James Hunt rises above a dark day at the Nurburgring. (LAT archive)
36 years ago today, James Hunt's victory and Niki Lauda's near-fatal crash at the old, 14-mile-plus Nurburgring marked the turning point in the epic season that will be the subject of Ron Howard's upcoming movie, Rush.
At the start (ABOVE), Clay Regazzoni took the lead in his Ferrari ahead of pole winner Hunt (McLaren) and a fast-starting Jochen Mass. However, most drivers stopped at the end of the first lap to switch to switch to dry tires. Among them was Lauda (RIGHT) who, pushing hard to make up for the lost time, lost control at the fast left-hand kink before the Bergwerk right-hand curve. His Ferrari 312T2 snapped to the right and spun through the fencing into an earthen bank – there were no barriers. The car rebounded onto the track, enveloped in flames. Guy Edwards managed to avoid the Ferrari but Harald Ertl and Brett Lunger both struck the wrecked car. All three drivers stopped and, along with Arturo Merzario, tried to get Lauda out of the inferno, as the remoteness of the accident scene meant that rescue workers could not arrive for some minutes.
By the time the three drivers had managed to extricate him, Lauda – whose helmet had been ripped off by the force of the impact – had suffered serious burns and was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Koblenz. The Austrian subsequently was transferred to Germany's most advanced burn ward at the time, where he fought for his life for the next several days.
The race had been red-flagged, but most cars had pulled off at the crash site, which had all but blocked the narrow track. Chris Amon decided not to take the restart – indeed, the veteran of 96 grands prix decided to retire from the sport immediately, because he was so traumatized by what he had seen.
In clear weather Hunt took the lead at the restart and dominated the remainder of the 14-lap race to win over Jody Scheckter's Tyrrell, but there was little joy on the podium (LEFT). They naturally assumed the reigning World Champion had lost his life, or at least his driving career. But, incredibly, just 39 days later, he would be back in a Formula 1 Ferrari, finishing fourth in the Italian Grand Prix, and his title battle with Hunt was renewed.