The story of James Hunt and Niki Lauda is one of the most popular rivalries in motorsport. It represents an era during which formula 1 cared less about the drivers and more about the results. Before the 90s, lane departure warning and blind-spot monitoring, it took a serious accident for something to be regarded as a black or red flag event. Racers could shove, coerce and bully their way round the track so long as it got them to the podium. Winners were derived by their steely determination and aggression. In one instance, Hunt’s gear knob broke off, and he had to pierce his hand on the remaining jagged lever with every shift. He still managed to work his way up the field and finish first. Lauda only allowed himself to recover for 40 days following a horrific accident at the German Grand Prix, resulting in severe burns to his face and lungs. Both of these characters were driven by an insane urge to compete against each other and the rest of the field; perhaps to prove superiority or maybe it was the only thing they knew how to do.
They both coincidentally came from fairly well-off families. Lauda’s father and grandfather were bankers and economists who featured in the financial times, so when the young Austrian decided that he wanted to try his hand on the circuit, they were furious and threatened to disown him. Niki decided to go his own way by taking out a loan and buying his way into BRM Racing. Hunt’s story is not so different, considering his middle-class parents wanted him to go into something professional, i.e., medicine or stockbroking. Racing then would have to be done on his bill. He took the odd job to pay for it. At one time, he was a hospital porter, milkman, and delivery boy. Same as Lauda, he took out a loan to pay for his first racing cars.
Nikki and James would encounter each other for the first time in Formula 3, and the media painted their interaction as quite hostile, but the truth was their relationship was quite different. Both recognized each other as great talents of the era with sharp personalities. They even rented a flat together in London. Everything else, though, in terms of Hunt’s decadence was true. He was the typical racing driver archetype off the track, a hothead with a drinking/ drugs and girls problem. Lauda, on the other hand, was more complicated. He did slightly yield to the fun stereotype, but that was more amusing to him than motivating. His mechanical approach to the track and life reflected a deeply logical personality that was not swayed by pride, society, or danger. It is probably the reason why Niki had such a successful career in Formula 1 even after retiring from racing and why he married Marlene Knaus in private even when money and fame were in plenty.
The 1976 season brought the grudge match between Hunt and Lauda to ahead. Niki was the defending world champion and Hunt, being given the golden opportunity with McLaren, was keen to prove himself now that he had an equally good car. The season was fraught with head-to-head instances where Lauda would win some races while Hunt would win others. It was almost always a one, two position finish for them on the Grand Prix races. Sensing McLaren was getting the upper hand, Ferrari complained to the FIA concerning the width of Hunt’s car. The accusation maintained the rear of the car was wider than the regulations allowed. In reality, the transgression was less than a centimeter on each side, but it was enough for disqualification and removal of points gained. Livid at the underhandedness, McLaren raced to correct the mistake, but the result made the car unbalanced and unpredictable; Hunt often retired on races due to engine failure or did not perform as well. They eventually got it right, but it cost them significant points, and Lauda seemed like Champion elect. Unfortunately for him, the German Grand Prix would change his life forever.
In those years, every season would claim at least two lives from the 25 drivers competing, and Lauda almost became a statistic. He understeered one of the corners and hit the barrier with so much force that the fuel tank spontaneously exploded. The Austrian endured a full minute of 800-degree flames and smoke before being pulled out by a fellow driver who collided into his car during the chaos. Even though he was immediately airlifted to hospital and had a team of doctors working on his recovery, the burns to his face and lungs were severe. As mentioned before, Lauda persevered through the excruciating pain of pumping the soot from his respiratory organs just so that he could get back to the track. Two Grand Prix later, against the doctors’ pleas, let alone his wife, he was back. By then, of course, James had used the opportunity to rack up wins and became a contender for the championship.
The last race would happen in Japan at the Fuji speedway, and the weather was apocalyptic. Torrential rain combined with fog from the mountain to create suicidal driving conditions. However, the excitement of the public and media concerning the Hunt-Lauda rivalry was like a steel weight of momentum. Television rights had been sold out, and it wouldn’t matter if the track were covered in molten lava or Godzilla paid a visit; that race was going to happen. One lap in, Niki had a moment of lucidity and retired from the race. So invested in the attempt, Hunt wrestled through life-threatening fog to finish in third place, gaining the points need to beat Lauda and win the overall championship.
The bad boy who had once written off for being too reckless/unserious had proven to everyone and himself that he was the best. Later during a conversation with his rival, Lauda told hunt that he was glad if anyone had beaten him that season it was him. Unfortunately, Hunt did not come back to racing after that. After losing most of his money and finally adopting sobriety, he died at the age of 45 from a heart attack. Lauda went on to win two other championships in 1977 and 1984. He maintained management roles in Formula 1 as the Jaguar team principal and non-executive chairman of Mercedes AMG Petronas. Lauda would die at the age of 70, in his sleep after a period of ill health.