But despite their rivalry never boiling over, the same could not be said for their McLaren and Ferrari teams – who were at loggerheads many times during the fraught campaign.
Perhaps the biggest controversy came on this day in 1976 at the Spanish Grand Prix when Hunt would be stripped of his race victory due to his McLaren M23 being deemed illegal after the race. Here we look at the background to this fascinating controversy.
McLaren M23 top view French GP
The difference was less than a centimetre on either side, with the car measuring 216.8mm, rather than the mandatory 215mm.
There was also a question mark over the position of the M23’s oil cooler and pipework, with the team having placed theirs at the rear of the sidepod and created a cutout to feed them cool air (right image).
Whilst the general idea was sound, it appeared it had misinterpreted the regulations in regard to how the coolers and pipework could be positioned within. The team swiftly made changes and reverted to a more conventional arrangement for the next three races.
James Hunt, McLaren M23 Ford
Rainer W. Schlegelmilch
This hurt performance, with Hunt unhappy with how the car drove over the next few races. As such, a reworked installation appeared for the French Grand Prix, which Hunt duly went on to win with, reinvigorating his campaign.
More good news would follow, as the FIA would convene for the appeal hearing in Paris to deliberate over his disqualification at the Spanish Grand Prix. The post-race decision to disqualify the Brit was overturned and his victory reinstated, pivoting the championship on its axis with the second half of the season still to run.
The other major change to the regulations at the Spanish GP would rid the sport of the tall airboxes that had become commonplace up and down the grid.
James Hunt, McLaren M23
The McLaren M23 featured the tall airbox in the opening three rounds of the championship.
James Hunt, McLaren M23
A shot of the M23 from the front reveals just how high these airboxes had become.
Niki Lauda, Ferrari 312T
Likewise the Ferrari 312T that started the 1976 season sported the much taller airbox to take advantage of being able to get more air to the engine.
James Hunt, McLaren
For the Spanish GP, for which the new rules were introduced, McLaren had opted to split its airbox into two L-shaped ducts mounted alongside the roll over structure.
Niki Lauda, Ferrari 312T2, leads James Hunt, McLaren M23 Ford
Rainer W. Schlegelmilch
Lauda led from Hunt in the early phase of the Spanish GP, his Ferrari 312T2 ditching the tall airbox for elegant and extremely large NACA style ducts embedded within the cockpit fairing that would funnel air back to the engine.
McLaren M23B 1976 detailed overview
The cutaway reveals many details about the M23 including showing how the airflow taken in by the two new airbox inlets will feed the engine with a supply of fresh air.
Ferrari 312T 1976 detailed rear view
A cutaway of the 312T as used in the opening three races with its tall engine cover airbox.
The 312T2 introduced for the Spanish GP did away with the tall airbox, utilising NACA-style ducts at the front of the cockpit fairing which would supply air to the engine.
Alastair Caldwell, McLaren Team Manager and Teddy Mayer, McLaren Team Owner
It might seem a little barbaric by modern standards, but in order to comply with the rules a mechanic is using a hacksaw here to cut a length off the metal rear wing endplate.
A mechanic works on the rear of the car of Jochen Mass, McLaren M23 Ford
Leftfield: Experimental low mounted rear wings were installed on Jochen Mass’ car and tested for the Monaco GP but not raced.
Hunt would go on to win the drivers’ championship that year by just a single point from Lauda, who suffered life threatening injuries in a crash at the Nurburgring but, against all odds, returned to action just three races later at Ferrari’s home race at Monza.
Thanks to Giorgio Piola’s illustrations we’re able to break down the McLaren M23, chronicling a great deal of the car's makeup.
McLaren M23 top and side view
Front wing support
Front anti-roll bar
Adjustable front wing
Front brake ducts
Nose support bracket
Front suspension assembly
Upper rocker arm attachment points
Lower triangle connections (two possible arrangements)
Lower front suspension wishbone
Lockheed brake calipers and ventilated discs
Steering arm attachment on upright
Upper suspension wishbone
Fire extinguisher control auxiliary battery
Instrument panel support
Front roll bar structure
Detachable steering wheel
Central fuel tank that creates the seats back
3kg and 5kg fire extinguishers
Side tank with deformable structure
Bib to help create ‘ground effect’
Cockpit fairing attachment
Central fuel tank
Main roll structure
Medical air cylinder
Radiator protection net
External fire extinguisher pull
Connection between passenger compartment and engine
Oil cooler in regulatory position
Rear brake duct
Rear shock absorber
Starter motor (driven by compressed)
Upper rear suspension support
Lower rear suspension support
Gearbox spacer flange
Upright attachment point
Frame for attaching the upper suspension rod and shock absorber assembly
Adjustable top flange for camber variations
Lower upright attachment point
Rear anti-roll bar
Hewland FG400 6 speed gearbox
New wing support
Connecting point for compressed air to engage starter motor
Dashed line - the left shock absorber assembly
Triangular wishbone, which is lighter than the parallel arms previously used
Rear wing adjuster
Rear wing support and oil recovery tank
Lockheed brake caliper
Pipework to recover oil from the tank
Gearbox oil cooler
Holes in the endplate to very the wings incidence
The wing profile