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Spectator sport: Forget this year’s Formula 1 championship – here comes 1976

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

15 June 2013

9:00 AM

Even if you don’t have a head for petrol, you can’t have failed to have noticed that the Formula 1 season thus far has been somewhat unsatisfactory. ‘Degradation’ and even ‘delamination’ (no, me neither but it does exist) have been the key words in Grand Prix chatter as tyres with a working life that can be measured in yards rather than miles have virtually eliminated the word ‘racing’ from the sport. But if you have two minutes and 31 seconds free — a Sunday afternoon just after a Grand Prix has started is as good a time as any — access YouTube and take a look at the trailer for Ron Howard’s new film, Rush, and your F1 blues will be swept away as quickly as the smile disappears from the face of the freshly goosed grid girl.

Until Senna was released in 2010, motor-racing films had rather stalled. John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix in 1966 and Steve McQueen’s Le Mans five years later were both so full throttle with action that the plot was left at the start. The beauty of Senna is that it is true, a biopic of the last racing driver to have any air of myth about him. Rush is not a documentary, but it is a true story and if it even gets close to the standard set by the trailer then September can’t come soon enough.

The summer of 1976 was long and hot. England’s cricketers succumbed to ‘pace like fire’ at the hands of the West Indies, Johnny Miller torched the Open and Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg were melting hearts at Wimbledon. The Formula 1 world championship was being conducted without even a highlights show, let alone its own channel. But this was an epic tale, the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. In 1976 Hunt had joined McLaren from the defunct Hesketh team. Lauda was the world champion, Austrian and clinical and driving for Ferrari. They were polar opposites who were actually great friends.

Lauda dominated the early part of the season, winning four of the first six races. Hunt had won in Spain, had the win taken away from him when his car was found to be too wide, and then got the victory back on appeal. In July Hunt won back-to-back races in France and Britain, but he was then disqualified from the latter for using his spare car at the restart after an accident. Events at Brands Hatch revealed the passion that British fans had for Hunt. When it was announced that he would not be allowed to take the second start, a near riot ensued. Better to let him race and deal with it later. A fortnight later Hunt won again, at the Nürburgring, but Lauda ended the day in a hospital bed, terribly burnt after a horrific accident. That night a priest administered the last rites. There were six races left and Hunt was 26 points behind Lauda.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Lauda doesn’t die and that the championship fight goes to the last lap of the final race.

Dangerous times create dangerous men in every walk of life. Hunt lived on the edge. Booze, drugs and sex were all enjoyed in excess and then he would go out and ‘give it arseholes’, as he liked to say, in a racing car. Legend has it that in the build-up to the last race of 1976 he slept with 33 British Airways stewardesses in just two weeks. If it’s not the mark of a man, it’s a display of brand loyalty that should not go unrecorded. He died aged 45 in 1993.

Lauda is still with us, but the disfigurement caused by the fire at the Nürburgring remains. The Austrian now makes light of it. Once, when told that his appearance at the German Grand Prix of 1976 didn’t count because the race was restarted after his accident, he coolly said, ‘So what happened to my ear, then?’

If the 2013 F1 season continues to be a case of tyre management and artificial racing, cast your mind back to 1976 and be thankful that, come autumn, you can live it all again.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.

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