HAD James Simon Wallis Hunt been born a couple of generations earlier, he might have been a Spitfire pilot or an Arctic explorer or a dashing captain in the Flanders trenches. But he came of age in the late 1960s, when world wars were thin on the ground and just about the most dangerous and exhilarating thing a young man of action could do was Formula One racing.
Hunt took to it like a duck to water and struck up a deadly rivalry with Austrian driver Nikki Lauda. Their passionate enmity forms the basis of a hugely entertaining film from Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan which opened here yesterday.
Rush brilliantly recaptures the glory days of Formula One, when drivers were almost as important as the cars they manned and the risk of sudden death was palpable. Australian actor Chris Hemsworth is perfectly cast as the suave ladies' man Hunt, and Spanish star Daniel Bruhl gives an exceptional portrayal of the dry and driven Lauda.
Back in the early 1970s, Formula One cars were so volatile and carried so much fuel that they were jokingly compared to bombs by their drivers, an average of two of whom died in action every season. Rush explores the reasons why these often wealthy young men chose to risk horrific injury or death on a regular basis, and makes it clear that Hunt and Lauda did so for very different reasons.
In fact the two men couldn't have been more dissimilar. Hunt had been born into a solidly respectable middle class family of lawyers and accountants. Raised in the home counties and educated at public schools, he seemed bound for a staid life commuting in and out of London city.
But James had been a highly strung risk-taker from an early age, and once said his life only "really began" when he passed his driving test at the age of 17. Hunt loved cars, and by the time he was 20 he was racing Minis and Fords. He graduated to Formula Three in 1969, and became notorious for his daredevil tactics and tendency to cause crashes.
But he was talented, and rose through the ranks driving cars backed by an eccentric nobleman called Lord Hasketh. Hunt first competed in Formula One in 1973, and really hit the big time in 1976, when he was signed up by McLaren and finally had the chance to compete on level terms with the reigning world champion, Nikki Lauda.
Lauda and Hunt had first crossed swords when both were competing in Formula Three, and Rush depicts an incident where Hunt passed the Austrian on his way to victory, causing Nikki to crash. It was here, apparently, that the great enmity was born, and the story is presumably true because Lauda was closely consulted by the film's writer, Peter Morgan.
Lauda was born into a very wealthy Viennese family, and his overbearing father was outraged when his son refused to join the family business and took up motor racing instead. Displaying the fierce determination that would later see him through a terrible accident, Lauda took out a huge bank loan on the strength of his family's name and used it to buy his way into the BRM Formula One team.
His driving skill and flair for car modification soon won him a place as second driver at Ferrari, for whom he won the Driver's Championship in 1975. For Lauda, the lure of Formula One was simply about "controlling these cars and testing your limits – that is why people race, to feel the speed, the car and the control".
But he would not go beyond what he considered an acceptable level of risk. "In my time if you pushed too far, you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive."
But James Hunt was more romantic about racing. "If I get into a car on a circuit I drive as fast as I can, that's it!" His daring moves and hair's breath over-takings made him a poster boy for the sport. With his flowing blonde locks and movie star good looks, he became a tabloid idol, especially as he seemed to be living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle people expected Formula One drivers to lead.
Hunt envied Lauda's success on the track; Lauda has admitted that he envied Hunt full-stop, and for a time at least the pair apparently couldn't stick the sight of each other. Their bitter rivalry came to a head during the extraordinary 1976 Formula One season, and though Lauda at first forged ahead as Hunt and McLaren suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks, the Englishman began to rally with a string of race victories.
Hunt won again in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, but that race was overshadowed by Nikki Lauda's dreadful accident. After a suspected rear suspension failure, his Ferrari swerved off the track, hit an embankment and burst into flames. Lauda was trapped in the inferno for over 10 seconds before two other drivers pulled him out: he suffered horrific burns to his face and body, and badly damaged his lungs.
He had extensive scarring to his upper head, lost half an ear, his eyebrows and his eyelids, and endured gruelling skin grafts and brutal siphoning of his lungs. He might have died but instead he miraculously rallied, and within six weeks and just two championship races, he was back in a car for the Italian Grand Prix, in which he managed to finish a heroic fourth while Hunt spun out and didn't finish, leaving the title race wide open.
The battle for the championship reached its climax at the Japanese Grand Prix, a race brilliantly recreated in Rush. In driving rain and atrocious conditions, Nikki Lauda retired after a few laps because of the obvious dangers, and Hunt overcame a late near-blowout to finish fourth and grab the title.
But what happened next says a lot about both men. The courageous and extraordinarily committed Lauda repaired to Ibiza with his new wife to lick his wounds and prepare for another season. He won his title back in 1977 and again in 1984, and went on to become a successful businessman.
But winning once seemed to be enough for Hunt. In the aftermath of his Japanese victory James went on a legendary bender that apparently involved a large number of British Airways hostesses. And he was so drunk by the time he landed at Heathrow for a civic reception that he almost fell down the steps off the plane.
Already famous for his high living, Hunt embraced his new celebrity a little too wildly. His subsequent partying exploits might have been legendary but did him no favours. He had a poor season in 1977, retired two years later, and a potential comeback in the late 1980s never materialised.
He eventually gave up drinking and was just getting his life back together when he died suddenly of a suspected heart attack in 1993, at the age of just 45. But in later years, Hunt and Lauda actually became friends. As a result of that bitter battle through the summer of 1976, the two drivers developed a new respect for each other, and Nikki later helped James when he was down on his luck.
No one can say for sure what James Hunt would think of Rush, but I suspect he'd rather like it. And in a recent interview, Nikki Lauda said: "I wish he'd been here to see the movie. It would have been the best."