If a script writer was asked to create the perfect fictional grand prix driver, the end result would not be far from the reality that was James Hunt. Movie star looks and a playboy lifestyle coupled with a reckless disregard for danger, topped off with a life full of incredible drama with a tragic ending. In fact, if a writer did come up with James Hunt, his editor would no doubt throw it back at him, demanding he injected some more realism into the character.
Many F1 fans are not old enough to have witnessed Hunt’s career for themselves, having to do with watered down or embroidered anecdotes, apocryphal tales and second hand stories. Ron Howard's excellent Rush however has brought his all too brief period in the Formula 1 spotlight into the homes, hearts and minds of a new generation.
James Simon Wallis Hunt was born on the 29th August 1947 in the Surrey village of Belmont, a little over ten miles from the center of London. As a teenager, Hunt loved all sports and was a particularly proficient tennis player, competing at junior Wimbledon and it was through tennis that he discovered his love of motor racing. His doubles partner at the time – Chris Ridge, took him to his home one weekend, where James was introduced to his brother Simon who raced Minis. As a group they attended Simon’s race at Silverstone, and so began Hunt’s obsession with motor racing.
After that first race, the headstrong 18 year old decided he was going to be world champion, an ambition however that wasn’t supported by his parents. Hunt was forced to fund his own steps into the sport via a series of odd jobs and begging, borrowing and buying any equipment he could get his hands on. After two years preparing his first car – a mini he’d saved from the wrecker’s yard – it failed the race scrutineers due to the fact it having a garden chair for a driver’s seat. When he was finally allowed to race, the signs weren’t good. He earned the name Hunt the Shunt courtesy of several spectacular crashes that characterized his early races. One particular race ended with his car – with Hunt inside it, in the middle of a lake, an incident that would have almost certainly killed the budding star if he had been able to afford the requisite seatbelts that were mercifully missing.
That incident is a perfect indication of how the world then – and particularly the racing world, was so different from the one we live in now. The sport was an altogether different, purer version. The way cars were driven, how the races were fought and how fans interacted with the drivers and the race are almost unrecognizable from today. It was a world and an age without on board computers and team orders, fans weren’t able to follow the race, interact with other fans and even place bets on the race from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Despite the repeated incidents and accidents, James progressed through the ranks, moving from Formula Ford to Formula 3, occasionally staying on the track long enough to learn his trade and to take the chequered flag. Even so, it is dubious whether his career would have progressed much further if it hadn’t been for the equally eccentric Lord Hesketh.
Lord Hesketh, or The Good Lord as James always referred to him, had inherited a fortune, and for want of anything else to spend it on besides champagne and women had thrown his hand into motorsport. After limited success in Formulas 2 and 3, Hesketh decided to break into Formula 1, the costs being comparable at that time, but the rewards so much greater. For the start of the 1973 season, he chose James “Superstar” Hunt as his number one driver.
The racing fraternity looked upon the team - and Hunt, as something of a novelty act, with the joke doing the rounds that the team consumed more champagne than fuel, and employed more beautiful women than they did mechanics. Despite this, performances on the track made people sit up and take notice of the maverick driver and team. Driving the Harvey Postlethwaite developed March 731, Hunt achieved 2 podium finishes in his debut year, including a very commendable second in the final race of the season, the United States Grand Prix at New York’s notoriously challenging Watkins Glen Circuit.
The following year, in their self-designed and built Hesketh 308, was even better. Though they employed some of the finest engineers and mechanics in the sport, it was their devil may care attitude that characterized the team, and they began to capture the public’s imagination and hearts. Three podium finishes, plus a victory at Silverstone in the non-championship BRDC International Trophy, albeit against the majority of the Formula 1 field, showed definite progress.
The 1975 season saw James record his first Formula 1 victory when took the chequered flag at Zandvoort in the Dutch Grand Prix. Three further podiums meant he would finish 4th at the end of what would be his final season at Hesketh. Lord Hesketh’s funds were running dry, and after failing to find a sponsor was forced to pull the plug on the team, leaving Hunt without a drive. Fortunately, shortly before the start of the 1976 season, Emerson Fittipaldi unexpectedly left McLaren to join his brother’s new team Copersucar-Fittipaldi. Hunt being the only experienced driver without a car took his place. It wasn’t smooth sailing, with James refusing to follow the more corporate ways of his new team, often turning up to functions bare foot, in jeans and t-shirts.
That season however was due to be one of the most thrilling – and controversial - in the sports history, and would be the one that would define James Hunt’s legacy. His doubters – and there were many – claimed that he didn’t have the skills or more importantly the temperament to mount a consistent challenge for the championship. Unperturbed – or more likely spurred on – Hunt claimed pole in the opening race, and won his first race for McLaren at the Spanish Grand Prix, 3 races later. That victory – initially taken from him, after his car was adjudged to be 1.8cm too wide, before being reinstated on appeal – was to set the tone for the season.
Despite a strong start, reliability problems meant that his great friend and rival Niki Lauda had opened up a 35 point lead after the British Grand Prix – another hugely controversial race. An incident on the first lap between the two drivers led to Hunt’s car being damaged, and the race being stopped and restarted. After being prevented from taking a spare car, Hunt’s original was eventually repaired and he took it to rejoin the race he would go on to win. After complaints from Ferrari, the FIA ruled that he was not legally allowed to restart the race and was stripped of the victory and points.
The next round was at Nürburgring, where Lauda sustained near-fatal injuries in an horrific accident. Hunt dominated and won the restarted race, and went on to win the following two races (including another one on appeal at Brands Hatch) meaning he was now only 14 points behind the Austrian. Just six weeks after almost dying in his burning car, Lauda remarkably returned for the Italian Grand Prix, a race where Hunt was forced to start at the rear of the grid due to legal issues with the Texaco Fuel the McLaren was using. On one of his characteristic charges through the field, Hunt spun off, leaving Lauda to finish in 4th and extend his lead at the top of the driver’s championship.
Hunt won the following two hard fought races, leaving him just three points behind his rival going into the final race of the season at Japan. Torrential rain meant the race took place in hazardous conditions. Judging the race too dangerous, and not helped by his inability to blink – a result of his horrific injuries sustained in Germany, Lauda retired after a couple of laps. Out in front, Hunt just had to stay in the top 3 to claim the title. In drying conditions however, the Englishman’s car suffered a puncture, forcing him into the pits. After rejoining the race in 5th, Hunt drove superbly in the remaining laps, overtaking Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni to take that all important 3rd place and claim the World Championship.
After achieving his dream, Hunt’s love affair with the sport began to wane, and he would compete for only another two and a half seasons, winning just three more races. His final race, fittingly at Monaco, the track where his F1 career had begun just six years earlier, saw Hunt retire from the sport after His Wolf failed to complete the race.
For the next thirteen years, James became one of the most loved – and certainly the most outspoken and controversial – commentators on the sport, forming an unlikely and often turbulent partnership with Murray Walker for the BBC.
Aged just 45, James died of a massive heart attack on June 15th 1993 at his home in Wimbledon, only hours after becoming engaged to girlfriend Helen. The sport of motor racing, and the world in general had lost one of the most charismatic, entertaining and unpredictable characters of his and future generations.