James Lawton: The James Hunt I knew is the subject of a new F1 movie

British driver was fascinating man whose epic duel with Niki Lauda in 1976 was typical of an era of glamour and glory – but also the ever-present threat of death

Amid all the hype building around the Hollywood blockbuster that will shortly bring back to life the extraordinary duel between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976 there is a curiously poignant memory. It is of Hunt sitting in his elegant house beside Wimbledon Common, shortly before he died in 1993 at the age of just 45, and enthusing over his latest project.

The great dramas of his life were over. It was nearly 20 years since his tumultuous hand-to-hand battle with Lauda, who had returned with scarcely believable courage from his horrendous accident at the old Nürburgring – and the visit of a priest bearing the last rites – ended in a one-point victory in the rains of Mount Fuji.

The days of drugs and fine wine and serial romancing – 5,000 women were said to have submitted to his boyish charm – were in abeyance.

So what Hunt wanted to talk about, in some considerable passing, was a surefire commercial initiative. He had a plan to market a salad that would be enhanced by immersion in a microwave.

It will be interesting to see if director Ron Howard, who won a clutch of Oscars for his depiction of the life of Nobel Laureate John Nash in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, has the running time to squeeze in such oddities in the nature of a man and his times which, when you are jogged into looking back, tend to make today's Formula One resemble a hugely rewarded Advanced Driving School.

Certainly that epoch, during which today's Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone offered the thought that the routine deaths of leading drivers was nothing so much as inevitable "culling", seems utterly proofed against excessive dramatisation by the gifted filmmaker, who was inspired by the recent superb documentary Senna.

Before Hunt won the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseilles on his way to his world title he confided, "Sometimes I wake up with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. I think of all the friends who have died on the track and I wonder if I will be the next. I thought this morning, 'Wouldn't it be lovely to be a professional golfer: A nice walk in the sunshine, 18 good holes and then a little time at the 19th."

When he came home the winner, the adrenalin still pouring, he was a little breezier when discussing the fact that on the last lap he had thrown up. Was it the growing tension of his battle with the great Austrian? Was it more of those demons that came to him in the night? "Maybe it was a little bit too much champers and foie gras," he said. But you didn't have to look too hard into his eyes to suspect a somewhat different story.

The new movie, which is out in September, is called Rush – the one which came to the great racers when they put aside their fears at that time before Sir Jackie Stewart, appalled by the never-ending toll on his comrades, spearheaded the drive for greater safety.

However, judging by fleeting evidence from the film's trailer there is reason to believe that the complexities of such emotion will not be lost entirely in all the available dramatic material. Lauda, who astonishingly missed just two races after being dragged from his burning car by fellow drivers and raced to the hospital where he hovered between life and death for several days, is heard saying, "Why do we do this? Why do we do something that is killing so many?"

They did it of course because of that rush, the extraordinary combination of a glamorous life and the old Ernest Hemingway conviction that "the nearer you come to death the more alive you feel".

It was a theory not so easy to dispute on the sun-splashed morning after Hunt's triumph in France – at least not when you accompanied three drivers, Ronnie Peterson, the charging "Super Swede", Brazilian Carlos Pace and the Frenchman Patrick Depailler, on the little ferry from their hotel island of Bendor across the short stretch of sea to the mainland resort of Bandol.

They were bronzed and carefree, it seemed. They had beautiful companions and the drama of their lives stretched on to the next leg of the race between Hunt and Lauda, at Brands Hatch. There, Hunt would be disqualified – and within four years all of the ferry riders would be dead.

Pace died in a light aircraft crash, a few days after his Formula One rival Tom Pryce lost his life in the South African Grand Prix. Peterson was dragged from his car by Hunt at Monza in 1978 but died later in hospital in Milan, partly, it was alleged through medical negligence. Depailler was fatally injured in a private testing session at Hockenheim, the oldest of the trio to lose his life. He was 35.

Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture