Wednesday, 9 October 2019

James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda 1976 - The Greatest Ever Formula One World Championship?

As great sporting rivalries go, they don't come any more tense or bitter than that which existed between British playboy racing car driver James Hunt and his steely Austrian competitor Niki Lauda. And nowhere did this stark contrast of style and character manifest itself more explosively than in the unforgettable Formula One World Championship of 1976.

The consummate professional, Lauda had already established himself as the man to beat after having won the championship the previous year. Hunt, having joined the sport from Formula Three driving - and winning - for the Hesketh team, signed up for McLaren in 1975. His daring and skill rapidly identified him as one to watch and, combined with his flamboyant personality and pop star lifestyle, he fast became a celebrity whose fan base extended well beyond the somewhat niche world of motor racing.

Thus the stage was set for a showdown in the extraordinary year that was 1976 between the bad boy from Belmont and the dedicated, methodical Lauda, born into a wealthy Viennese paper manufacturing family. The season featured the World Championship of Drivers and the International Cup for Formula One Manufacturers, which were contested concurrently over a sixteen-race series starting on January 25th and concluding on October 24th. The season also included two non-championship races. As he had done in the previous, winning year, Lauda drove for Ferrari.


The season began in São Paulo, Brazil. After having initially claimed pole position Hunt crashed from the race with a sticking throttle, handing Lauda victory in his first defence of his title of the previous year. A similar scenario played out in the next race in South Africa, although on this occasion the Briton did at least manage to place second. In the third race, in the US, the Austrian had to settle for the second spot, though still finished ahead of his rival.

The fourth race, at Jarama near Madrid, saw the first of a series of controversies that were define this memorable year in Formula One racing history. After having beaten Lauda into second place with his first F1 victory of the campaign Hunt was then disqualified due to his car allegedly having been 1.8 centimetres too wide, only to be reinstated as the winner on appeal some two months later.

It wasn't until the ninth contest that Formula One came to the UK, in July, with James Hunt determined to triumph before his home crowd at Brands Hatch. In the event though Lauda took pole position, forcing his rival into an early second spot. At one point the race had to be restarted after debris was cleared from the track following a minor collision in which Hunt was involved, and he and two other drivers recommenced driving new vehicles. Lauda remained in the lead until his gearbox malfunctioned, allowing the Englishman to overtake him and to relegate him to second place.

However, more controversy was to follow. After the crash James Hunt had taken a shortcut to the pit by means of an access road, which meant that technically he had not completed the course. Ferrari contested that the rules stated that even if a race was suspended, drivers still had to follow the course before accessing the pit. A hearing was held in September at which Hunt was disqualified and Niki Lauda was awarded the win.


But the race that will be remembered forever will be the West German GP, which took place on the on the deadly Nürburgring track in Nürburg. The mountainous Nordschleife section of the road was fourteen miles long, nearly three times longer than Interlagos which was the next longest circuit on the calendar and seven times longer than the Monaco street circuit. It had already claimed a number of victims and as the competition's safety spokesperson Lauda proposed a boycott of the event. When drivers took a show of hands he was defeated by one vote, and the race went ahead.

On the second lap of the race Lauda lost control of his car due to a probable rear suspension failure whilst driving at high speed on the wet track, and crashed into barriers before bouncing back. The car became engulfed in flames. Lauda was pulled out of the burning car by some fellow drivers, and was rushed to hospital where we was read the last rites by a priest. He died and was resuscitated on two occasions. Some obituaries were already written and ready to be published. But incredibly Niki Lauda not only survived the lung damage and the severe burns, which left his face permanently disfigured, but he was back on the grid for the Italian GP just six weeks later. "I said then and later that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly," he was later to comment. "That was a lie. But it would have been foolish to play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza, I was rigid with fear."


The sixteenth and final race in the Championship took place in Japan. Before the start of the race, Lauda was still leading Hunt by three points in the tournament. But once again conditions were treacherous, and many of the drivers (including both Lauda and Hunt) argued that it was too dangerous to proceed. Bullied by the demands of the TV companies, their protestations were overlooked and the race went ahead in sheeting rain.

In Lauda's case his difficulties were compounded by the fact that his accident in Germany had left his tear ducts damaged which rendered him unable to blink in the spray. Under protest, he performed two laps and retired from the race. At the finish Hunt came home in third place, overtaking Lauda's points tally and thereby handing him the 1976 Formula One World Championship.

The excellent 2013 film Rush depicts the fierce rivalry between these two gladiators of the race track wonderfully, but what perhaps does'’t quite come across is the sheer love and respect that existed between them. They were friends before, during and after the epic battles of 1976 and Lauda was especially touched when Hunt announced, after winning the Championship in Japan that year: "I wanted to win the championship, and I felt that I deserved to win the championship. I also felt that Niki deserved to win the championship, and I just wish we could have shared it."

Tragically, James Hunt died from a heart attack in 1993 at the age of just 45. Lauda went on to enjoy a long career in Formula One as a driver and manager, also writing five books and even setting up his own airline Lauda Air. He died in May 2019, aged 70, following kidney problems.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Remembering the Summer and Winter Olympics of 1976

1976 was an Olympic year, and the choice of Montreal as the host city had, as has so often been the case in more recent years, been to some extent a political decision.

It was the Cold War era and the Canadian city had staged its bid in competition with Los Angeles and Moscow. With the more enthusiastic adherents of their respective political systems loyally lining up behind one or other of the two during the voting process, many smaller nations plucked for Montreal as the closest thing to a neutral option. When Los Angeles was eliminated from the race having secured the least votes, all those countries who had backed it switched their support to Montreal, which as a consequence overtook Moscow as the venue of preference and eventually won the gig by 41 votes to 28.

But before Montreal came Innsbruck, and what is normally very much the poor relation of the "real" Olympics became, in 1976, a cause of celebration for British sports fans as the sublimely talented skater, the late John Curry, scooped up the gold medal in the Men's Singles Figure Skating at the Winter Olympics.


The 1976 Summer Olympics, or to give its proper name the Games of the XXI Olympiad, was the first Olympic Games ever to be staged in Canada. It got off to a bad start after being boycotted by nearly thirty mostly African countries in protest against the failure of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban New Zealand from participating after that country's rugby team had toured apartheid South Africa earlier in the year in defiance of a UN embargo.

Taking place just four years after the horrific Munich massacre, security was understandably at its height. The Games were opened by Queen Elizabeth II, who had an added interest in proceedings as her daughter Princess Anne was a competitor as a member of the British equestrian team.


The unplanned extinguishing of the Olympic Flame during a rainstorm did not succeed in dousing the excitement of the 15-day event, which saw East Germany finish second and ahead of the United States in the tally of gold medals. Only the Soviet Union did better. In boxing Sugar Ray Leonard, Leo Randolph and the Spinks brothers Leon and Michael all won gold medals for the US before going on to become professional world champions in later years. Latter-day Flying Finn Lasse Virén repeated his double win of 1972 with victory in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres, becoming in doing so the first runner to successfully defend a 5,000-metre win (although this was since equalled by Britain's Mo Farah in 2016).

But possibly the most enduring image of the Olympics from that scorching summer of 1976 was that of 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci, who became the first ever to perform a set with total perfection by scoring 10 across the board.

In all she won three gold medals. The anticipated showdown between Comăneci and the great Byelorussian Olga Korbut, who had left audiences spellbound at the Munich Olympics in 1972, failed to materialise as the latter was sadly injured and her performances suffered as a result. In the event it was her fellow Soviet Nellie Kim who most impressed for the USSR, but the Romanian youngster had the beating of them all.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Steve Harley - '70s Creative Legend, Ongoing Creative Legend and Good Bloke

Sometime, late in 1974, I by some means or another became the proud owner of the Cockney Rebel LP The Psychomodo.

I'm pretty sure I didn't buy it, at least not at full price and from a shop. I hadn't long had my paper round and in those days, for us pre-teens, investing in a long playing record was like buying jewellery. Then it was all about singles, which were 50p if one purchased them from Memorydiscs or Rumbelows in Hounslow. At Woolworth's they were a penny cheaper, but the appeal of making a saving was always somewhat negated by the possibility of being recognised from a previous excursion by a store detective (not for nothing did it come to be affectionately known as Twickenham's first ever take-away).

My suspicion is that it was swapped at school, maybe for a week's tuckshop allowance or a brace of Donny Osmond singles (in which event good business, in retrospect).


I should stress that Judy Teen and Mr. Soft were already part of my burgeoning singles collection. I wasn't at all unfamiliar with the Cockney Rebel sound. But in my personal hierarchy of inspiration The Psychomodo transformed Steve Harley from a slightly come-lately glam artist with a bit of a difference into a songwriter whose lyrics and sense of the theatrical stood him quite apart from the acts that I'd spent the past two years paying homage to with my pocket money. He ascended in my musical affections to a place where only Bowie, who was already there, had any right to be.

There was something else about 1974, and thereabouts, which deserves a mention. Those who, like me, first discovered pop music when it was at its glammiest, in my case during the peak Slade-Sweet-Glitter era of 1972-73, felt just a twinge of disconcertment when the genre seemed to tweak itself in the direction of 1950s nostalgia a year or so later. When Mud became teds, when Showaddywaddy won New Faces, when Suzi Quatro released an LP full of old rock'n'roll covers, when The Rubettes sang about jiving in '55, and when David Essex appeared in That'll Be The Day, something was happening which I didn't entirely get.

Sure I bought many of their records and even turned up to school in a pair of pink luminous socks (albeit discreetly hidden beneath my ample flares out of respect for the regulations). But it wasn't glam was it?

It was because Harley wasn't glam in the same sense as Bolan or Glitter or Noddy Holder, but rather added charisma and creativity to the most enduring remnants of what was always going to be a very temporary and transient genre, that he continued to grow as the sequins began to sprinkle away and the platform boots gradually, and incrementally, descended back to terra firma.


Not that that was a complete consolation to me at the time. I still pined longingly for the foot-stomping, loon-panted days of my distant past of two years back. And my obsession with charting the hits as the radio announced their latest movements every Tuesday lunchtime waned rather a lot. But whilst the pure glam acts which had not quite gone away struggled ever more desperately to make the Top 30, Bowie and Harley stood tall before their respective fan bases, alongside other quality artists of the time such as Rod Stewart and Elton John.

It was in that context that The Psychomodo made a real and lasting impression on me. I wasn't sure I knew what the songs were about, and was not entirely convinced that the writer did either (of his earlier classic Sebastian Harley himself subsequently said: "Sebastian is possibly a sort of Gothic love song, possibly not: I'm not really sure to be honest … It's poetry. It means what you want it to mean").

Indeed, I've long been of the view that the mark of a great song is not so much about what it means to the person who wrote it as what it means to the person listening to it.

With that in mind, The Psychomodo to me is about fishing under Staines Bridge with my schoolmates. It's about wearing pink luminous socks and wedges that I didn't feel altogether comfortable about wearing. It's about thinking it was about time I had a girlfriend, as all my fellow thirteen-year-olds had girlfriends with whom they enjoyed exhilarating sexual relationships (or so they told me, so it must have been true). It's about going on rambles with the church club, and growing my hair long, and staying out till ten.


But essential though it was to me and to my life at the time, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel can hardly be defined by one album; by one moment in time. He and they had already released The Human Menagerie, which joined my back catalogue as soon as my paper round wages would allow. And in 1975, of course, came The Best Years Of Our Lives, which was arguably stronger still and in tribute to which I named my novel, set in 1976 (we were always a few months behind the release date when it came to buying albums).

Which brings us conveniently to that year, which after all is what my writing is mostly about, and the contribution made to it by Harley, both in terms of the bigger musical picture and of my own personal experience. During 1976 he and Cockney Rebel recorded two studio albums, Timeless Flight and Love's a Prima Donna, and four singles, two of which for me helped to define that wonderful year and the life that I had come to lead and enjoy.

The first, White, White Dove, was an awesome song. It never quite made the UK Top 50, which didn't really surprise me as it was lyrically quite deep, or at least it gave that impression. Lots of stuff about the Rosicrucians, which meant precisely nothing to me at the time and doesn't mean a great deal even now. But it extolled peace, and in the battles which I and those around me fought for dominance in our neighbourhood it was an option that always had a certain appeal, especially when things weren't going particularly well for us. For some reason I remember that I picked up my copy from the local newsagent's, some weeks after it had "peaked". Harley never performed it at any of the gigs I attended in later years, which I will always consider a great shame, but he did appear with it on Supersonic (a latter-day rival to Top Of The Pops) around the time of its release.

And then there was Here Comes The Sun. Usually for me a certain disappointment accompanies the recording of a cover version by a creative artist. It's okay when you're Rod Stewart performing Sailing and in so doing effectively taking ownership of it. But this was a Beatles classic! Nevertheless it could not have been more apt as it provided the backdrop to what was the most glorious summer in living memory (there have been hotter ones since but seasons induced by global warming, like athletes on steroids, don't really count). It also, as cover versions go, happened to be very, very good.


Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel still perform live today, drawing respectable attendances although smaller, in my opinion, than they deserve. He has written a whole lot of new material since the 1970s, including a beautiful number entitled A Friend For Life which has been covered by Rod Stewart. Cannily he tends to mix his old material up with the new for the benefit of his largely mature audience.

He also, so I'm reliably told, has the added benefit of being a thoroughly nice bloke. Certainly when I sent him a copy of my novel he was decent enough to take the trouble not only to read it (twice), but also to send me some words of encouragement which he gave me permission to use in my subsequent promotional material. I'm only too aware that he's a busy man and didn't have to do that.

On stage he exudes just about enough ego to carry off the pop star thing, whilst at the same time somehow remaining self-deprecating. It's a difficult balancing act which he has managed to perfect over the years. My wife, my friends and I will be seeing him and the band perform for the umpteenth time shortly before Christmas, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to it as I always do.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Third Cod War (1975-76)

Anybody who remembers the 1970s will recall the sense of stark fear that pervaded during the Cold War, when the West and the Soviet Union fought proxy battles around the world and faced off behind their respective formidable nuclear arsenals. Everyone knew that if the balloon went up there would be no winner, and that there was no defence against an incoming missile beyond taking your living room door off its hinges as per the ludicrous government advice booklet published around that time - in the unlikely event that you could do so within the four minutes allowed to you - and saying a quick prayer.

So it came as some relief that the country we decided to have a real war with was little Iceland. Not that it was a war involving tanks or missiles, but rather a war involving fish, and in particular cod. Wikipedia describes it as having been a "militarised interstate dispute". Which isn't quite the same thing as a war, but it did still involve a lot of flag-waving and a certain amount of diplomatic parry and thrust. And gunboats.

Cod was a big issue in the 1970s, and this ex-maritime superpower which once coloured half the world in red was not going to have its fish stocks threatened by some chilly little island with a population not much bigger than that of Hounslow.


By 1976 there had already been two modern cod wars between Britain and Iceland. Humiliatingly, we had been whopped in both of them. A previous conflagration had actually resulted in a death - that of an Icelandic engineer, who had sadly suffered a fatal accident whilst repairing a boat that had collided with a British vessel.

The 1976 Cod War in fact began in November 1975, following Iceland's unilateral decision to expand its UN-agreed 100-mile fishing limit to 200 miles. The United Kingdom did not recognise the new exclusion zone and continued to fish within in, which resulted in British trawlers having their nets cut by the Icelandic Coast Guard. This in time escalated to a point where frigates and gunboats became involved. A live round was eventually fired which struck the British tug Star Aquarius.

In response, a large British fleet was dispatched to the region by the Royal Navy without the prior knowledge of the Prime Minister or the government. Several confrontations and skirmishes ensued, and Iceland looked to quickly enhance its capability by purchasing gunboats from the United States. When this request was denied, it turned instead to the Soviet Union for help.


But the defining moment in the war was when Iceland threatened to close the NATO base at Keflavik and itself to withdraw from the organisation. This would have had serious consequences for the alliance, as it would have resulted in the closure of the "GIUK gap" which was of vital strategic importance to NATO's anti-submarine capabilities.

Under pressure from NATO, the UK capitulated once more and agreed to recognise a 200-mile exclusion limit off the coast of Iceland. In return Iceland agreed to permit up to 24 British trawlers to continue to fish within the zone, subject to an agreed maximum catch.