he secured the Drivers’ Title – becoming the first Ferrari driver to do so since John Surtees back in 1964. When 1976 rolled around, Lauda would be the one for Hunt to beat if he wanted the glory of becoming World Champion for himself.
As people, Hunt and Lauda were vastly different people; Hunt was known as a handsome, womanizing, extrovert – he had the motto “Sex: Breakfast of Champions” emblazoned on a patch on his race suit. Lauda meanwhile was the diligent paddock nerd – reminiscent of Prost in the years to come – and was nicknamed “The Rat” due to the prominence of his front teeth. Despite their differences and on track rivalry however, Hunt stated that the two were actually good friends – and had been since their early days as they travelled across Europe for their Formula Three races. Their relationship continued past both their careers in F1.
The 1976 F1 season began with Hunt on pole position – silencing some of his critics – but it was Lauda who won the race in Brazil. Lauda went on to win again in South Africa. Hunt retired at the next race in Long Beach where Lauda came second. Hunt then bounced back and won his first Grand Prix of the season at the Spanish Grand Prix. The win was initially disqualified due to the car being 1.8cm too wide but this decision was later reversed. Lauda won the next two races in Belgium and Monaco where Hunt retired in both races. At this stage of the season, Lauda had a considerable advantage over all his rivals, and it appeared that a second drivers’ title would soon be his. Hunt finished fifth in Sweden with Lauda in third. Hunt then won the French Grand Prix however whilst Lauda retired.
More controversy followed at the British Grand Prix. Hunt and Lauda were involved in a first corner incident together which caused the race to be stopped and then restarted. Hunt wanted to use a spare car to continue racing but this was disallowed. But, by the time the race restarted, the original car had been repaired and Hunt was able to race again. He went on to win the race with Lauda in second place. Two months later, the FIA disqualified Hunt from the race after Ferrari complained that Hunt wasn’t legally allowed to restart the race.
Then came Germany.
A week prior to the Grand Prix, Lauda encouraged his fellow drivers to boycott the race due to the lack of safety measures at the fourteen mile long circuit. But most of the drivers didn’t vote to boycott the race and so it went ahead. On the second lap of the Grand Prix, Lauda suffered a possible suspension failure and swerved off the track, making contact with the embankment where his car burst into flames and then hit Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford Car. Lauda was trapped in the car, wearing a modified helmet that unfortunately didn’t fit properly - it slid from his head and left him exposed to the smoke and flames. Arturo Merzario, Lunger, Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl recovered Lauda from the wreckage as the few marshals present were unprepared for such an occurrence – something Lauda had been concerned about in his attempt at the boycott.. Lauda was conscious at first but then fell into a coma and was given his last rites in hospital. He suffered extensive scarring as a result of the accident as well as losing most of his right ear, the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows and his eyelids. Lauda limited the reconstructive surgery to his eyelids when he came out of his coma. From then on, he wore his infamous red cap which he promptly used to make money by offering sponsors to use his cap for advertising.
Hunt meanwhile went on to win the race at the Nürburgring once it was restarted. Ferrari boycotted the Austrian Grand Prix as they believed that McLaren were getting favourable treatment from the F.I.A. Hunt finished that race in fourth, before going on to win the Dutch Grand Prix. During this time, Lauda remained in the hospital recovering from his crash. He saw the F1 races he was missing on the television and this motivated him to try and get better as quickly as possible so that he could go racing again and attempt to keep his Championship hopes alive.
At the next race, the Italian Grand Prix, Lauda made a remarkable comeback to the grid. It had been six weeks since the accident and Lauda was still covered in bandages. Hunt ended up retiring from the race but Lauda managed to achieve a remarkable fourth place finish, peeling blood soaked bandages from his head after the race. Hunt continued to narrow down the gap in his Championship battle with Lauda as he went on to win the next two races in Canada and Watkins Glen. Going into the final race of the season in Japan, Hunt was only three points behind Lauda.
The Japanese Grand Prix was held at Fuji for the first time and come race day, it was torrentially wet. Lauda again called for the race to be cancelled but due to the live television coverage, amongst other factors, the race went ahead. Having told his team of his intentions, Lauda started the race but retired on the second lap, feeling that it was too dangerous to continue racing. Hunt stayed out in the race however, determined to prove that he had what it took to become World Champion. He received a puncture during the race which put him down the order after his pit stop. He manged to climb back through the field however and ended up crossing over the line in third place. James Hunt had won the 1976 World Championship by a single point; however, he was not aware of this until he returned to the pits after his cooldown lap. Thinking he hadn’t done enough, he was elated when he found out he was World Champion.
Hunt said after the race that, although he wanted and felt he deserved the title, he also felt that Niki deserved it too – ideally he would have liked them to have shared the Drivers' Title.
Hunt drove for McLaren for another two years before moving to the Wolf Racing Team in 1979. The car was uncompetitive though and he decided he’d had enough, retiring mid-way through the season after the Monaco Grand Prix. He was replaced by Keke Rosberg. Hunt went on to commentate for F1 alongside Murray Walker and came close to making a number of F1 comebacks but ultimately didn’t return to racing in the sport. On 15th June 1993, James Hunt died of a heart attack at his home in Wimbledon.
Kimi Raikkonen was a fan of Hunt and entered a snowmobile race in 2007 under the name of ‘James Hunt’- he has also sported a replica Hunt helmet at Monaco as a tribute on several occasions. James himself inspired many teenagers to take up motor racing and he was inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2014.
Niki Lauda went on to win two more World Titles – one with Ferrari in 1977 and one with McLaren in 1984 after his first retirement. Lauda’s final race was in Adelaide in 1985 at the circuits’ inaugural race. Following his second retirement, Lauda went back to running his airline company – ‘Lauda Air’ before coming on board as a non-executive chairman at the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team where he was instrumental in signing Lewis Hamilton for the team in 2013. He remained with the team until his death aged 70 on the 20th May 2019 at the University Hospital of Zürich where he had been undergoing dialysis treatment for kidney problems.
The rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda was recreated in the 2013 film ‘Rush’ directed by Ron Howard. The story remains one of the most famous in Formula 1 history.
What do you think of the Hunt Vs Lauda story? Has there been a rivalry since then that matches these two icons where both drivers are also friends off track? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.