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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.