James Hunt may have had the glamour and good looks but it was Niki Lauda’s tale that punched hardest in BBC Two’s fine documentary about the great Formula 1 rivals, Hunt vs Lauda. As his Ferrari manager, Daniele Audetto, recalled how the Austrian driver returned to racing just five weeks after his horrendous crash at the 1976 German Grand Prix had melted large amounts of the skin off his face as well as most of an ear, it was hard to feel anything but admiration for the man colloquially known as the Rat because of his rodent-like features. As Lauda prepared for his comeback race Audetto spoke of how, when Lauda removed his balaclava, “his face was a mask of blood – my God, how can he race?”
But race he did, coming fourth, which meant he and Hunt were neck and neck by the time they got to the final Grand Prix of the season, in Japan. Hunt may have won the championship in the end but the fact that Lauda dropped out of that last dangerous race because he’d seen what death looked like and didn’t want to get close to it again looked a far nobler thing than Hunt’s driving in it so recklessly he gave himself two flat tires.
Still, there’s no doubt Hunt was funnier. “Niki, you’re the only person I know who could have been in a fire and come out better looking,” he is reported to have told Lauda after his accident, apparently with affection.
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