Niki Lauda remembers James Hunt: 'One hell of a guy'

Nikia Lauda recalls the times – good and bad – with James Hunt, both on the track and away from racing


Lauda and Hunt: got on much better than the usual tales suggest

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I first met James back in 1971 when I joined the March team for my first season of international Formula Two racing. In those days I was living in London, renting a flat near Victoria Station from Max Mosley, one of the March team’s founders, who of course is better known today for his position as the FIA President. That fact, in itself, I suppose reminds me just how far we have all come in the past quarter of a century.

James was also driving a March at that time, but in the semi-works Formula Three team. He was living in Fulham, I think, so we knocked around together socially and became good friends, even though we were both pretty intense competitors who had our eyes firmly focused on advancing our own careers.

As I recall, James was having a pretty hard time in F3. The works March chassis wasn’t really on the pace, but his sheer competitiveness ensured that he spent most of his time over-driving the wretched machine and he had a lot of accidents in the process. But the guy was just incredibly resilient and, although we were from very different backgrounds, I think in our way we were both rebels – both our families were deeply opposed to our motor racing – and that fact strengthened our friendship.

His parents were not prepared to fund his racing. They reckoned they’d given him a good education and, while they were a close-knit family, there was no money for his chosen sport. I faced much the same response from my family, although I suspect I had rather more trouble on this front than James. At least he didn’t have his grandfather actively discouraging his racing by calling on his business contacts to prevent him from getting sponsorship, which is what happened early in my career!


Hunt and Lauda do battle at Zandvoort ’77

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As far as I can recall, James and I first raced together in the same category at Brands Hatch on August Bank Holiday Monday 1971. It may be that we competed against each other the previous year in the one-litre F3 category, but I can’t remember. Anyway, in 1971 I’d been driving alongside Ronnie Peterson in the works team which contested the European F2 Championship and then James joined us on a one-off basis for this non-championship F2 race.

At that race we both had engine problems in practice and there was quite an argument with Max and Robin Herd the other March co-director about who had the one available replacement engine. I can’t for the life of me remember how it was all resolved I’d like to think I was the one who got the new engine, because my sponsors were paying the most.

Life was good then. James had a great zest about him and was obviously always surrounded by a bevy of beautiful girls. His circle of friends included Mike Hailwood – another great character by any standards – and we all had enormous fun together.

I was always portrayed as the more serious amongst the group which, I suppose, might have seemed correct as far as my focus on getting into F1 was concerned but we could all certainly let our hair down. On reflection, I am not sure that some of our antics should be recounted in detail within the pages of a family magazine…


Lauda and Hunt chat at Brazil ’77

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I admired James for being a nonconformist. He got away with things that the rest of us didn’t simply by having a lot of charisma. But he was a formidable competitor. Beneath all that ‘Hunt the Shunt’ nonsense, I formed an impression early on in my career that James could be one of the people I might have to beat if we all managed to get to F1 a few years further down the road.

I made the graduation into Grand Prix racing in 1972 with March, my sponsors paying heavily for the privilege of me racing an uncompetitive car. In truth, the March 721X was bloody awful and it nearly finished off my professional career for all time.

James was still in F3 at the start of that season, but by the end of the year he’d consolidated his reputation with some good drives in a March F2 car run by the Hesketh team. One race I particularly recall was when Ronnie Peterson and I were driving the works F2 Marches at Oulton Park in the late summer of ’72.

From the archive

I had won there earlier in the year and was anxious for another good result. In the end, I had to be satisfied with second to Ronnie, but James led us both in his year-old March during the middle stages of the race. It was another impressive performance.

Hesketh went into Formula One with a private March 731 for James in 1973 at the same time as I switched from March to BRM. This was a crucial season for me as I was running out of sponsorship money, but although I beat James to be the first one of us to score any World Championship points – with a fifth place in the Belgian GP at Zolder – he had a run of very impressive results at the end of the season, culminating with a second place to Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus in the US Grand Prix.

By this stage in the game the personal rivalry between us was getting pretty intense. I switched to Ferrari in 1974 and won two Grands Prix, which obviously gave me a great personal sense of achievement. James was by now racing the Hesketh 308, designed by Harvey Postlethwaite, and although he won the Silverstone International Trophy (which Ferrari didn’t contest) I don’t think the car had the reliability which it really needed in many of the Grands Prix.

But James himself was clearly ready to win races on a regular basis. Interestingly, when the 1975 Silverstone International Trophy came round, Ferrari did field a car for me and I eventually won the race by a matter of inches from Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren. But for many laps James led in the Hesketh before it suffered engine problems, I think, which at least saved me the chance of having to battle in an effort to overtake him.


Hunt en route to clinching his F1 drivers’ title at Fuji

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I had the same view of James’s Hesketh in that year’s Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort where he won his first World Championship qualifier. The race had started in the wet and James had perfectly timed his switch to slicks which meant that I finished up behind him for the second part of the race.

He drove beautifully and there was understandably a great deal of excitement among the British press about his achievement, although, if am honest, I would have to say that I took things a little easier than I might have done as my main priority that day was to keep scoring points to add to my World! Championship tally. Nevertheless, James’s success took him through a psychological barrier, dammit!

I won the championship in 1975, but it soon became clear that I was going to have my work cut out ill was going to retain it in 1976. James had switched to McLaren after Emerson Fittipaldi, their previous number one driver, decided that he would go off to start his own F1 team in partnership with his brother. It would prove a disaster for Emerson, but the opportunity it presented was absolutely the making of James.

From the moment he got into the McLaren M23, James was predictably quick. The 1976 season has now gone down in motor racing history as one of the most remarkable of all time, but I have to confess I still felt very confident about the Ferrari 312T2’s performance in the opening races of the year.

I won in Brazil and in South Africa, then again at Monaco and Belgium. Then both James and I began to encounter our troubles. I damaged a rib when a tractor rolled over on top of me while I was in the garden of my new home at Hof; near Salzburg. Then James won the Spanish Grand Prix for McLaren, beating me in the process, only to be disqualified when his car was found to have a fractionally too wide rear track.

He was reinstated to the win on appeal, which all of us at Ferrari felt was a bit off because either the car was legal or it wasn’t. I suppose things must have become quite tense between us during the course of the year, but I honestly don’t remember any problem on a personal level. We were rivals, but we respected each other totally, whatever the circumstances.

James then won the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard after both Ferraris encountered engine problems. Then came the controversy of the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. My teammate Clay Reganoni touched wheels accelerating away from the start into Paddock Bend, Clay spun and James’s McLaren was pitched onto two wheels when he rode over the other Ferrari’s wheel.


Hunt before a wet Monza practice session during 1976

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The race was red-flagged to a halt and James eventually took the re-start in his repaired race car, although McLaren initially wheeled out their spare car for him which was clearly against the rules. Technically he shouldn’t have been allowed to take the re-start at all, but it seemed to me that the race officials were so overwhelmed by the fans’ vocal support for James that they relented.

I suppose I was cast in the role of the villain in their eyes, although have to confess this didn’t really bother me in the slightest. Having said that, in the later years of my career particularly when I returned after my break to drive a McLaren — I tended to find the British fans extremely hospitable towards me, especially after I won at Brands Hatch in 1982 and ’84.

To cut a long story short, James beat me into second place at Brands Hatch but was disqualified from that win much later in the season. By then I certainly had my hands full fighting back from that fiery accident at the Nürburgring, about which so much has been written that I’m sure I don’t have to repeat it yet again.

From the archive

By the time I got back in the cockpit for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, I was only two points ahead of James at the head of the World Championship table. I finished fourth there and James didn’t score, so now I was five points ahead with three races to go. Then came James’ disqualification from the British results which promoted me to the win. He consequently went into the Canadian GP 17 points behind.

People have often asked me whether I felt sympathy for James for this, and I suppose I would have to say no, even though there was quite a bit of tension between the McLaren and Ferrari teams. We were locked in pretty fierce competition for that Championship, we were both professionals and didn’t allow our personal friendship to get in the way of that rivalry. But I would say that James drove the last few races of 1976 – and the first of 1977 – about as well as at any other time in his career.

At the end of 1976 he won in Canada and America while I found myself wrestling with the Ferrari 312T2, development of which I felt had been allowed to drift during the time I had been in hospital.


Hunt in his final McLaren season, Argentina ’78

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At the same time, McLaren had really piled on the development of the M23 which, although not quite as powerful as the Ferrari, was certainly a tried and tested car with a well proven competition record behind it. It was extremely frustrating to finish eighth at Mosport Park and then a distant third at Watkins Glen, particularly when we reflected just how competitive the Ferrari had been earlier in the year.

Then came that soaking Japanese Grand Prix at Mount Fuji when I pulled out on the second lap, convinced that driving in those conditions of torrential rain was absolute lunacy.

Some people said that I had taken a calculated gamble that James would not finish the race that day, but that was bullshit. I’d do the same again today. I was obviously disappointed to lose the title, hut James really kept his head well to take advantage of the fact that I missed three races, so all credit to him.

I must say that this was a hard time for me. A lot of people wrote that I was finished, that I should he kicked out of the Ferrari team. But James made some very supportive public remarks about me during this difficult time which I appreciated. I also made the trip to Brands Hatch after the end of the season where there was a ‘Tribute to James Hunt” day. I think that helped prove to the cynics that we really did have a good relationship which went deeper than just our rivalry on the circuit.

I regained the world title in 1977, hut I think James’s form rather deserted him over the next couple of years and he retired for good after Monaco in 1979. I duplicated his decision five months later, but, as everybody knows, made a return to F1 and raced for four more seasons with McLaren from 1982 to ’85.

By the time I returned to the cockpit, James was back in harness as a television commentator with the BBC. I suppose there was a degree of irony in that, James sitting back and passing judgement, while I was still slogging away behind the wheel. From what I could gather, he was always pretty fair with his observations — he gave me an easy ride, at least!

I continued to get on very well with James right through to the end of his life. It was only much later I heard he’d had problems with depression, drink and drugs, but he surmounted all these troubles through sheer self-control and determination. I admired him enormously for that.

People always talk about my racing career in terms of the willpower I demonstrated recovering from the Nürburgring accident, but I’m not sure I would have had the personal resolve which James demonstrated in the last couple of years of his life.

What can you say about a man like this dying of a heart attack at such a young age? He was one of my few real friends in racing, and when he won the World Championship in 1976 he had a less competitive car than the one which I was driving.

I’m not usually a sentimental person, hut James was one hell of a guy and we had a lot of good times together.