James Hunt: the early years

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Before he was famous 

A new book celebrating James Hunt reveals an unexpected side to one of Britain’s most flamboyant racing stars

Writing a book about James Hunt had one obvious difficulty; how to find something new to say about one of Formula 1’s most recognisable and compelling characters on the 40th anniversary of his championship-winning season.

Everybody knows about the blond-haired lethario; the maverick world champion who seemingly couldn’t give a toss about convention. Perhaps less well known is the story of James Hunt the grafter. While researching the book, I delved back to his early years and contacted a variety of friends and acquaintances, ranging from Sally Jones (James’s elder sister) to team members and a neighbour of the Hunt family during his youth. 

I also spoke with Ray Grant, the charismatic former mechanic who continues to work for McLaren but has never before spoken in public about his time with Hunt when they were very much kindred spirits. Grant’s reflections from four decades ago help build the picture of how much motor racing has changed – particularly in the case of a determined lad from a middle-class family in Surrey trying to make his way to the top and becoming an international superstar only towards the end of a difficult and dramatic journey.

With the help of rarely seen photographs and private family pictures, the image that emerged was of a young man – who today would be considered past it – determined to make it as a driver despite the obstacles placed in his path.  In 2014, for instance, Max Verstappen reached Formula 1 as a 17-year-old. At the same age in 1964, Hunt barely knew of the sport’s existence

Instead he was busy writing off various family cars – from a Minivan to a Fiat 500 – to the point where his parents, Wallis and Sue Hunt, banned him from driving. His life was to change, however, when he accompanied friends to a club meeting at Silverstone and discovered a proper outlet for his desire to drive at breakneck speed.

* * *

According to his sister Sally, Mum and Dad did not know how to take it when their boy arrived back from Silverstone that day and immediately declared that, not only was he going to become a racing driver but he would also be world champion. Despite the obvious obstacles – zero experience and no money, to name just two – the Hunts were aware that, having made up his mind, James would do everything in his power to see this through.

Sure enough, Hunt scraped together enough to buy the shell of a crashed Mini that had seen better days. Money was saved by abandoning social life (including a drastic reduction in smoking) and taking on a selection of temporary jobs, ranging from hospital porter to delivery driver, the latter allowing visits to junkyards in the search for parts – including an engine.

But here’s the thing. Hunt was no more adept at dealing with mechanical matters than he was at sequin dressmaking (I was going to say knitting but he had actually managed that when, anxious not to be beaten, he had successfully matched Sally’s needlework when making a woolly garment for their baby brother).

Nuts and bolts were anathema and yet he taught himself how to build the car, a will to succeed being measured by hating every minute spent slaving in the garage at home. It took almost a year to – not complete the car, as such, for reasons we will come to – but to get the Mini moving under its own steam.

The engine’s clanking and rattling was considered an irrelevance when judged against the miracle of the lump actually firing on all four cylinders. It was therefore a matter of great personal triumph when the proud owner, untaxed and uninsured, ventured out of the family driveway in rural Surrey and took to the road that, fortunately, was a private one and without the unsporting speed bumps evident today. 

Rather than complain, his neighbour, Maire Marlow, remembers how she and her family would run to the pavement and cheer on the dashing young man. “The Hunts were – how do I put it – an interesting family,” she told me.

Unfortunately, officialdom would not share the residents’ enthusiasm for the handiwork of their local racer. It says much about Hunt’s complete ignorance of the sport that – when presenting the Mini for scrutineering at his first race at Snetterton – he thought the use of a penknife to cut a few grooves in the bald tyres would pass muster. Or that it would suffice to overcome a missing front passenger seat by appropriating a metal-framed canvas garden chair and bolt it into place with bits of a Meccano set.

Hunt eventually righted the technical wrongs but, frequently, the journeys to and from circuits would prove more eventful than the actual races – all of which ended in retirement. Sally recalls being persuaded to borrow their grandmother’s Morris Minor to tow the Mini to Brands Hatch. And back again.

By this time, Hunt had his mind set on moving up to a single-seater, the newly instituted Formula Ford series having caught his eye despite not being able to afford it. By hook and by crook – in the latter case, through money raised as a salesman coaxing customers to sign long-term contracts for telephone answering machines  – he gathered the deposit for an Alexis and left the worry of regular repayments for another day.

The learning curve might have increased in severity, but Hunt loved the thrill of driving what he termed a proper racing car – even if he did not look like a proper racing driver. Max Mosley, then an aspiring racer, recalls testing his Formula 2 Brabham at Snetterton and coming across a Formula Ford being hustled with indecent haste. “Back in the paddock, the driver got out wearing scruffy jeans rather than overalls and also wearing plimsolls. This was my first encounter with James Hunt.” 

Rarely did Hunt give any indication of a latent talent that, for now, was being masked by a determination coming close to desperation. Hunt appeared to have reached the end in every sense when the avoidance of a spinning competitor at Oulton Park resulted in the Alexis finishing upside down in the lake. With a seat harness not mandatory and considered by the driver as an unnecessary expense, the fact Hunt rose unharmed from the water was, in many ways, a parable of the times. 

To most observers, however, much as they enjoyed his company, the truth was that Hunt’s earnest self-belief and flashes of speed were not matched by the necessary consistency. The feeling of unreachable potential would increase as Hunt stepped up to Formula 3 and eventually talked his way into works drives. He even earned the now well known sobriquet – Hunt the Shunt. Research for the book revealed frustration among journalists and friends who, in all honesty, thought Hunt was on the road to nowhere when he joined Lord Hesketh to race his equally unknown Dastle F3 car at the end of 1972. 

In fact, as we now know, it would be the beginning of an exciting and colourful way forward, eventually leading to F1. And yet, when Hunt stepped into Emerson Fittipaldi’s seat at the beginning of that eventful 1976 season with McLaren, the need to prove doubters wrong remained. 

This he did in truly exceptional style. By then, of course, he had been through the process many times. Starting as an army of one when building and attempting to race that Mini.

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