The sporting rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt

As most of you are well aware, the Ron Howard movie ‘Rush’ is due on our cinema screens in a matter of weeks. From the trailers it looks very much like it’s telling a story, rather than a documentary film like ‘Senna’ was, so I’m really hoping they don’t go too over the top in trying to portray both Hunt and Lauda. However, because it’s not documentary based, it could appeal to a much bigger audience, as well as educate fans in a different way to ‘Senna’. The film looks like it revolves around the rivalry rather than one specific driver, and because of that it could be a very successful and dramatic film! My review for Rush is here.

I often label James Hunt as the coolest driver to ever grace the world of Formula 1. Sometimes I read people debating that Kimi Raikkonen could take over that role, but for me no one will ever come close to James. He had the glamorous lifestyle, often seen with a cigarette in one hand and a woman under his arm, which gave him the playboy image. He was also quite a humorous chap, blurting out one liners like the famous one he said to Niki Lauda shortly after his near fatal crash “you’re the only man I know who could be in a fire and come out better-looking”.

Niki was the total opposite of James. When you debate ‘pay’ or ‘paid’ drivers, does Niki ever spring to mind? Because despite what you may think, Niki was one of those drivers who paid his way to Formula 1 taking out bank loan after bank loan. It was only when he got his drive at Ferrari, that the debt was paid off and his results started to improve. It was Lauda’s own inexperience that cost ‘The Rat’ his first title during the 1974 season, but he later won the crown in style the following year.

In 1976 Lauda was on course to win back-to-back world championships, leading Hunt from 31 points going into the 10th round at the Nurburgring (Germany). Prior to the race, Lauda had tried to persuade the other drivers to boycott the race due to treacherous weather and safety conditions, but he was ruled out and the race went on. James was on pole, with Niki lining up next to him in 2nd place; it was all to play for. At the start Lauda’s team-mate Clay Regazzoni took the lead, though spun towards the closing stages of the lap dropping down to 4th, and because the weather started to clear up a number of drivers went to the pits to change tyres – Lauda was one of them.

Just before the Bergwerk right hand corner, Lauda’s car spun into the barriers and bounced back on to the track in flames. Guy Edwards narrowly missed hitting the wreck but two other drivers weren’t so lucky. All drivers involved except Niki were able to escape their cars, but Niki was left trapped in his burning Ferrari. Several drivers had stopped to help get Lauda out of his car, but because the Nurburgring was so long it took a while before ambulances could get to the scene. Niki suffered from serious burns to his body, and was left fighting for his life in hospital. Whereas Hunt [once the race had restarted], went on to win the round, as well as shorten the gap to Lauda in the championship.


Astonishingly, Lauda returned 6 weeks later, just in time for the Italian Grand Prix, and was determined to not let James [who had got the gap down to 17 points in his absense] take the title. James then went on to win both the Canadian and the USA Grand Prix’s and the last race of the season at Fuji (Japan) was to be the title decider.

Much like the Nurburgring, Fuji had some troubling weather conditions on race day and a big debate was taking place as to whether the race should be started. But because it was the title decider, organisers gave the nod and the race went ahead – much to Lauda’s discomfort. James took the lead when the lights went out, though after just three laps Lauda withdrew from the race due to the conditions and famously went on to say “my life is worth more than a title”. Larry Perkins, Carlos Pace and Emerson Fittipaldi later made the same judgement, but Hunt however, stayed out in the hope that the weather would clear. Because of Lauda’s retirement, all James had to do was finish third to win the championship.

The suspense was building, can he do it? or Has Lauda done enough? Patrick Depaillier suffered from a puncture, and Hunt too also had the same problems. Both drivers had to pit for a new set but Hunt who had been running in a championship winning place, had dropped down to 5th. Mario Andretti had a superb drive lapping all the drivers in the field, but now all eyes were on James as he begun to chase down Regazzoni and Alan Jones. On lap 71 Depaillier overtook both drivers moving him up to 2nd, and on the following lap, much to his surprise, so did James; thus winning the title after finishing in 3rd place.


Lauda’s recovery from the German Grand Prix was unimaginable. He had to have modifications to his helmet so it wouldn’t irritate the burns, and his balaclava was often blood stained .Yet the man still got on with his job. He was still racing even though he technically couldn’t afford it, and even though his family didn’t approve of it. James Hunt went on to do some commentating for the BBC alongside the legendary Murray Walker, who often recalls James turning up for work hung-over and shoeless.
What you see is what you get with James, he’s effortlessly cool and never tries to be that way.

I’ll always have infinite amounts of respect for these sorts of drivers, who raced when there was endless danger surrounding them, with a high possibility that a driver or drivers could pass away at any given moment. But the funny thing is, that’s what glued the fans to the action, and it’s what powered the adrenaline for the drivers racing.

Sadly, James passed away in 1993 but hopefully ‘Rush‘ will bring back a few memories of him for you older fans, and maybe it will help younger fans see him for who he really was. I hope you all enjoy ‘Rush’ when or if you go to see it, I know I’m excited for it already! R.I.P James Hunt..

(‘Rush’ movie poster: Film is out September 13th)


One thought on “The sporting rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt

  1. Jake Kilshaw says:

    I also look forward to ‘Rush’. I agree, although ‘Senna’ was a fantastic film, I think ‘Rush’ will be better as it isn’t in documentary form.

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