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Rush 2: What happened next for Lauda and Hunt
Monday 07th October 2013, 23:26 by Graham Keilloh
© Sutton Images
You are a motor racing fan (or at least I assume you are, as otherwise why would you be here?). Therefore, most probably you’ve seen Rush by now. The story of Niki Lauda vs. James Hunt; their titanic F1 rivalry, as interpreted by Hollywood.
And Rush left us at the end of the 1976 season with the two on top of the world: Lauda having returned from his horrific and fiery mid-season Nurburgring accident, in a scarcely plausible timespan, to defend his F1 world title. And Hunt having made good on his potential and defied his many doubters by pipping Lauda to become world champion himself.
As is indicated by the fact that Rush was made at all, the two were a quintessential pair of protagonists, discrepant personalities that could have been borne of the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter had they not actually existed. Lauda: intense, anti-social, rational; Hunt: expressive, controversial, instinctive. Seemingly all they had in common was supreme talent.
But for all of the reverence that the rivalry still receives, it wasn’t a long-lasting one at the sport’s pinnacle. There was no Hunt-Lauda era: just three years on from the day in Fuji on which Rush – and the 1976 campaign – reached its crescendo both drivers had left the sport, having become also-rans, and had walked away abruptly and barely with a backwards glance. In this case, as in many, the light that burned twice as bright burned half as long.
Rush 2, a sequel to the celebrated film, is unlikely ever to be made as subsequent events for Hunt and Lauda don’t seem quite as apt for Hollywood treatment as the 1976 year. But this particular tale is no less fascinating for that.
On the face of it the year that followed 1976 offered up more of the same. In 1977 Lauda helped himself to title number two and Hunt, while not racking up as many points as he might have thanks to a variety of factors, was a habitual front-runner. But even within this campaign some of the seeds that led eventually to them walking out of F1 were sown.
In Lauda’s case it could all be traced back even further indeed, to the 1976 year, and to a matter that Rush didn’t really cover, in the aftermath of his Nurburgring accident.
For all of Ferrari’s public stoicism after the harrowing crash, as Lauda noted: ‘in private, they were at sixes and sevens’. The team struggled to believe that Lauda – physically or psychologically – could return to his former potency, and compounded the ‘insult’ (as far as Lauda was concerned) by swiftly snapping up Carlos Reutemann to the driving staff, ostensibly to replace the Austrian. Needless to say, Lauda rather resented his presence.
And the Ferrari team’s view of Lauda got worse after he pulled out of the 1976 championship finale in Fuji’s rain, objecting to the soaking wet conditions, and thus to a large extent dashed his chances of the crown. To understand why the team might have reacted as it did a brief history lesson is required: then the big Scuderia boss Enzo Ferrari didn’t attend F1 races, and hadn’t done with any regularity since the 1950s. And with media coverage of races rudimentary at the time he was reliant on a circle of (often self-serving) team advisors for information, as well as on the Italian press. And the Italian press in particular went to town after Fuji in asserting repeatedly that Lauda had lost his nerve, Lauda was finished and the like. Worse, the Commendatore believed it, and as a result offered Lauda the role as Ferrari team manager, an offer that Niki saw for what it was: an attempt to let him down gently as the team didn’t think he was up to driving anymore. After some bartering he retained his drive for 1977, but at this point the relationship of trust was broken, and Lauda resolved to leave Ferrari once his contract expired at the end of 1977.
1977 was a curious F1 season, one in which as Peter Windsor noted in that year’s Autocourse ‘the racers came second’. Everywhere it seemed that Hunt, along with Mario Andretti in the Lotus 78, scampered off into the distance together in a race of two. But equally it seemed that everywhere, for some reason, the two would fail to make it to the finish. ‘Development’ Cosworth engines, that often went pop, were part of the problem. On occasion Hunt himself erred. But along with this it was, in Hunt’s own words, ‘just not our year’; a campaign in which always something it seemed would go against him.
A few stats tell the story: Hunt led 222 laps that year to Lauda’s 190, led in 10 races to Lauda’s four, and took six poles to Lauda’s two. Yet somehow it added up to only 40 points for Hunt to Lauda’s 72 (and Lauda sat out the last two races) and a distant fifth place in the drivers’ standings.
Lauda benefitted from this, as well as from his own guile and some time-honoured Ferrari reliability, to cruise to the title with two races to spare.
Bad luck wasn’t the whole story though: Hunt took pole in the opening three rounds of 1977 in the trusty M23 that he’d won the previous year’s title in, and was confident that with it again he would retain his championship. However, the long-overdue successor in the M26 had been sitting poised for its debut since mid-1976 and five rounds into the 1977 campaign McLaren decided finally to take the plunge with it. Sadly it never seemed as good as the car it replaced, suffering particularly from heavy steering and poor handling (F1 cars not being as good as their predecessor was not all that uncommon at the time, with wind tunnels and other evidence-gathering used but rarely in their design).
Still, it was felt that Hunt had got much more out of the M26 than it deserved, and Lauda indeed thought Hunt was the driver of the year in 1977: ‘James drove tremendously well in ’77…By and large he was the best driver of the season. I don’t remember him making a single mistake, and I always regarded him as my toughest opponent’. If the late title charge of 1976 can be considered Hunt’s zenith, on-track at least his 1977 effort deserves to be ranked alongside it.
It was in 1978 however that things really started to change for both Lauda and Hunt. For Lauda there was a change of scenery as he decided to throw his lot in with Brabham, a team that had been thereabouts but never quite there in recent seasons. While Hunt, still at McLaren, thanks to his 1977 efforts started the campaign as bookies’ favourite for the title. But for both the year fell way short of expectations.
In Hunt’s case the shortcomings of the M26 really were shown up this in campaign: a single podium finish, a five-lap glory run leading in Jarama and a meagre eight points were all he salvaged from the 1978 year. And Hunt to be frank didn’t often look better than his car: by various accounts he wasn’t necessarily the first driver you’d pick if your team was up against it. Hunt’s interest declined gradually as the year progressed and mistakes crept in more and more; he retired due to accidents in no fewer than six races. It didn’t help either that Hunt’s rather lost faith in the McLaren management which had lost its focus seemingly; Hunt in particular was not happy with their decision to select Patrick Tambay as his team mate rather than the pilot who he saw as the more talented in Gilles Villeneuve.
For Lauda things were slightly better that year with two wins claimed (albeit both came in rather peculiar circumstances), though his year was also broadly one of frustration. The Brabham, penned by genius designer Gordon Murray, was one that for Lauda in Nigel Roebuck’s words: ‘completely seduced him. With surface air cooling, built-in jacks, digital instrumentation, boundless trick stuff, there were so many things to go wrong! So many things he could help to put right…For there has always lain Niki’s chief interest in motor racing.’ And the consensus that year was that Lauda was driving as well as ever.
Adding to the Brabham’s distinction was that it was one of the few F1 cars in the 1970s not powered by the Ford Cosworth, instead having the horses provided by a lovely-sounding Alfa-Romeo Flat 12. But this was a lot of the problem, as the Lauda noted: ‘Everything would have gone like a dream if only we had had a different engine. The 12-cylinder Alfa simply couldn’t hack it, and there were problems and crises round the clock. We missed finishing race after race because of some nonsense or other, an oil-seal defect or similar.’
The Alfa engines’ shortcomings – weight, complexity, fuel-thirstiness, unreliability – were never resolved. And in 1979 the marque added to Lauda’s exasperation by starting up its own team and so no longer giving Brabham its undivided attention.
But what really kept Lauda (and Hunt) away from the winner’s circle was that year’s Lotus, and the ground effect. The team had introduced the concept to an extent with the ‘wing car’ on show in 1977, but the Lotus 79 brought in for the following year left that, and everything else for that matter, utterly breathless. It took the ground effect concept further with sliding skirts that kept the low pressure area under the car sealed in, and in Andretti’s words it was like driving a car that was ‘painted to the road’.
Come 1979 the matter got even more acute, as it transpired that the ground effect was not just a mod con to be bolted onto your car, rather it was a whole new science to be explored, and that the Lotus 79 was barely the start. And the effect on the F1 competitive order was akin to that of a tsunami: few designers got it right and resultantly previous established front running teams (and, by extension, drivers) were swept aside virtually overnight, in time including Lotus ironically enough. And in their stead outfits that had previously been viewed as little more than plucky midfield triers, such as Williams and Ligier, all of a sudden found themselves with cars to beat. And for haughty drivers such as Lauda and Hunt this effect was severely compounded by the fact that the ground effect greatly diminished the potential the driver had to make a difference to the result. It was compounded further by that the cars were dangerous, with the greatly increased downforce increasing speeds as well as straining and breaking components regularly. All in, it’s not for nothing that the retirement rate of famous drivers spiked in the ground effect era: to Hunt and Lauda you can add Scheckter, Fittipaldi, Andretti, Jones, Reutemann and others.
And one way or another in 1978 the danger of his participation in the sport had started to preoccupy Hunt. The thought had always been in a mental recess somewhere for him (as evidenced by his tendency to throw up before races), but by his own admission for as long as he was able to fight for wins he was able to suppress it all. And he wasn’t on either count in 1978: ‘I was getting scared of hurting myself’, said Hunt. ‘I don’t think that would have happened if I had been in a car that could win, because that’s the way I am: in a competitive situation everything else goes out of my head. But I didn’t have that for my last couple of years…’ As Hunt noted on his F1 career to Roebuck some years after retiring, and after establishing himself as an F1 commentator of some renown: ‘I never really liked it when I was doing it’.
Deciding that he wasn’t prepared to risk his life in the fight for tenth place, in the days after the 1979 Monaco Grand Prix Hunt – still young, not yet 32 – confirmed that he was stopping as a racing driver with immediate effect.
Self-preservation had been on Hunt’s mind for a while. But what absolutely threw Hunt were the events at the start of the Italian Grand Prix in Monza in 1978, wherein he and Ronnie Peterson were involved in a multi-car crash in the run to the first turn, which smashed Peterson’s legs and eventually killed him on the operating table. It was Hunt that pulled Peterson from his burning car, and when he laid him on the tarmac he could see the fear and severe pain across the Swede’s face, which had an indelible impact. The final confirmation may have lain some months into the future, but most believe it was here that Hunt made his decision to quit racing.
Initially Hunt decided that he would quit at the conclusion of 1978, but he was convinced to stay for one more season, arguably for the wrong reasons, as the Wolf team waved a big $1million cheque at him (though teaming up with his old designer from his Hesketh days, Harvey Postlethwaite, tempted too). But come the 1979 campaign itself there was little otherwise to rekindle Hunt’s interest: the team was running out of money (Walter Wolf’s other businesses weren’t doing well) and the car was off the pace which meant that the Wolf race wins of two years previously may as well have been in another age. Hunt’s relationship with the team manager Peter Warr was strained - indeed it had been strained for a few years previously. Worst of all Hunt’s fears from Monza the previous year were aggravated a brake failure in a Kyalami qualifying session, and Hunt despite somehow coming to rest having not hit anything was described by Jackie Stewart upon encountering him shortly afterwards as ‘a truly frightened man’ and that he was physically shaking. Before long in 1979 Hunt was telling confidants that he had resolved to quit, indeed that he’d be out of there as soon as the mid-year point was reached at which point he’d be entitled to half of his year’s retainer. And following that point after Monaco that is indeed what he did.
For Lauda things were little better. A V12 Alfa engine for 1979 was produced hastily in an attempt to allow the team to make more hay from the ground effect, but it still wasn’t ideal in this regard, and if anything the unit was worse on unreliability and the other vices than its predecessor flat 12. Lauda was almost never on the pace, and only finished two races out of 13. Then came the penultimate round of the year in Canada.
For all of Hunt and Lauda’s apparent disparity the two were in many ways similar; indeed they were friends, and Hunt once commented on Lauda: ‘he in fact in personality and type is and always was the closest guy to me, we’ve been friends for a long time’.
And this similarity included their attitude to the sport: for neither was it simply enough to race for racing’s sake as was the case for a Clay Regazzoni or a Jacques Laffite. To a large extent, both Lauda’s and Hunt’s attitude to the sport was consumerist: both sought what they wanted from it – in Lauda’s case defeating challenges and in Hunt’s case the glory of victory – and when they found that they weren’t getting this they walked away almost immediately. For Lauda it was done literally during a practice session at Montreal. Another similarity between the two was that neither paid much heed to convention.
As intimated above, for Lauda there always had to be a challenge. For much of the 1979 year – despite next to no sustenance in terms of race results – Lauda kept himself amused with a frenzied and extended contract battle with Brabham’s boss, one Bernie Ecclestone, seeking $2million for the 1980 season (an astronomical sum at the time). Lauda won this, then for the Canadian round had a new Cosworth-powered BT49 at his disposal; Bernie not before time deciding to ditch Alfa. It was a car that was plainly going to be on the pace immediately. But perhaps that was the problem. Nigel Roebuck noted: ‘I always had a pet theory that one contributory factor in Niki’s “instant” retirement in 1979 may have been that (Gordon) Murray’s new car…did nothing to excite him. It was clearly going to be the business, but essentially it was, well, mainstream.’
Indeed, Lauda’s actions in his second F1 career – when having overcome the challenge of a comeback, developing and then winning in McLaren’s turbo car, and of beating his rapid young team mate Alain Prost, partway through the year of his final championship in 1984 sought to start over again with a Renault move for 1985 (a move that didn’t come off thanks to a malicious leak of the contract negotiations) – seem to back this theory up.
And the day before he walked away in Montreal, judging by his words, it seemed the urge to quit was in Lauda’s mind: ‘The longer you are in motor racing, the more boring it is in one way’ said Lauda, ‘because everything is the same all the time, and it needs special motivation. You know, if…you are 25 years old or 22 years old when you start motor racing the motivation is there because you want to get in, you want to know everything you want to win and all that. So if you know everything having won a lot of races you always need new motivation…If you get in the car all miserable…it won’t work, and I sometimes feel a little bit of not all that power…I’ve only finished two races this year so it’s all not funny anymore, so it really does get boring…my heart and head is (still) there, but I can feel one day it won’t be anymore and then I’ll retire overnight.’
Whatever was the case, no sooner had he left the Montreal pits in his new machine for the opening practice session there something convinced Lauda to stop: ‘I have only one thought’ he said in his autobiography To Hell and Back, ‘you don’t belong here, you don’t belong here at all. Go and do something else. Now.’
And he did. Having returned to the pits, unbuckled and told Bernie of his decision he left the circuit, not even collecting his helmet and overalls. Later that day, he let out the irritated comment in front of a couple of journalists that he was ‘fed up driving around in stupid circles’, and it was this sentiment that was forever to be associated with his surprise, instant, pullout.
And his old adversity Hunt supported Lauda’s decision absolutely: ‘When you’re young and an up-and-comer…you can still build a reputation in a car that’s not capable of winning Grands Prix…say if you beat your team mate…When you’re at Niki’s stage you’re only in the business to win, you’re not proving anything else, if anything when driving a bad car you’re pushing down your reputation…With all the excitement and travel and everything it’s (motor racing is) very hard work. It’s fine when you’re winning…there’s nothing better for getting you right up to your peak of motivation if you’re in a car that can win and there’s nothing worse if you’re at his (Lauda’s) or my stage of your career than driving a car that you know can’t win.’
And before anyone knew it F1 was continuing as before without the previous iconic pair. Most were preoccupied with Alan Jones and his stunningly fast Williams FW07, Gilles Villeneuve fighting in his Ferrari 312T4, new champion Jody Scheckter and the pace of Nelson Piquet in his fresh-out-of-the-workshop Brabham BT49, and the world moved on. Just as was the case for the two dropping out drivers, it seemed the sport itself barely gave a backward glance to them as they left. Nothing in F1 stands still for long, and the tale of the decline and departure of Hunt and Lauda following their 1976 crowning glory demonstrated as much with particular impudence.
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