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A gambler plays out his toughest hand
Keith Botsford
November 01, 1976
EVEN AFTER NIKI LAUDA DROPPED OUT OF THE RAIN-SOAKED JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, JAMES HUNT STILL HAD TO GO ALL OUT TO CAPTURE THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
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November 01, 1976

A Gambler Plays Out His Toughest Hand

EVEN AFTER NIKI LAUDA DROPPED OUT OF THE RAIN-SOAKED JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, JAMES HUNT STILL HAD TO GO ALL OUT TO CAPTURE THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

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On the last lap, Hunt caught sight of Depailler, who had pitted to change a flat tire. "I thought for sure I had to pass Patrick or it would be all over," Hunt said, but he fell short at the finish line by one car length. "I really thought we had blown the championship," Hunt said.

When Hunt pulled into his pit after the finish, he begged a cigarette from his boss, Teddy Mayer, who looked him in the eye and said, "You're a champion!" Hunt didn't believe it until he heard it from an official. And when it sank in, he threw up.

Hours after the race, claiming to be "absolutely drunk," as he had promised he would be the day before, win or lose, Hunt nevertheless had some sensible things to say: "I think it was really a brave decision for Niki to stop. I really feel for him. Under the circumstances he was incredibly courageous. To tell you the truth, I feel that the race should not have been started in those conditions. Niki's decision not to carry on was perfectly reasonable; in his situation, with the accident at N�rburgring and everything, who wouldn't have made the same choice?

"It's a difficult thing, you know, because of course I wanted to win the championship, and I feel I deserved it. But I also feel Niki deserved it. It would have been nice if we could have shared it, but...well, Niki had his turn last year."

Although the qualifying sessions had been clear and dry. Hunt had had to extend himself even then. He set the benchmark time in the first session on Friday morning. But in the afternoon five other drivers had qualified quicker than he. And the next day, in the third and final session, he was unable to improve his grid position until two laps from the end. "I suddenly decided we'd done just about everything to the car that could be done," Hunt said. "There was only one way I was going to get myself up front and that was by putting my foot down as far as it would go." He did, and it was good enough to vault him onto the front row of the 24-car grid.

But Hunt seemed to know it was going to rain the next day. "A race in funny conditions is in the long run to my advantage, as it is to any of the drivers who are thinkers," he had said. "But in the short run, it's a lottery. It's not what I want. I want to win the world championship in a straight fight on straight merit, under proper conditions with no outside factors. No politics, no rain. It will be bad on Niki, to come back after an accident like his and be expected to race in a bloody mess."

Hunt had been facing bloody messes all season himself. He had been counted out in the first half of the year when Lauda was sweeping the board. He had his victory at Spain taken from him; later it was reinstated. At the German GP the winner's trophy tarnished in his hands when Lauda crashed. And he had had another trophy dashed from those hands when his earlier win at the British GP was disallowed after a protest. He appeared to be out of it after the Italians consigned him to the back of the grid at Monza and he had crashed trying to pass the entire field. Then he had come storming back with wins at Canada and Watkins Glen to move to within three points of Lauda.

Now it is his turn to be champion, and he will take it with style—his own, to be sure, which not everyone can appreciate. At least not the waiters at Hunt's hotel in Mount Fuji, one of whom, upon seeing the future world champion playing backgammon in the restaurant wearing a T shirt and no shoes, remarked, "This is not a playhouse, Mr. Hunt." To which Hunt replied, "But the whole world is a playhouse."

Despite his playboy image, Hunt's private conversation often indicates a carefully thought-out philosophy. "I have no models," he says. "I try to pick up the good bits from anywhere, to learn from the strengths. To be like someone else is at best to confuse yourself, at worst to destroy yourself.

"I've always wanted to be an international celebrity. Now that I am, I'm not so sure about it. The main problem is that I can lose my individuality. I need a private life, but now I have to have bouncers at my birthday parties. Success has a lot of edges. I've seen others get inured to it, and it's bad news; I don't want that to happen to me. It would get in the way of a professional performance." That is a remarkable statement for a supposed devil-may-care driver.

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