James Hunt's philosophy is to "live life as I bloody well want," and he wants to be World Driving Champion
September 26, 1976

It is nearly a mile and a half from Monza's second chicane to the sanctuary of the track's pit area. For James Hunt, with his British-built McLaren M23 off the track and jammed into the sand after only 11 laps of the Italian Grand Prix, that meant a long, bitter walk in the cold rain. Because Hunt is threatening to win world championships from Italy's Ferrari (as constructor) and its star, Niki Lauda (as driver), most of the 100,000 spectators had applauded his accident, and jeered and cussed him as he trudged to the pits.

This appalling episode on Sept. 12 must have seemed dauntingly removed from the happy, wine-bubbling party in the sand dunes at Zandvoort, Holland where, just two weeks previous, Hunt, his teammates and a bunch of elated fans had celebrated both the driver's 29th birthday and his Dutch Grand Prix victory in rumbustious style. That night the T shirt he wore read "King James Rules OK"—and indeed his coronation as this season's world-champion driver seemed not too far away.

The nine points from his Zandvoort win had placed Hunt only two points behind Lauda, who was then convalescing from burns he had suffered in a horrifying crash on Aug. 1 in the German GP. The word in racing circles was that Lauda, who at one point had been given last rites, might be well enough to drive in the final three events of the 16-race series (Mosport, Canada on Oct. 3, the U.S. GP at Watkins Glen the following week and Mount Fuji, Japan on Oct. 24). But even if the rumor was correct and the 27-year-old Austrian did resume driving, certainly no one expected him to return to form in time to be a factor in the chase for 1976 world-championship points.

Shortly after that disastrous German GP, which Hunt had won, he declared that he had no wish to win the championship "by default." But a subsequent fourth in the Austrian Grand Prix and the first in Holland, which had given him a total of 12 points (points are awarded on a 9-6-4-3-2-1 basis to the first six finishers), had thrust him to within striking distance of the championship, and Hunt's view had changed somewhat.

"Let's be absolutely honest and frank about it," he said before Monza. "I'd rather win it than not win it. In 1974, 55 points and three Grand Prix wins meant the championship for Emerson Fittipaldi. I've already won five GPs this season. Most other years, I would have won it already with four races to go." That was before the telephone rang in Hunt's villa in San Pedro on Spain's Costa del Sol five days before Monza, bringing the news that by some miracle Lauda had declared himself fit to race only six weeks after sucking flames into his lungs at the Nürburgring. "That makes it fine," Hunt said then. "We've both finished the same number of races. I wasted some early on, when we'd made our car all wrong by messing with its aerodynamics. But now that Niki is coming to Monza we're starting very nearly square; we've both won several races and he was out for three races. I'm very happy to beat him in battle rather than in hospital."

But at Monza, as in the Spanish and British Grands Prix earlier this year, a lot of the battle was going to take place off the track. In Spain, Hunt was disqualified when a postrace technical inspection revealed that the rear wing and tire track of his winning car were fractions of an inch wider than allowed, according to specifications that went into effect on race day but had not applied during practice. That disqualification was reversed by the Commission Sportif Internationale, the body that governs Formula I. After the British GP at Brands Hatch, Ferrari protested another Hunt victory (the first protest of a Formula I result in recent memory), contending that Hunt's McLaren, which was involved in a race-halting multicar crash on the first lap, had not been running when the race was stopped. The British stewards disallowed the protest, but the matter will not be settled until the C.S.I. holds an appeal hearing later this month.

In this corrosive atmosphere, Hunt, the McLaren team and, in particular, its managing director, Teddy Mayer, planned to take special pains to close every loophole on Ferrari's home ground. Because of rumors circulating before the race, Mayer paid special attention to the gasoline used in the two team cars, to the extent of having it carefully analyzed by Texaco (a sponsor along with Marlboro of Team McLaren) well ahead of the race.

The precaution was of no avail. At the last minute, officials of the Automobile Club of Italy, which sanctioned the race, declared that both the McLaren and Penske teams' fuels exceeded the permitted octane rating. Penske driver John Watson, who had won the Austrian GP two weeks after Lauda's crash, was called from a special presentation commemorating that event to be told the news. Hunt heard it from the press. Teddy Mayer, a graduate of Cornell Law School, appealed the decision immediately. "Normally," he said, "you don't get sent to jail before the appeal is heard. It's the other way around in this case. We'll try to get the race declared null and void."

The first practice day at Monza, a Friday, had been vile, cold with an almost continuous heavy rain. Practice lap times, which would determine positions on the starting grid of Sunday's race, were slow. The next day, on a dry track, they were considerably faster. But on race day, A.C.I, officials announced that because of their supposedly tainted gasoline Hunt, his teammate Jochen Mass and Watson would be gridded according to their best times on Friday. All other drivers would be gridded by their faster Saturday times—including an extraordinary three-car contingent of Ferraris driven by Lauda (fifth on the grid), Clay Regazzoni (ninth) and Carlos Reutemann (seventh), who had driven every other 1976 GP for Brabham. This meant that Hunt. Mass and Watson started from the very back of the grid.

It appeared the officials did not just want Hunt out of the race; they wanted him humiliated on the track. From the back of the 26-car grid there would be little chance of his gaining a point. McLaren might well have done as Ferrari did after Lauda's injury—flounced out of the competition. But McLaren decided to fight it out on the terms the fans at Monza were hoping for—a Hunt-Lauda confrontation with the odds heavily weighted on the side of Lauda, the crowd's returned hero. Since he joined Ferrari in 1974, Lauda has resurrected the team's fading glory, not only by his driving but also by his engineering and organizational abilities.

The differences between Hunt and Lauda, the two best drivers racing today, are considerable in everything except their degree of driving skill. "I like and admire Niki," Hunt says, "but he is more single-minded than I am. With people, for instance. Given a choice, if there is somebody standing in my way I'll step around him so that there's no aggravation. But Niki would not. He'd make no effort to step around. There was a guy came up to him at Brands Hatch, a terrific fan, obviously, and he'd put together a kind of scrapbook of Niki, months of work in it. Niki was standing in the paddock doing nothing, and the fan presented him with it. 'Ja, that's wonderful,' Niki said. 'Now get out of here.' I couldn't do that. I'd have to talk about it a bit and try to maneuver myself out of position. The fact that the present was a big pain in the neck is neither here nor there."

Their off-track style is notably different, too. Hunt is a reversion to an older kind of driver, colorful, outgoing and not averse to a fair measure of hell raising at the right time. This made him a little uneasy when he switched last year from the Hesketh team—a band of hedonists to whom fine hotel accommodations and the proper wines seemed as important as winning—to McLaren, where he stepped into the shoes of the somber and somewhat revered figure of former World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

Hunt recalls, "The thought of driving for a big serious team that never smiled, with big serious sponsors, had me worried in the time between signing the contract and meeting them. Those Marlboro parties.... Do you know, they used to put almost a uniform on Emerson—a blazer with a badge on it, a Philip Morris tie, all that junk? I told them, 'You can scrub that for a start.' But they didn't push me. I was pleasantly surprised. I think that they secretly wanted to enjoy their racing after the serious and dour reign of Emerson."

Hunt is neither serious nor dour, nor is he the gauche playboy that the gossip columns make him out to be. His self-discipline in the days before a race is striking. Around his Spanish home there may well be opportunities for self-destruction equal to anything in the Western world, but Hunt is under easy control. He lives simply in his villa, looked after by his striking housekeeper, Anita Todd; visits two or three parties an evening, sipping a Coke or two at each; plays and bets on endless games of backgammon at the beach club; and enjoys golf nearby or tennis at Lew Hoad's club up the road. After a race he is willing to let go fairly publicly, and he admits there are times when he gets some bad publicity. "I won't do anything to affect my performance in a race," he says. "But beyond that I'll live my life as I bloody well want, and I refuse to be dictated to. It doesn't make any difference to me personally if I'm reported jumping drunk into pools in the middle of the night or not. I used to worry that the sponsors might take a dim view of that, but I think now they realize that this is all part of the package."

There is, in fact, yet another side to Hunt, observable in the Marlboro hospitality trailer on race days, a side that is forever Sutton, Surrey, the middle-class outer suburb of London where he grew up. The Hunts are very much a family. "Morning, Mother," both James and Peter Hunt, his brother and agent, say dutifully when Sue Hunt visits, clearly enjoying James' success. "They were very nice to me at the reception," she'll characteristically say. "They gave me champagne, but what I really wanted was one of those Marlboro T shirts." Someone rushes off to get her one as she settles down comfortably to talk about James and how he first learned to drive at 11 years of age on holiday in Wales, and how he bought his first car, an Austin Mini, piece by piece and put the whole thing together. She smiles secretly, too, when James makes a rare remark about his ex-wife, now Mrs. Richard Burton. People are playing liar dice in a corner of the trailer, and he suddenly observes. "Suzy was so good at that."

The story about building the Mini is interesting because Hunt says he is quite untechnical. "Niki will talk technical to people, but I have a different view of GP racing," Hunt says. "I think what it is really about is getting in the car and putting your foot down. Obviously, the driver has to have a hand in setting the car up, but you don't have to get involved in a whole load of technicalities. When reporters come up to me and ask why I adjusted the front roll bar by 1.5 centimeters, I probably don't even know it's been done."

Teddy Mayer says that Hunt is an entirely different driver from Fittipaldi, who would come into the pits at practice and ask for minute adjustments. "James quite often comes in and says he can't tell any difference, but we haven't found him wrong when we make a positive change. I don't know if he could sort out a car that is badly out of kilter, but we haven't given him one of those yet. What really matters to us is that he has an enormous amount of natural talent backed up by unusual determination. He's as determined a driver as I've had work for us, and that includes Fittipaldi, Denis Hulme, Phil Hill [all world champions], as well as Bruce McLaren and Peter Revson. I think he has probably got more natural talent than any of them."

Bubbles Horsley, currently managing a team campaigning the old Hesketh cars and Hunt's team manager while he was with Hesketh, says, "I used to get very cross when I felt James wasn't really trying. There are 25 or 30 guys all working for a finished product: a guy sitting in a motor car. If he doesn't try, then you might as well go home. A team like that, it's like putting a pop group on the road. There's a lot of equipment and people to get around the world. But we never had a real bust-up, just the odd hiccup. James is better with McLaren because he has more confidence—he's winning races under pressure. With us he had a nasty habit of doing well, even winning, then crashing. It was irritating to say the least. Argentina, '75, 18 laps left and in front of Fittipaldi—he just lost concentration and spun. He went out in the first lap of the '74 Argentina and spun. Led the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix and spun. He always admitted it.... He couldn't say anything else, could he? Spun the bleeding car, hadn't he? He's better now, especially his timing. McLaren's is lucky to have him. He's probably the best in the world."

There was no way at the Italian GP that the title of best driver in the world was going to be decided, though the extraordinary sight of Hunt in his red-and-white McLaren last on the line did not persist for long. After 11 laps he had passed 14 of his rivals and was within five seconds of Lauda, who had muffed his start. He was lapping faster than the leaders when he ran off the track. "I passed Tom Pryce and I zapped away from him," Hunt said after the race. "But he was catching me again when I got stuck behind Jacky Ickx. Then I made a mistake coming out of the first chicane and missed a gear, so that Pryce got back alongside me on the straight and then started to try to outbrake me for the second chicane—which seemed a bit stupid and unnecessary, because I was quicker than him anyway, and he wasn't going to prove anything except add to the aggravation. But he was inside me, and I couldn't get into the corner, so I slid off and I got stuck. The car was undamaged, but I couldn't get it out again."

And so it was the long walk in the rain past the banners that read BASTA CON LA MAFIA INGLESE (Away with the English Mafia) and the jeering Italians, triumphant now that Lauda, after his slow beginning, was edging up in the race. Lauda had hung in sixth position until the engines in the Tyrrells of Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler both went soft, and he was able to slide into fourth position five laps before the end to complete his astounding comeback. Meantime, as few noted, Ronnie Peterson in a March was winning his first Grand Prix of the season.

And so an unexpected three points were earned by Lauda, to give him a total of 61, widening the gap between him and Hunt to five. "My God, I'm looking forward to North America and sanity," Hunt said, resting in the trailer after the race.

North Americans, for their part, are looking forward to the arrival of both Hunt and Lauda, and to the drama of their end-of-the-season battle for the world championship.

THREE PHOTOSTONY TRIOLOHunt cuts a fine figure at the wheel of a McLaren, encumbered with posies after his Dutch GP win and jogging near his home on the Costa del Sol. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOKing James' version of the good life includes a comely housekeeper and games of backgammon.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)