James Hunt - Foe and Friend

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Eoin Young

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The 1976 World Champion was always a controversial figure in the paddock, causing one journalist to have serious doubts when approached to write his biography
By Eoin Young

James Hunt was the first Grand Prix driver I really disliked.

It was, I suppose, a result of me being a member of the establishment, schooled in manners and diplomacy by Bruce McLaren. And if James specialised in anything apart from driving very fast, it was tweaking the nose of the establishment. He flatly refused to conform. He had surfed into Formula 1 on the foaming Hesketh champagne wave. The portly, wealthy young Lord Hesketh had come up through the proper schools, so he knew how to behave. It amused him to see the outrage in the paddocks of the world when he arrived with his helicopters and Rolls-Royces.

James was his perfect driver.

After the Hesketh team withdrew from F1, James was ideally placed when Emerson Fittipaldi suddenly announced that he was leaving McLaren. Team boss Teddy Mayer was a member of the establishment brigade and Hunt probably didn’t come very high on his list of prospective drivers; it was rather as Nigel Mansell would come to McLaren 20 years later. Hunt’s advantage was that he was the only available driver with any form, and team sponsor Marlboro was happy to have him on board. Mayer and Hunt rode with an uneasy alliance that stormy season of 1976, which ended in Japan with an enraged Hunt shouting abuse at Mayer at the end of the race in which he had clinched the World Championship. James was under the impression that Teddy had given him wrong pit signals and lost him the title — instead of winning it for him!

The Sunday after that wet race in Japan I was back home in East Horsley, Surrey when the telephone rang just before lunch. It was a publisher who said he had Hunt in his office and would I be interested in writing a book with James on his championship victory? I said I wouldn’t. Surprised, the publisher wanted to know why. I said I thought writing books was a chore, there wasn’t enough money in it, and besides, I didn’t like James Hunt. There was a long pause, and then the publisher said he thought he might be able to do something about the money. He offered £3500. To me in 1976 that was a king’s ransom. But there was a catch — the book had to be completed in two weeks and James would be at his home in Marbella during that fortnight. I asked him to phone back after lunch.

My wife Sandra agreed that it was worth me being away for 14 days to earn that much money. When the publisher phoned back for my decision I took a deep breath and said his fee wasn’t high enough. He immediately increased it by £1000 and I immediately accepted.

I flew to Malaga where James had booked me into the Marbella Club. We talked and taped in the mornings, and I transcribed and wrote in the afternoon and into each evening. So much for the delights of Marbella — I never saw more than the walls of my room. To try and speed up the process James arranged for an English secretary to transcribe the tapes. I told her I wanted to know exactly what James said, not what she thought he said. It was taking me an hour to transcribe a tape, but this poor girl spent an entire morning on one tape and phoned in tears to say she’d only transcribed two pages.

“What’s the problem?” Tasked, puzzled. “He never completes a sentence,” she sobbed. “I have no idea what he’s talking about…” I listened to a tape I was working on and realised she was right. I had been automatically finishing sentences for him, the way I did with Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme when I used to write their columns.

Seven days after agreeing to do the book I was back in London with the completed manuscript. The deal had been one-third payment on signing the contract, one-third on delivery of the manuscript and the final payment on the publisher’s acceptance. The book was completed so quickly that I received all the money while my solicitor was still trying to unravel the contract. I told him not to bother. Then the problems arose.

David Benson of the Daily Express had written an instant paperback on Hunt’s title season and ‘our’ publisher panicked. They took the decision not to go head-to-head against the other book, which had the newspaper’s backing, even though our book was by the champion himself. I had a funereal phone call from the publisher to say that they were desperately sorry, but they were delaying publication until the following year. I was on a lump-sum deal without royalties, so it really wasn’t my problem. I’d done my bit. The book was now their problem.

Early in the new year I had a call from Peter Hunt, James’s brother and manager, saying that the book now had a new publisher and they wanted three more chapters to update it — a chapter on James’s early life and one after the Argentine and Brazilian Grands Prix. No problem, I said, £1500 for each chapter and I’m your man.

There was a pause. Peter said, “Eoin, I’m afraid your contract commits you to supplying copy to publisher’s acceptance and the publisher wants three more chapters.”

I asked if he had a copy of the contract with my signature on it, and I could hear him rustling through files. “I think my copy must be a working copy. It doesn’t have any signatures on it,” he said. I told him that if he could find a copy of the contract with my signature on it I’d be happy to do the final three chapters for nothing, knowing full well that he wouldn’t because I had never signed the contract in the first place. I’d just written the book in record time before the contract had been cleared with my legal man. At my suggestion, and with James’s agreement, the book was titled Against All Odds and the extra chapters were written by David Hodges.

Working with James on the book I’d been able to see the other side of him, a serious side if there was such a thing, or at least a different side from the one he displayed when he was “showing off”, as my mother used to put it if I was misbehaving at home in the colonies.

We must have reached something of a personal accord because at the 1979 Belgian Grand Prix, in my PR role, I was lunching with guests at the Elf motorhome when an emissary from the Wolf team arrived to say that James Hunt wanted to talk to me. I suggested he might tell James he was welcome to join us for lunch. The emissary looked nervous. Hunt had said it was important. On the way to the Wolf motorhome I was wondering what I could have written that would result in a private carpeting. I was ushered through to the personal Hunt quarters where he was sitting at a table smoking and looking very serious.

“You’re the only person I can trust in the paddock and what I am going to discuss with you is extremely confidential,” he said. “I’m going to quit. I’m announcing my retirement from Formula 1 at Monaco and I want you to handle the arrangements.”

And this from the driver I couldn’t abide. I said, “Now James, hang on a minute. Can we pretend you never told me that and I’ll leave now because I don’t want any part in this.”

Eventually we agreed that I would come to his hotel that evening after dinner and he would tell me what he had in mind. Our usual evening on a race weekend involved ‘The Cartel’ — Denis Jenkinson, Nigel Roebuck, Alan Henry, Maurice Hamilton and me — having dinner that would stretch to coffees and a liqueur or so. When I announced that I was slipping away straight after dinner they demanded to know where I was going and why. They said they would follow me. They didn’t.

Hunt, myself and his then-girlfriend Jane Birbeck retired to their room so that James could go through all the reasons why he wanted to stop doing what he was best at. Jane’s nickname was Hottie, an abbreviation of her original nickname ‘Hot Loins’ bestowed by James. Having a dizzy blonde on board for this exercise did not bode well, but Jane was a good deal more in command of the situation than James was. A very sensible, down-to-earth young lady, dizzy she definitely wasn’t. In fact I came to wonder what she was doing with an off-thewall cove like James.

Basically Hunt was scared, but scared in a rational sort of way. He had weighed his chances of winning in the Wolf against the chances of having an accident trying to stay on the pace, and decided that the odds of hurting himself were increasing. I agreed that when a driver even starts to entertain such thoughts it’s time to stop. But stopping at Monaco, I felt, was definitely a bad move. Hunt’s retirement announcement would get swept away in the euphoria of the race weekend and rate only a sidebar mention alongside the sports report when he deserved better. But I still didn’t want to be involved. I agreed instead not to breathe a word to anyone.

One afternoon my wife Sandra came into my office to say she’d just heard on the news that Hunt had retired. I feigned surprise. A few minutes later the phone rang. It was James. I said I had heard he’d retired and he laughed.

“It’s a madhouse in here. Barrie Gill is on the phone next door shouting down the line, something about ‘today he was the first journalist to learn that James Hunt was retiring’.”

I asked if he’d mind if I told the story as it had unfolded from that day at Zolder, and he said to go for it. It made a full-page Autocar column, on a driver I’d started out disliking intensely.

James settled down to get his kicks from commentating on the BBC with Murray Walker. His confidence and ease at the mic were highlighted by the subsequent difficulties in replacing him as a foil for Murray.

In later years, when the money had gone and James was relying on his BBC contract, he was a different person. He was a regular at our Barley Mow motor racing lunches in East Horsley, driving down in his Austin A35. At one lunch he was having a lively conversation with Ken Tyrrell, who mentioned some comment James had made against a Tyrrell driver on TV. “James, there are some times when you should keep your mouth shut on the television.” James replied, “Oh, I know, Ken. The problem is that the BBC pays me to keep it open!”

Different people, different days…

DSJ on…
James Hunt’s World Championship win and F1 retirement didn’t impress our man on the scene

Motor Sport, December 1976

At the Japanese Grand Prix, some of the drivers wanted the race cancelled as they considered the conditions too dangerous. What they really meant was that it was too difficult. Statistics show that racing in the rain is actually safer than in the dry and I cannot recall the last fatal accident in Formula 1 in the rain. It could have been Jo Schlesser in 1968. It is driving a car over the limit that is dangerous, and more people do that in the dry than in the wet. As many people have said, accidents are mostly in the driver’s right foot, and the throttle works both ways. I am not suggesting that racing in the rain is easy, far from it, but I do say that it is no more dangerous than in the dry, but it is much more difficult. So if we are going to withdraw from a race, like Lauda did in Japan (and Pace and Fiffipaldi as well), let’s make it quite clear that it was because it was too difficult for them, not too dangerous.

Lauda’s withdrawal from the Japanese race left Hunt with a hollow victory in the points total and the claim to be World Champion for 1976, but Andreffi won the Japanese GP and drove a much more intelligent race under very difficult conditions. Someone has to be World Champion because the rule book says so, but personally I have always maintained that the FIA should be in a position to withhold the title if they did not consider anyone was worthy of it. 1976 is a year in which I would have withheld the award. Hunt was the most successful driver, with seven outright victories, aside from politics and lawyers and tribunals, and that can’t be bad, for the name of the game is ‘winning’, though to look at some of the people in Formula 1 you would think that the name of the game was ‘being there’.

Motor Sport, July 1979

After driving the Wolf WR8 in the time trials for the Gunnar Nilsson Trophy at Donington Park, James Hunt tested for the team at Silverstone and afterwards announced he was retiring from racing there and then. So all those people who supported the Donington meeting saw Hunt drive a racing car for the last time in public. A memorable occasion if you’re a James Hunt fan.

All I want to say is I’m glad he reads Motor Sport and takes me seriously! In my South African GP report I mentioned that Hunt had explained to journalists how he intended to retire because he’d become frightened of hurting himself. I suggested if he felt that way he should retire at once, before he hurt himself. There was the added thought that if he was seriously worried about hurting himself he wasn’t going to drive very hard and take risks, which you have to do to win. He was saying, in effect, that his performances this year were going to be mediocre. He then joined John Watson in a bleat about race winning depending too much on chassis designers, and that the driver didn’t count for enough. Nice compliments to the teams for which they work.

I would instance Scheckter, Villeneuve, Laffite, Depailler, Andreffi and Reutemann as examples of drivers gaffing on with 1979 like any other season, whose sole object is to drive hard and win. There is too much psychological clap-trap in life without bringing it into racing. So James Hunt has gone, but he has left behind quite a mark, for at times he was a lot of fun, he was often inspired, he delighted his followers and on his day he was a good lad, but his passing won’t be mourned.

Denis Jenkinson was our famous Continental Correspondent for more than 40 years.

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