James Hunt. Two words that trigger opinion and emotion. A name that transcends the sport that made him a global superstar, gave him pop idol status. I wonder what they mean to you?
The bare facts are nothing out of the ordinary. World Champion once, by a single point. Ten wins from 92 Grands Prix with three teams over 7 years. But when it comes to James Hunt, it is not the statistics that are of interest, it is the myth, the aura of romance and glamour that continues to fascinate. This most dashing and maverick of men made headlines that the average racing driver could only dream about.
Why? Because he lived and played outside the comfort zone, beyond what is considered to be the acceptable modus operandi of a champion sportsman.
You loved him or you loathed him – few sat on the fence. There were two James Hunts: the megastar driver and later the skilled broadcaster.
Maybe there were two more, the swashbuckling lothario, then later the kind, loving father of Tom and Freddie. You knew all four, sometimes your feet were in more than one camp, but above all none of it was ever dull. The truth can be hard to distil from the tittletattle.
The wider media is not always overly concerned with the truth, often preferring something a little more tasty, a tad more salacious. Here we are concerned with Hunt the racing driver. Highly motivated, with a raging desire to win, talented, super-competitive and, in his heyday, bold and brave on the limit. He could be remote, arrogant even, and was
always tense, idgety, edgy and nervous before a race, prone to throwing up in the hours before the start. As he neared retirement, with some cash in the bank and a life ahead of him, he became scared and increasingly keen
to survive intact.
Two years my elder, James was of my generation and perhaps this is why, upon first acquaintance, I liked him, found myself amused and intrigued by him. We were both sons of middle-class professional fathers, we’d been through public school in the 1960s, emerging as rebels, not keen to play by any more rules, and we took pleasure in raising a finger to the establishment that controlled our formative years. I understood the tatty jeans, the long hair, the provocative T-shirts, the reluctance to conform. I’m not saying I respected it, I’m simply saying that later on it helped me to understand the way he was, both as man and racing driver.
We are here concerned with British World Champions, so let’s begin with his very British arrival on the F1 scene with Lord Alexander Hesketh, the man who dared give James a
chance. They needed each other, the superbly athletic and highly competitive public schoolboy and the iercely patriotic, deceptively ambitious aristocrat. They were serious racers, make no mistake, but this was where the myth began to gather pace. There were yachts, helicopters, lots of champagne and not a few sexy women. Predictably, the media fell upon this and feasted, milked it until the money dried up, the party petered out and Hesketh went away for a period of iscal re-adjustment.
None of us will forget the first of those 10 Grand Prix victories. He’d already tasted glory by winning the International Trophy in front of an adoring crowd at Silverstone, but at Zandvoort in the summer of ’75 it all came together for Hunt and Hesketh. Victory was finally his after a depressing run of no less than five retirements. Something had to go right in the end. To win his irst GP he had employed speed, intelligence and patience. Under pressure from Niki Lauda in the closing laps he kept his cool, silencing the critics who said that ‘Hunt the Shunt’ would crack under pressure. But he beat the man who would become both his friend and his nemesis the following season.
The margin mattered not, it was the winning that counted. He competed not for fun, or for the love of it, but for the winning, just as he had in squash, a game at which he also excelled.
It was intoxicating while it lasted but it could never be sustained. The team shut up shop, Hunt facing unemployment. But the Hollywood script had one more surprise. During the winter of ’75, World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi shocked us all by resigning from McLaren, leaving a vacancy that needed illing, and fast. Never one to miss an opportunity, James jumped and so did Marlboro which paid the drivers’ bills at the British team. He was not its typical signing, not by a long chalk. Too maverick, sartorially challenged, unpredictable and a bit of a loose cannon. The promotional potential of the dashing and handsome Hunt, however, was not lost on John Hogan of Marlboro and James duly reported for pre-season testing duties at Silverstone. Team manager Alastair Caldwell remembers the day.
“First impressions weren’t great. He walked into the pitlane, in that sloping gait of his, dressed… well, not very tidily,” remembers Caldwell, “and he was hunched, as tall guys often are, and the guys looked at me as if to say ‘jeez, what does he look like? Is he going to it in the car?’ We knew he was fast, but he was like no other driver we’d ever had at McLaren, put it that way.”
The ’76 season is motor racing folklore. In the rain and fog of Fuji Lauda quit, unsettled by the conditions. Hunt, too, panicked, the short fuse had burnt, and thought he’d finished too low down to win the title. Reassured, he headed for the podium and a big party began.
Landing at Heathrow to a rock star’s welcome, he was headline news round the world. Not long before he died, working at a Formula 3000 race at the (new) Nürburgring,
I was offered some laps of the Nordschleife with James at the wheel. I was too busy. I have always regretted that I didn’t take the time to sit alongside the 1976 World Champion.
GRANDS PRIX: 92
POLE POSITIONS: 14
FASTEST LAPS: 8
OTHER ACHIEVEMENTS: 1973 Tour of Britain (1st)
From the Archives
Lauda’s withdrawal from the Japanese race left Hunt with a hollow victory and the claim to be world champion for 1976. Someone has to be world champion because the rule book says so, but 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 tribunals, and that can’t be bad, for the name of the game is ‘winning’…
Denis Jenkinson, December 1976
To vote for James Hunt as your favourite driver, go to www.motorsportmagazine.com/worldchampions
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