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James Hunt vs Niki Lauda: a rivalry for the ages

Formula 1 has had some great rivalries throughout its 69-year history.  We remember fondly the battles held between Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen, the legendary Senna vs Prost or more recently, Lewis Hamilton against Nico Rosberg; but one of the oldest ones is the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

This rivalry had its highest momentum in 1976 the season in which only one point defined the World Championship between the two extremely different titans of the sport. Niki Lauda was known for being very calculatingly-precise and technical both on and off the track; he liked to improve his cars personally and always tried to be at his best to drive.

James Hunt was quite the opposite. He was always partying, drinking and smoking, living his life to the limit every day because he knew he was risking his life every time he drove in a racetrack and therefore, he lived like every day was his last. But at the wheel, he was also very precise but took a lot more risks than Niki ever did (therefore the nickname "Hunt the Shunt"). Both were very talented drivers and had a great rivalry that was always fair and contested.

In 1976, Lauda was reigning Champion and the season started looking like a back-to-back Title was in his pocket. The Austrian managed to climb to the podium in all but one of the first half of the season's races (9) and won five of them. Then came Germany, where he suffered a terrible accident that almost killed him and left him in a coma with severe burns after his car caught fire in a crash.

Surprisingly, Lauda took only six weeks off, in which Hunt had shortened his advantage on the Drivers' Championship by winning in Nürburgring and Zandvoort. The Englishman continued to win afterwards in Canada and the US, reducing the margin to only three points and knowing that he had a shot at the World Championship in the last race of the season in Japan's brand new Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway.

No driver knew the Japanese circuit, and on the race day, there was a brutal storm that almost stopped the race from happening. Niki Lauda abandoned the race after two laps, protesting that it was not safe and claiming that his life was worth more than a Championship, leaving Hunt with the mission to finish above fourth place to get the Title.

The British driver gave the race of his life; starting second, he took the lead and kept it for a while, but then had to come back from fifth place after a tyre problem that forced him to the pits. He drove like a bullet and two laps before the chequered flag, he overtook Jones and Regazzoni to finish third and became a World Champion, surpassing Lauda by a single point.

That's how James Hunt stole one Title away from Niki Lauda, who won in 1975 and again in 1977, being clearly the best driver in the best car at the time in the numbers, but the Brit was also one of the best, and he was very determined and persistent, which rewarded him in the end. The Austrian always took that with a good temper, he was a big friend of Hunt outside the F1 cars and always spoke nice things about him.

Lauda won his third Championship in 1984, five years after Hunt retired and both kept a respectful relationship until the latter passed away in 1993. They knew each other since Formula 3 when they were both trying to make their way into F1, and they liked each other since then, as Niki himself admitted in an interview with Graham Bensinger.

He said that he was happy when Hunt beat him to the Championship because it was him and not another driver and that "he was a fantastic personality, a man which you never forget when you know him". He also added, and this was in 2017, that he was still alive for him, even if he had been dead for two decades.

In the same interview, the Austrian narrated how he had helped his friend in the 1980s when he found him in a really bad moment and pushed him to clean himself up, to stop drinking and get his life back on track. Hunt responded, quit drinking, got a job as a Formula 1 commentator for the BBC and became a family man.

On another time, Lauda commented that "there are good and bad pilots. Then there are the very talented and hard to beat. James was one of those" and added "We respected each other very much because in the old days, to drive 300 kilometres an hour side by side towards a corner, if someone makes a mistake, one or both are killed. Hunt was someone you could rely on to be really precise".

Hunt also showed his care for his friend after he beat him at Fuji, he said: "I feel really sorry for Niki. I feel sorry for everybody that the race had to be run in such ridiculous circumstances because the conditions were dangerous and I fully appreciate Niki's decision. After an accident like he had, what else could he do? Quite honestly, I wanted to win the Championship and I felt I deserved it. But I also felt Niki deserved to win the Championship – and I just wish we could have shared it."

James died of heart failure in 1993, and Niki passed away recently on May 20, 2019. Now, these two F1-legends are resting in peace, but reunited to drive forever among the best of those who have already left this world.

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