1976: Hunt vs Lauda


The James Hunt versus Niki Lauda battle for the 1976 world championship elevated motor racing from the back pages to the front.

Hunt was the tall, blond, good-looking British public schoolboy, who liked a ciggy and a beer and wore ‘sex-the breakfast of champions’ badges on his overalls. He arrived in Formula 1 as the underdog — a talented, brave driver run by Lord Alexander Hesketh and his bunch of Hooray Henry Establishment friends.

Hunt was a good story, especially when he broke his duck and scored a fine win in the ’75 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, beating Lauda’s Ferrari into second place. When Emerson Fittipaldi unexpectedly left McLaren to start his own team, Hunt suddenly found himself with a top drive.

Lauda was the buck-toothed young Austrian chancer from wealthy stock opposed to his career choice! He borrowed to the hilt to get himself into the March and BRM teams, then along came Ferrari and Niki no longer needed to worry about cash. By the end of ’75 Lauda had arrived, winning five races en route to the championship – Ferrari’s first champion since John Surtees in 1964.

At the start of ’76 it was all Lauda. Hunt was quick but things didn’t go his way. But then Lauda tipped a tractor over while building himself a house and cracked a rib. In Spain he had to drive in a corset with pain-killing injections. James came down his inside, edged him over a kerb, knocked the wind out him and won the race. But then Hunt found himself disqualified, his McLaren marginally too wide.

It was typical of Hunt’s luck, it seemed. On a weekend trip on teammate Jochen Mass’s boat, Hunt had to knock girlfriend Hottie (Jane Birbeck) out of the way when she was almost collected by an errant sail arm.

“She nearly went for a burton and it would be careless of me to lose another one like that…” joked James, whose wife Suzy had run off with actor Richard Burton.

Going to the south of France for the French GP at Paul Ricard, Hunt’s situation looked hopeless: Lauda led the championship with 55 points and five wins, Hunt had no wins and eight points. But Niki’s Ferrari blew up while leading, James won and also heard he’d had his Spanish win reinstated. The score was now Lauda, 52; Hunt, 26.

The British GP at Brands Hatch was next and Hunt’s bad luck reverted to type. The Ferraris collided on the first lap and Hunt’s McLaren was damaged in the ensuing debacle. Hunt won the restarted race but was disqualified for failing to complete the first lap of the original race and therefore being ineligible for the restart. Niki scored another maximum.

But then it all changed. Lauda crashed at Nurburgring and the Ferrari burst into flames. Niki, badly burned, was pulled from the car by four fellow drivers but for days his life hung in the balance as the oxygen count in his blood fell below that generally necessary to sustain life.

A priest shocked Lauda into hanging on by administering the last rites and, amazingly, six weeks later, having missed just two races, a badly disfigured Lauda was back in the Ferrari cockpit at Monza. Well-known British sports broadcaster Harry Carpenter, whose main beat was boxing, called it the bravest sporting story he had ever reported.

Hunt, meanwhile, had won the restarted Nurburgring race in which Lauda had been injured and also the Dutch GP that Niki missed. Suddenly he was right back in the fight. The score was now Lauda, 61; Hunt, 47, with four races to go.

Monza of course, is Ferrari territory. Hunt found himself put to the back of the grid due to a fuel octane infringement and Lauda came home a fabulous fourth, the first of three Ferraris entered that day.

‘Hunt versus Lauda’ became great newspaper copy as the media lapped up the twists and turns. In Germany, meanwhile, Bild ran headlines such as “how can a man live without a face,” having snapped a bandaged Lauda lying defenceless in a Mannheim hospital bed. Niki had recently married Marlene Knaus, formerly the partner of actor Curt Jurgens.

Hunt won Canada as Lauda struggled home eighth in an ill-handling Ferrari. The Italians had signed a deal with Michelin for ’77 and the Goodyear tyre development was going in McLaren’s direction. At Watkins Glen in the USA, Lauda got up early on race morning, knocked on Hunt’s bedroom door and informed him, “today I win the world championship!” He didn’t. Niki came home third as James won again.

With the score Lauda, 68; Hunt, 65, it all came down to the season finale at a soaking Fuji in Japan. That was bad news for Niki. His eyelids and tear ducts had been burned in the accident and despite an operation, he could no longer blink away tears properly. He was okay in the dry but, in the wet, Lauda freely admitted that he was struggling, and scared.

Emerson Fittipaldi was among those protesting that conditions were too bad, but the race went ahead as TV scheduling won the day. Lauda parked after the first two laps, along with Carlos Pace. Ferrari offered to say it was the engine but Niki declined. “Life,” he said, “is more important than the world championship.”

Hunt needed a third-place to overhaul him. He led but then needed a tyre change and came back fifth. He passed Lauda’s Ferrari teammate Clay Regazzoni and then Alan Jones to do just enough to win the title. At first, amid the confusion, he didn’t realise he’d done it and berated McLaren team principal Teddy Mayer for not pitting him earlier. Then someone put a hand on his shoulder and told him he was world champion, 69 points to 68. Lauda was already on his way to the airport ..