HUNT VS. LAUDA recalls the titanic battle for the drivers' championship in 1976, when Lauda endured a horrific accident that nearly killed him, returned to the racing fray, yet was finally pipped at the post by James Hunt at the Japanese Grand Prix. On a day of torrential rain, Lauda withdrew from the race on safety grounds, leaving Hunt a free run-in to finish third and claim the title.
The documentary is constructed round a familiar binary opposition, with the hedonistic fun-loving Brit Hunt contrasted with the Teutonic seriousness of Lauda. Lauda spent most of his time concentrating on the mechanics of his car, making sure that everything worked properly before each race; Hunt, on the other hand, led a playboy existence of wine, women and song. It was not uncommon to see him in the arms of yet another girl at some high society party.
Hunt, it seemed, liked to play up to this stereotype; whenever he was interviewed, he replied with the kind of flip answers expected of someone who thought of himself as a gentleman amateur. In fact, this was extremely far from the truth: through interviews with those who knew him, we learn that he always experienced considerable physical and emotional strain whenever he got behind the wheel. To him motor racing was a life-and-death struggle, where he could only survive by demonstrating mastery of his vehicle. This attitude was ironic in view of what happened in the 1976 season, when it was Lauda, rather than Hunt, who experienced a brush with death.
Lauda is still very much around; he recalled that during the season he became jealous of Hunt's media reputation, especially when Lauda himself appeared so over-serious in front of the camera. Hunt was the media's darling; not just the British media, but most of the European media as well. Yet perhaps this superficial attractiveness was not what really mattered: HUNT VS. LAUDA makes it clear that driver proficiency was the only passport to ultimate success.
The 1976 season was perhaps the first in motor racing history to attract extensive media attention. The Japanese Grand Prix was broadcast live via satellite worldwide; from then on, most races during subsequent championship seasons were given similar treatment.
HUNT VS. LAUDA tells a familiar tale, one which often elides character subtleties in favor of a binarist opposition between the two drivers. Nonetheless it is a useful contribution to mid- Seventies sporting history.
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