‘Just mind where you are putting your fat feet James!’ These could have been the very words from Niki Lauda’s lips as James Hunt stepped into the cockpit of Lauda’s Ferrari 312T2, at Zolder, Belgium in May 1976. Getting so close to your opponents cars, let alone actually sitting in them is a rare thing in motor sport. But the comradeship and mutual respect that existed between Hunt and Lauda was deep rooted since their days in F3 and F2, where the drivers had in fact shared a flat together in London. Can you imagine for a moment what that would have been like… possibly like any young blokes sharing a flat – Scalextric track all over the lounge, beer cans and pizza boxes strewn around and laundry piled up in the corner of the kitchen. Niki was most likely the tidier of the two, with James perhaps rebelling against doing his share of the cleaning duties!
1976 was one of the most exciting seasons in F1, where Hunt and Lauda fought tooth and nail for the championship. Nobody else had a look in. Lauda was the reigning World Champ and Hunt was in his first season with McLaren, having taken over from Emerson Fittipaldi, who had departed to set up his own team. Prior to the Belgian race, Lauda had two wins and two second places compared to Hunt’s single win and second place, so it was a confident Lauda who allowed his nearest rival a closer look at his machinery. Such sportsmanship and a relaxed attitude would be unheard of in modern F1. Also, the Ferrari mechanics didn’t seem to mind at all!
Any rumours of Hunt sabotaging the Ferrari were dispelled as the race unfolded: Niki won the race easily from pole, and also set the fastest lap. James who ran second initially from a third place grid slot, dropped back several places with an iffy handling problem, and eventually retired on lap 36 with a broken gearbox. The Ferrari domination was complete with Clay Regazzoni bringing the sister car home in second place. That day, Hunt had gained absolutely nothing by actually getting inside his main opponent’s car!
The season long duel went down to the last race in Fuji, Japan, where Hunt finished third to beat the Austrian in the championship by a single point. Lauda was obviously disappointed at losing the championship in 1976, but out of all the drivers, he didn’t mind losing to Hunt. On the run in, there had been some gamesmanship between them that had brewed and simmered, with the media stirring things also, but come the end of the year the two drivers still remained great mates. In later years, Lauda said that Hunt was the most charismatic personality who’s ever been in Formula 1. And Lauda is someone who usually knows what he is talking about!
Photo credit: Unknown, but sourced from James Hunt Against All Odds published by Hamlyn.