James Hunt’s 1977 McLaren F1 race car rushes to auction

Alex Lloyd

James Hunt: The British playboy that encapsulated Formula One's glory years. A man that scored his only world championship title in 1976, edging out Niki Lauda by one point -- a historic season documented in Ron Howard's latest movie, "Rush." His bold personality, wickedly infectious ways and lavish lifestyle made him a legend. And thanks to that publicity, part of Hunt's legacy will head to auction for the first time — his grand-prix winning 1977 McLaren F1 car.

In 1975, Lauda smashed the opposition, winning the F1 world championship for Ferrari. As the '76 season began, Lauda's hot streak continued, with the Austrian claiming victory in four of the first six races. Hunt was racing a McLaren M23, and had won one of the two races Lauda didn't, lagging behind in the championship. But after Lauda's infamous crash at the Nurburgring, where he was pulled from his burning race car left clinging to life with severe burns, the race for the title appeared wide open.

Miraculously, after just two races, Lauda was back on-track, with Hunt having used the world champ's absence to tighten up the championship duel. In the end, Hunt won the title by one point, capturing his opportunity while Lauda proved his courage and tenacity.

In 1977, Hunt initially lacked success, but with McLaren's new M26 race car, the year finished strong with the Brit scoring three wins, including his last ever victory -- occurring at the Japanese Grand Prix in chassis number three. It's this very car that heads to RK Motors Collector Car Auctions on Nov. 1-3.

Powered by a Ford Cosworth V-8, reportedly pushing 485 hp, the aluminum monocoque chassis sports a double wishbone suspension, coil over dampers, and a rack and pinion steering system. Designed by Gordon Coppuck, it was lighter and lower than its predecessor, with a smaller frontal area and narrower cockpit, as designers began better understanding the fundamentals of aerodynamics. Initially the car had issues, and Hunt was not happy. But it was his relentless effort that turned the car into a race winner, as performance of the M26 drastically improved and reliability became less of an issue.

While the M26 Hunt drove to his last ever victory appears to have been used on the vintage racing scene over the years, this is the first time the car has gone to auction. And it's hardly a surprise, given the renewed interest in Hunt with the launch of "Rush," and the extra dollars the preordained timing should fetch. It's a car from an exceptional era of grand prix racing, driven by a racer the likes of which we'll never see again. While Hunt's stories off-track often shadow those he made on, the M26 depicts a time where men were men, and cigarettes were cool.

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