Niki Lauda and James Hunt: Opposites attack

Opposites attract. That's why Niki Lauda and James Hunt were good friends off the track. Does it also explain why their battles on it were so compelling?

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Interlagos, first round of the 1976 championship, the dying moments of final qualifying. There’s a face-to-face row going on in the McLaren pit. Team boss Teddy Mayer and his new driver James Hunt are screaming at each other. “He wanted the windscreen further forward,” recalls Mayer, “so that he was more comfortable.”

With the minutes ticking away and Nilki Lauda’s Ferrari on pole as usual, Teddy could have done without this a stroppy driver demanding an untested change that could significantly compromise the car’s aerodynamics. Mayer told his driver what he thought Firmly. Hunt, adrenaline pumping, related his feelings in return. Rudely. The change was made. Hurriedly.

It hadn’t been like this with Fittipaldi. They’d won a world title with Emerson a couple of years before, they were runners-up the year after and he’d been no bother. Calm, methodical, utterly professional and a gent Why had he left them in the lurch so late in the day, leaving them with this rebel, this rude … lout? He’d already told the sponsors he would not be turning up at their functions in regulation blazer. If he came at all, he’d probably be in T-shirt and jeans, his feet bare. Now he was playing the prima donna in the pitlane. If Teddy had such thoughts, they were gone one warm-up lap and a 2min 32.5sec flyer later. Hunt was on pole. It had been an incredible lap, the sort of lap we would see in years to come from Mansell at his best

And Hunt hadn’t even driven the M23 in anger before practice began; the deal had come together that late, and the two Silverstone test sessions had been rained out. It was a lap that established a few things, once and for all. Hunt and not incumbent Jochen Mass, a year-and-a-half Fittipaldi’s understudy and, he’d assumed, ready to step out of the shadow was the team number one. It was the hardest an M23 had been driven in a long time probably since that wild but raw novice Jody Scheckter had briefly created chaos in one three years earlier. Fittipaldi may have been a double world champ, but he’d never been able to drive a lap like Hunt had just driven. Mayer recognised this. He also suspected how much of a part their little tiff had played.

John Watson a good friend of Hunt’s and later his replacement at McLaren saw it so: “Teddy would have seen that the strengths James had were very, very valuable to the team. Emerson had not been prepared to drive the car as close to the edge as James. Teddy would have recognised that and possibly adopted a devil’s advocate role. Not in winding James up, but in allowing James to wind himself up. There was a funny psychology Teddy and some of the other team members had. They knew how to extract James’ blue riband performance. I don’t think James was even aware of that.”

Hunt had always hyped himself up. It was a central part of his performance. What he hadn’t always done, though, was win. He’d taken that great ’75 Dutch GP, under pressure from Lauda, but he wasn’t certain in his own mind if, as he put it “the Hesketh was a great car being driven slowly or a mediocre car being driven brilliantly”. Now he had his answer and his confidence soared.

From across the pit garage, Mass, 1.1sec slower, looked on. What he saw unnerved him: lames was so intense, really highly strung, like a racehorse. In the morning before a race he would be quivering. Totally oblivious to what was happening around him totally gone. Amazing. I remember in Japan he went to pee against the fence and did it facing the public instead of away because he hadn’t noticed, he was in such a state.” Driving racing cars as fast as Hunt was then driving them scared him he made no bones about that But it was a fear subjugated to an intense competitive will. The tension between these two extreme pulls meant Hunt was a star who shone brightly but briefly. It also meant he would frequently be ill at the thought of climbing into the car. “He’d often disappear around the back of the pits to throw up,” recalls Mayer.

Flighty, offbeat and nervous, he wasn’t a McLaren driver in the tradition of the dependable, down-to-earth Bruce or Denny, or even Emerson. But he was fast, brave, intelligent and a fighter, and Mayer was prepared to go along for the ride. “Everyone loves an eccentric driver,” says Mass, “and you especially love eccentric drivers who deliver. He was a tougher team-mate than Emerson had been. Emerson arrived there as the golden boy, a world champion already, and was left to do the job, so he was almost nonchalant But James was very demanding within the team; there was more of a performance, a drama, about him. My personality meant I found it very difficult to deal with that”

Watson: “McLaren was already a well-organised, very structured team with a good, competitive car when James arrived, and he was able to plug into that. They, in turn, were able to plug into James’ speed. He was also very fit, a natural athlete certainly fitter than Mid was. But that wasn’t all. “He’d ‘grown up’ with Hesketh. That was such an organic process, with a team so young, you wouldn’t have thought his experiences there would have brought much to the McLaren party, but actually I think it did.

They were a team less tradition-bound than McLaren and they gave him an openness and freedom of mind and, because he was so very assertive, he wasn’t necessarily prepared to be told what to do, even by a powerful, established set of people.”

Hunt didn’t win in Brazil Lauda did, continuing where he’d left off in his championship year of ’75. Hunt retired with an engine problem, but the point had been made in qualifying: James, and James alone, looked set to form a genuine challenge to Lauda. A dynamite season appeared to be in store.

The strands forming the cable of the fuse came together by chance. The core of it was that Ferrari dominance was being threatened, for several reasons: to Lauda’s unease, their testing effort post-title had lost its intensity; the 76-spec standard-issue Goodyear tyre had been developed around the M23, which hurt the competitiveness of the Ferrari (it had more of its weight at the front and took an age to get heat into the new-spec rears); and Hunt was showing himself to be faster than Fittipaldi, further bridging the performance gap.

All it needed was a tiny spark. It came in the form of a Goodyear that had a slightly bigger bulge to its sidewall than its ’75 predecessor.

Against a backdrop of Bernie Ecclestone’s long-term aim of acquiring control of F1, the weak governing body of the day had introduced new technical regs to take effect from the fourth race, and they were determined to enforce them strongly. Hunt’s McLaren, its new-spec Goodyears still warm after 77 victorious laps of Jarama, was discovered to be 1.8cm too wide. Had a Tyrrell or a Penske been too wide that May day in Spain, it would have become little more than an historical footnote. But because it was a McLaren the car that was taking the fight to Ferrari the episode smacked of complicity, yet another example of the Italian team using its power and influence.

These things combined to produce a Big Bang, the fallout of which can still be seen today in the tension between McLaren and Ferrari. The pieces were thus in place for conflict. All it needed for this to truly capture the public’s imagination was for the two lead players to be caricatures from opposite ends of the scale. Hunt and Lauda. Perfect “Their images were diametrically opposed,” says Watson. “Niki was perceived to be a very mechanical, 71b+

Teutonic computer-type of driver which is how he was professionally, because he was able to focus on what he wanted to achieve and how he would achieve it. James, on the other hand, gave the perception of being the archetypal dashing racing driver. Blonde, tall and athletic, he’d jump into the car having just been to an allnight party, then race like a champion. That was the common image.”

Playing perfectly to this image, his wife Suzy left him for Richard Burton early in the season. “For James that was a great result,” relates Watson. `They’d married probably before they really knew each other and his focus was more intense than she’d anticipated. It relieved him of that conflict.”

In public at least, it was very amiable. Hunt’s happy awareness of his caddish image was perfectly captured in a comment he made in his Autosport column of the day. Relating how he had spent a weekend on a sailboat with his new girlfriend, he described how the sails had turned suddenly and he’d been forced to pull her out of their path otherwise, “she would have gone for a burton. And I didn’t want to lose another one like that!”

On another occasion he found himself the victim, albeit a willing one, of a female undercover reporter from a men’s magazine looking to bed him for a story. He happily relayed that tale in his column too, saying he was looking forward to reading how many marks he would be awarded. “As he got success, he certainly became more confident,” says Mayer. ‘Mat improved him as a driver. It also made him believe he could behave however he wanted to out of the car, as long as he was the star. It made him a wilder person, less conventional. But he was able to keep that side of him separate from the racing driver.”

Says Watson: “Ironically, beneath their different images, James and Niki were quite alike. They were good friends. Away from the working side, Niki enjoyed life in every form and shape available to him. It’s just that there was more of a contrast between the work and non-work side of him.

“Niki was there functioning as a race driver for 24 hours in the four days he was at a race. With James there was more demarcation. He’d go back to the hotel and play backgammon or tennis, or chase women. He’d get in the car, drive it, tell the team what it was doing and, if they made the right changes, it would go quicker; if they didn’t, he’d have a nosebleed and give them the biggest bollocking.

“Niki’s strength was his ability to think very clearly. He went to Ferrari and had the wisdom at a very young age to realise here was a team that lacked direction. He guided the team into raising its game. I don’t think he was quite as quick as James over a lap, and I don’t know whether he could have dragged every last ounce from the McLaren in the way James did. On the other hand I don’t think James would have had Nild’s motivation and clarity at Ferrari. Teddy lit the adrenaline in James, whereas Niki was the person who lit Ferrari’s fuse.”

The dynamics of the fight between this finely-balanced pairing are well known enough not to bear repeating in detail. Lauda dominated the season’s first half, Hunt the second, including Lauda’s three-race absence after his grave Niirburgring injuries. After protests, disqualifications and counter-protests, they came to the final race in Japan with Lauda leading by three points. Niki withdrew, spooked by the appalling visibility in the Fuji rain, leaving Hunt needing third place or better. After leading most of the way, there was confusion between the McLaren pits and their driver about when he should come in to change his worn-out tyres. He made third place by the skin of his teeth but returned to the pitlane believing he hadn’t, and that it was Teddy Mayer’s fault. The season ended as it had begun with a screaming match. Only this time Teddy was smiling.

Insight: Murray Walker

“I was a motorcycle man in ’76. I did the odd F1 grand prix, but I was really into Sheene’s season more than James’. But I really began to see how big a story it was becoming when I did the British Grand Prix for BBC Radio. After the race stoppage, I was standing at the bottom of

the control tower as Alistair Caldwell and others from McLaren were getting very agitated and working on the car. I was absolutely flabbergasted the way the crowd reacted when they were told James couldn’t take the restart. We Brits aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing.

“The BBC decided, late in the day, that in view of the importance of the race in Japan, and the fact that James could win the title, they had better do it on the box. So I got the call and was told to go to the studio in London. “I spent the night at what is now the Kensington Hilton, got up at 2.30am to get myself ready for a 4am start in the studio. Just when you’re right at your lowest ebb, at the bottom of your sleep pattern, you’re standing in a bloody great studio trying to give the impression you were at the race without actually saying you were and trying to be excited and dramatic. “James’ championship had an enormous bearing on the BBC giving Formula One full-time coverage, even though it didn’t start until ’78.

Another thing that I think popularised the sport, got it onto the front pages, was Suzy Hunt running off with Richard Burton. Plus there was a chap at the BBC called Jonathan Martin who was an Fl fanatic, and who subsequently became head of sport. He was undoubtedly behind the BBC pushing into it. “I’m sure there was an element of nationalism about it. James was a glamorous ex-public schoolboy who had made good, married the glamorous girl. He smoked, drank, all the rest of it. The fact that he was up against a foreigner added interest. It took the sport into the mainstream for the first time, really. Plus it was a bloody good season. The controversy over Spain and Britain, winning the points and losing them, just made it even better.”