RetroGP Gone but not Forgotten
The career of a driver cannot be measured by results alone. Lunger might not have achieved his racing goals, but his life has been anything but ordinary.
Brett Lunger's Formula 1 career is always linked to the Lauda accident where, after crashing into Lauda's burning Ferrari, he bravely stood on the cockpit and pulled the stricken driver from the wreckage by his shoulder straps.
"I would prefer to be known for winning a race rather than having a famous accident".
Courage was not a new thing to Lunger. Before his racing career he had been awarded the American Purple Heart while serving in Vietnam as a US Marine Lieutenant.
“You learn to do what has to be done. It was not a particularly big adrenaline thing. The next time I saw Niki was on the pit road at Monza in practice, his head all bandaged. He walks up to me, looks me in the eye and all he says is ‘Zank you’. He turned on his heels and walked away, but it was enough.”
What Brett didn’t tell anyone at the time was that his father had died the day before the accident.
Lunger competed in 43 GPs, but failed to score a world championship point. In the paddock he was considered a rich kid. He was a member of the Du Pont dynasty, one of America’s wealthiest families. What the racing world didn’t know however was that Lunger would not actually inherit his fortune until he was 55.
Lunger had unquestionable talent. He won his first-ever professional sports car race and Formula 5000 races on both sides of the Atlantic. On his Grand Prix debut, in a Hesketh he had never even tested, he out qualified Mario Andretti and Mark Donohue.
“I was not brought up with motor racing and my introduction came completely by chance when a friend suggested I join him on a trip to a New Jersey race. Immediately the competitive nature of motor sports grabs you; I was a very competitive person and wanted to be part of it.
I didn’t have enough money to fly to races, so I drove everywhere in a van. But this meant I would get into town early. I’d look up the name of the local TV and radio stations, call them up and say my name real fast, so they weren’t quite sure who I was, say I was coming to race and got on the air, promoting myself, my sponsor and the event. That got the attention of the L&M PR guy Rod Campbell, and he would later help my F1 career.
Rod and my brother David were able to put together some sponsorship and talked to some F1 teams about the following year. But then Hesketh had cashflow worries that gave me the chance to do the final three races of the season, alongside James Hunt. That car was easy to drive and great on fast circuits. The first time I drove it was in practice for the Austrian GP, where I qualified 17th and finished 13th. Next time out I was 10th at Monza, then retired at the Glen after an accident.
The following year I drove for John Surtees in a TS19. People keep telling me that he was a difficult man, but that is not what I found. He was dead honest. If he thought you had screwed up he told you. I was very glad to have driven for him. I did make a mistake by not moving to Kent and immersing myself in the team, which would have helped.
We then moved to BS Fabrications, Bob Sparshott’s team. He had a deal to run the previous year’s McLarens. When the M23 came it was a great car and better than the M26 I drove in the latter part of 1978, because McLaren had missed the ground-effects boat.”
During a season in which there were as many as 36 drivers attempting to qualify, Lunger missed the cut just once and finished regularly among the top 10 or 12.
In his last F1 season, Lunger continued with BS, starting with the M23 and switching to the unloved M26 at Monaco, where he failed to qualify. His final Formula 1 race was his home Grand Prix, where he switched to Morris Nunn’s Ensign team and came home 13th.
Did Lunger have any regrets about his career?
“Yes. You go in to win the world championship, not make up the numbers, and I failed. My failure was not so much on the track, as not putting the right things in place to prepare for the track. This profession is 24/7. There should be no distractions; you are on duty the whole time and I learned that too late.”
Arturo Merzario, Track Marshall (unknown) Harald Ertl and Lunger receive their awards for saving Lauda.
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