Only now is motorsport beginning to appreciate just what James Hunt represented
Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write about it. Perhaps that is a harsh expression, but most of the time it’s true of motorsport writers. An awful lot are failed or frustrated racing drivers. James Hunt was neither. Instead, he was a remarkable man who rose to the greatest challenge of his life, and then walked away when he decided the risk was no longer worth taking. Then he spoke and wrote about it. Of course, that sort of independent attitude upset purists, but then lames Simon Wallis Hunt was never one to concern himself unduly with the effect his actions had on others.
In tribute to him recently, Ayrton Senna said that lames never spared embarrassment in others if he had a point to make, but never shied away from speaking his mind, either. “I liked him,” said the Brazilian.
It saddens me when detractors suggest that Hunt did not win his World Championship fairly because of Lauda’s misfortune, that somehow he lucked in because of the Austrian’s accident at the Nürburgring. Said Niki after James’ death on June 15: “His McLaren was not as competitive as my Ferrari that year. But James still fought all the way. He was an incredible personality, who always knew how to behave. For me he was the most charismatic personality there has ever been in Formula One.” Hollywood would not dare to duplicate the scenario of that frenetic year, with its plethora of technical arguments, accidents and sheer drama. James took pole position for the opening race in Brazil but it was Lauda who won. The story was the same in South Africa, although that time James was second. Then came that moment of aviation at the start of Long Beach, where Lauda racked up more points finishing second to team-mate Clay Regazzoni.
James finally won in Spain, only to have the victory taken away because of a technical irregularity concerning the width of his McLaren M23’s rear track. Thereafter the team moved the radiators, and in Belgium and Monaco and Sweden he was nowhere as Lauda picked up two more wins and a third. The cause looked utterly hopeless, but then came reinstatement in Spain and victory in France when the radiators had reverted to their original location and the car’s balance had been restored. Even then the points deficit was vast 52 to 26 and then after winning splendidly at Brands Hatch, that victory was taken away on a Ferrari protest that he had failed to finish the first lap of the original race. That was cruel irony, since Regazzoni had triggered the accident in the first place.
Then came Germany, where James won perhaps his best GP in trying circumstances, and Lauda crashed and was given the last rites. The challenge ahead of the lanky blond Englishman still seemed insuperable; ideally he needed to win virtually all of the remaining races. Pole position in Austria evaporated into a win for John Watson. James was only fourth. He won in Holland, was viciously unseated by questionable officialdom in Italy, yet bounced back to win in both Canada and America. That was the true measure of James Hunt as a racing driver, for when the chips were down, he delivered one hundred per cent. History may not remember him as one of the greatest exponents, but he did not flinch from challenge. He and the recovered Lauda went to the final race in Fuji neck-and-neck for the title. James appeared to have victory in the bag after another masterful drive in appalling weather. Lauda withdrew early, barely able to see in the terrible spray, but then Hunt’s aspirations were deflated by a puncture. He drove the rest of the way to the flag in a monumental rage after a pit stop, and it was hours before he could finally be convinced that he had achieved his goal with third place.
He disappointed many in his championship year. Rebelliously, he would turn up barefoot at black tie events clad only in jeans and a tee shirt. The latter often proclaimed an offensive message. He was a John McEnroe figure, could be a difficult brat. The sort that you had to meet head-on. There was the clipped tone of voice, tinged with asperity. He always seemed so sure he was right. Part of that was his education at Wellington, but he had no airs or graces. When Lord Alexander Hesketh put him into his F2 March in 1972, when nobody wanted James Hunt as a driver or Hesketh as an entrant, Fate was truly working overtime, but Hunt summarised his graduation quite simply. “I could speak the Queen’s English and I knew how to hold a knife and fork properly, that was all.”
It wasn’t quite. There was also an aggressive ability to get the most from a racing car. His career began mid 1967 in Minis and progressed through Formula Ford Alexis and Merlyn machinery to an elderly F3 Brabham BT21. He was expected to pursue a career in medicine, but the closest he came was working as a hospital porter to finance his racing. He sold ice cream, too, did anything he could to keep going. He’d played junior tennis at Wimbledon, but racing took over. When he used that ancient Brabham to push Ronnie Peterson’s nascent March 693 all the way to the flag at Cadwell Park in late September 1969, others took notice. He raced the March himself, then bought a Lotus 59 for 1970. There were numerous accidents, which inevitably earned the ‘Hunt the Shunt’ tag. The reputation stuck, though, and in 1972 he was sacked from the works March F3 team.
A promising career seemed doomed until Hesketh came along. After a couple of F2 outings they leapt into F1 and cocked a snook at the Establishment. From third in a Surtees TS9B on their debut in the 1973 Race of Champions, the partners in this marriage of convenience went to Monaco with a new March 731G. It was a tricky little car with a short wheelbase; Jean-Pierre Jarier was stomping over everyone in F2 that year with the works March, but in the F1 car he was going nowhere. With Harvey Postlethwaite engineering his and Bubbles Horsley managing the effort, Hunt suddenly sprang to prominence. Hesketh Racing may have seemed a bunch of upper class twits on a self-indulgent wizard wheeze but suddenly Hunt the Shunt had taken sixth place at Paul Ricard, then a highly competitive fourth at Silverstone only 3.4s adrift of victor Peter Revson. Then there was third at Zandvoort behind the dominant Tyrrells, followed by a superb second to Peterson at Watkins Glen. 1974 brought a comeback victory in the Daily Express International Trophy, when he passed Peterson’s Lotus 76 in a sensational move going through the old Woodcote. In 1975 at Zandvoort came his first Grand Prix triumph as he took Hesketh’s eponymous 308B to a narrow but finely calculated success over Lauda’s Ferrari. The public schoolboys had beaten the Establishment.
Of course, James was always controversial, right from the moment he was outraged to find that he couldn’t race his Mini because he had a deckchair as a seat. Then there was the celebrated F3 incident at Crystal Palace in 1970 when, having collided with Dave Morgan in sight of the line as they fought over second place, he sprang from his wrecked Lotus and felled the March driver. It was all captured on television. . .
That might have been the first time James Hunt held centre stage on the box, but surely it would not be the last. On track he remained a doughty competitor as he scored another three wins in 1977, all of them strong, but McLaren was entering a decline and the quality of his machinery waned. Frustrated, he left at the end of 1978 and headed to Wolf, where Postlethwaite had designed a new car, but this was not competitive enough either. James’ heart was no longer in it. He was frequently so tense before a race that he would retch before climbing into the cockpit, and the danger preyed constantly on his mind. At Monaco, six years after making his Grand Prix debut, he announced his shock retirement. As ever, he was blunt and to the point.
“I’m only interested in driving to win. The car has no chance of doing that. For me, the risk is therefore too great. I’m not interested in racing for sixth place . . .”
Once again, he was living his life on his own terms.
His career as a motor racing commentator took off in 1980 when he joined Murray Walker on the BBC Grand Prix programme, and there he found his new metier. He could indulge his penchant for being outspoken to the full, but in speaking his mind he steadily won over countless fans to the sport as they became entranced by his unique tell-it-like-it-is brand of commentating and his incisive observations. He knew what he was talking about because he had done it himself, and that gave him an unimpeachable platform. He had won the right to strong opinion, and he had a brilliant aptitude for putting that message across. His commentaries of late were peerless.
He also ‘wrote’ magazine and newspaper articles which revealed his acerbic wit and an incisive knowledge of the sport. Usually he would dictate them to a journalist, then tinker with the transcription until it met his satisfaction. He was very careful what he said, anxious that it should be an accurate reflection of his viewpoint on a particular matter. If what he said offended a driver, that was unfortunate, but the niceties of the situation would not deflect him from saying what he thought. That was one of the endearing things about him; you always knew exactly where you were with him.
He also passed his experience on to young drivers, some of it via his connections with Marlboro. He would advise Johnny Herbert, Mika Hakkinen and the like, and when Stefano Modena began to exhibit signs that he’d lost his hunger, earnestly counselled him to retire before he hurt himself. He could be cruel, as those who know the inside story about Riccardo Patrese will attest, but he would always back up what he thought to a person’s face.
His private life was as tempestuous as his sporting career. His 1974 marriage to model Suzy Miller ended when, feeling lonely and deserted while he raced, she sought solace with Richard Burton. His long relationship with model Jane ‘Hottie’ Birbeck ended after nine years, and he settled down again to marry Sarah Lomax. Their relationship ended in divorce. That, and a series of business-related problems, such as the ill-fated James Hunt Racing Centre in Milton Keynes, gnawed at what had once been a sizeable fortune and in recent months he had been living in dramatically straitened circumstances. Ironically, the only people to benefit from the divorce were the lawyers, and shortly before he died he had been granted legal aid to sue those who acted for him. He had a passion for breeding budgerigars, and initially it seemed incongruous to be talking to a former World Champion about such a genteel pursuit. He was happy to talk about them whenever the opportunity arose, but partly through financial necessity, and partly to allow himself more time with sons Tom and Freddie, whom he adored, he sold the collection last year. Only the foul mouthed parrot, Humbert, remained.
His popularity was never higher than at the time of his death, and as usual it has taken his loss for us all to appreciate what we had when he was available for a talk and a joke in an F1 paddock. He had matured into an affable individual who was a valued part of the motor racing scene. Typically, one could only guess the extent of his financial difficulties, because he would never dwell on them or seek pity. There was nothing studied about driving round in his beloved Austin A35 van; he couldn’t afford to use the Mercedes which sat forlornly on bricks, minus its wheels, outside his home in Wimbledon. When he did his quick change from tee-shirt and jeans into suit and tie outside Chelsea Old Church earlier this year, as friends gathered to remember the late Denny Hulme, James was completely unselfconscious. I liked most about him his unending cheerfulness, his lack of pomp and the engaging dignity with which he conducted his life.
He was a good racer who was prepared to do unusual things and who could get away with them, he was rugged and aggressive and as quick as Lauda, able to blend racecraft, speed and courage into victories. He was articulate and amusing, the sort of person you didn’t necessarily have to agree with to like. When he died, his will revealed that he had set aside some money so that his family could have a party. There were instructions that nobody should be unhappy. “Keep charging and keep having fun,” he said. You can still hear him saying those very words, but it will be a while yet before we can recall them without great sadness. D J T