James Hunt and Niki Lauda - a great rivalry or a competitive friendship?
Every decade in formula one had one period-defining rivalry of mythical proportions. In the 1980s and the 1990s it was Ayrton Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, and in the 1970s (especially in 1976) Niki Lauda and James Hunt were at media spotlight. Although their rivalry was fueled by media all over the world more than by their egos and personal issues, it was undoubtedly present on the tracks, since racing meant life for both of them.
Bonds that stretch to the early days of their racing career
So, can the notorious Hunt-Lauda rivalry be perceived as a myth or a fact? It all depends on what you can call a rivalry. Off-track, Lauda and Hunt were friends and they even shared a flat early in their career when they were driving in lower formula series. As Niki Lauda commented for Telegraph regarding the romanticized portrayal of their relationship in Ron Howard’s 2013 film Rush: “Yes, we were friends. I knew him before we met at Formula One. We always crossed each other’s lines. He was a very competitive guy and he was very quick. In many ways we were the same. I had a lot of respect for him on the circuit. He was a very solid driver.”
A slightly different reality of the movies
Although both of them had their shunts and disagreements, they haven’t developed any animosity, as Rush suggested throughout the film. Commenting on the fact that he appeared more strict in the movie than in real life, Lauda added: “I was more disciplined than he was. I would never drink before a race. Certainly after it; I had to. Every race could have been my last. It’s different today, but then it was a tougher time. Every race we went out and survived, we celebrated, had a party. It was a different time. With the others we would have a beer after the race and then say goodbye. That was not friendship. With James it was different. James was different.”
The best Formula 1 headline makers of the time
Despite being friends before and after the race, on the grid, it was a completely different world. As both were promising drivers in competitive cars, they always battled fiercely for the podium, to the excitement of the crowd. As Formula One was gaining on popularity, somebody had to be in the hottest seats. So, as the most contrasting drivers and epitomes of hot-headed and calculated, Hunt and Lauda were chosen to be the headline makers. Their media-bred rivalry was at all time high in 1976, when both of them drove the best cars of the season.
At the first race of the season in Brazil, Hunt retired, whereas Lauda claimed the win, followed by a victory in South Africa where Hunt was just behind him. Hunt had to retire again in Long Beach, but won the race in Spain and was followed by Niki with two second places. Next came two wins at Spa-Francorchamps and Monaco for the German, with two more Hunt’s retirements. Niki Lauda was third in Sweden with Hunt on fifth. In France, Lauda’s engine failed and Hunt had the highest podium. At the Brands Hatch circuit, Hunt won the race in a spare car, but two months later, FIA disqualified him, which promoted Lauda to the first place.
Video : Rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda that fueled the media and films
The 1976 season reached its pivotal point at the Nurburgring Grand Prix
The accident at the very last Formula One race at the old Nürburgring almost cost Niki Lauda his life, but his determination to return to racing was huge. Badly burned, but alive and fearless, Lauda returned after being absent for just two races to finish fourth at Monza Grand Prix. James didn’t finish the race, but scored two wins in Canada and USA, as opposed to Lauda who was eighth and third. The last race was held at Suzuka where Hunt managed to win the third place and the 1976 World Championship title, but was in fact one of the people who voted against the race in severe rain and fog. His famous: „I shall be getting drunk“ response to his championship win casts a shadow on this one, concerning his regret that it wasn’t Niki who won the very deserved title: “I feel really sorry for Niki, I feel sorry for everybody that the race had to be run in such ridiculous circumstances, and quite honestly, you know I wanted to win the championship, and I felt that I deserved to win the championship. I also felt that Niki deserved to win the championship, and I just wish we could have shared it.” This very remark by James Hunt serves as the best testament to their off-track respect and friendship, deliberately forgotten in Rush.
The myth of their off-track rivalry seen in Rush
Commenting Hunt’s championship win, Lauda remarked: “I said at the same time at the time there, if anybody should get the championship, then I’m happy it’s James, because I liked him, and we were not buddies but we were at least sympatico. We took care of each other from the heart in a very nice way, which in these days the heart was never shown in Formula One.” And in the aforementioned interview by Telegraph in 2013, Lauda said: “He was sober and clean for four years and then had a heart attack. He died too early, too young. I wish he’d been here to see the movie. It would have been the best.” cementing the myth of their hatred seen in the film.
Reading the archives more than relying on tales and legends, it’s safe to say that maybe, but just maybe, their on-track rivalry has taken a toll on their friendship at one point, which has been mended afterwards. Although their rivalry on track was genuine and sportsmanlike, their off-track one was a fabrication by the media, and both Lauda and Hunt did manage to play their roles accordingly, not compromising the true nature of their genuine, but unusual friendship.