RUSH- The Rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt

The movie ‘Rush’, directed by Ron Howard, chronicles the stormy rivalry between British upstart James Hunt and World Champion Niki Lauda through the 1976 F1 season. What Howard demonstrates, with such fine filmmaking skills, is that the sport Formula One was an entirely different ballgame back in the 70s.

This was when skill upstaged safety, and an average of 1-2 driver deaths per year was par for the course. The circuits were a throwback to ancient Roman Battles of Warriors in a coliseum every few weeks- in an era when motorsport became the most watched television event in the world. As Niki Lauda himself famously said, ‘I get into the car every race knowing that there is 20% of me dying in battle. A percent more and I shall quit.’ The Austrian’s famously tact and methodical thinking clashed with the Brit’s playboy reputation- two separate ideologies warring for world supremacy before the Sennas and Schumachers.
The 1976 season, though little known nowadays, back the beginning of the two-driver rivalry that soon gave way to Prost-Piquet and Prost-Senna, before moving onto Schumacher-Hakkinen in the late 90s. It was also the beginning of the legendary Ferrari-McLaren rivalry, with Lauda already reigning world champion after buying his way into F1, and remaining there with his superior knowledge about mechanics and car settings. Hunt was a winner on the F3 circuit, waiting for his turn in F1, and he was almost team-less for the 1976 season before McLaren bet on his skills overcoming his erratic sensibilities behind the scenes. Though dramatized for film viewing, Howard brings across the ’76 season in a way that appeals gloriously to those even not interested in the sport, bringing to life the most famous F1 season before ’82. It was also one of the greatest comebacks in the second half of an F1 season.
1976 F1 Season:
16 races made up the ’76 F1 season. It opened with Interlagos (Brazil), and closed with Japan.
By the 6th race at Monaco, Lauda already held an intimidating 36 point gap in the drivers’ standings (winner-9, second-6, third-4, fourth-3, fifth-2, sixth-1) with 4 wins and 2 second places. In stark contrast, Hunt suffered 4 retirements and a controversial disqualification in Spain that was soon to be overturned to re-ignite his battle.
Lauda enjoyed another win at Silverstone before heading into Germany- the most memorable race of the season. The drivers held a conference before the race, called by Lauda, on account of hazardous rainy conditions.
Lauda came within inches of his life after getting stuck in a burning car for a minute during race day- and had to be airlifted to the hospital with severe burns to his face and lungs.
The Championship was the last thing on everyone’s mind after a race won by Hunt ended with muted celebrations.
Niki Lauda missed the next 2 races over 40 days, recovering in the hospital- and phenomenally got back into the seat heroically in Italy. Hunt, by now, had won 3 of the last 4 races, and was cutting down Lauda’s lead. Lauda, cheered on by thousands of delirious Ferrari supporters at Monza, came a miraculous 4th after a dramatic Hunt engine failure. Lauda was back in the race, and Lauda would need some tremendous luck over the final 3 races of the season to make up the gap.
Hunt went on to win at Canada and USA- after Lauda only managed a 3rd place in USA, holding a precious 3 point lead going into the final race at Japan.
Things came full circle for the battling rivals, with overcast stormy conditions beginning things off at Japan. Back in Germany, Hunt had apparently swayed the drivers into racing by accusing Lauda of trying to cancel the race to win the Championship early. In Japan, there were no such issues- and the committee had the final call in precarious conditions. There was too much at stake for this race.
Qualifying ended with Hunt in second and Lauda in third right on his tail. On Race Day, there was zero visibility, and drivers protested before the race. But Hunt challenged death to give himself a final push- after Lauda retired into the pits after the second lap citing the lack of safety in these conditions. The Austrian was determined not to repeat his rush of blood at Germany.
Hunt now had to come 3rd to win the Championship.
Hunt’s tyres wore out faster than expected, the he fell from the lead to 3rd to fifth with a tyre puncture with 3 laps to go. Lauda’s senior teammate Regazzoni was third, but was fighting his own tyre battle. Hunt and Depailler passed a struggling Jones (2) and Regazzoni (3rd) with just two laps to go.
Hunt finished third after a heart stopping last few laps. One can only imagine the fate of Lauda as he watched on his TV monitor in the Ferrari garage as his teammate was being passed by Hunt.
Hunt won the 1976 World Championship by a solitary point.
Ferrari took the constructors’ championship, but McLaren were elated with their young drivers’ victory. It was to be Hunt’s only Championship win- a seasonal flash in the pan, with filmmaker Howard ending it on a melancholic note with Lauda wishing that his British friend had maintained his excellence.
Lauda, the more determined of the two, went on to win his second World Championship in the following year with Ferrari. Seven years later, he won his 3rd Championship in 1984 with McLaren before fading away in 1985 to the era of Piquet, Prost and Senna.
James Hunt went on to become a world famous and much-admired F1 commentator before prematurely passing away at 45. He won just 3 races in 1977 and finished 5th in the standings, far away from Lauda and the others.
His racing career was all but over, but he will be remembered for that 1 tremendous season in 1976- a season that brought out Lauda’s guts and determination to the forefront.

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