The man who was James Hunt

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Careless playboy, or dedicated professional who deserves his title?

The public image is the one that has lasted. James Hunt and the Hesketh team, daring the establishment to take offence. Parties, paparazzi, beautiful women where the team foregathered. Jeans, bare feet, alcohol and beautiful women wherever James was spotted.

“Dilettantes,” said the Formula One world when Lord Hesketh pitched his team into the premier league. Winners, said the results of the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix.

“Public schoolboy playing at racing,” ran early views of James. World champion, say the history books.

“Arrogant, self-opinionated Hooray Henry,” thought Murray Walker, faced with his new wingman. Yet James became the perfect, languid foil to Murray’s excitement.

Only people who knew Hunt well can disentangle the ‘real’ man from the press cuttings. Author Christopher Hilton approached schoolfriends, girlfriends, sponsors, drivers, team personnel and fellow budgerigar fanciers and asked them the simple question “what is your strongest memory of James?”. Their responses, compiled in his new book Memories of James Hunt, contribute the shades of grey which turn the image into a complete person. He was cast as a playboy, but he applied himself to winning with a fierce determination. He was frankly scared of racing, but won 10 grands prix and the world title. He could be a hell-raiser; he also became a devoted father content to drive an Austin A35. Was this the simple process of maturing into middle age? Read our exclusive extracts from Hilton’s new book and discover a far more complex man than the public figure.

Nick Brittan MOTORSPORT ACTIVIST

James behaved badly throughout his career but managed to turn it into an asset rather than a deficit. I don’t know how he did that, because at the time nobody else was behaving badly. If James had been a yob he’d have been sacked instantly, but because he was your archetypal British public schoolboy, behaving badly was a jolly jape. He got away with it because he was good-looking, charming and had style.

John Webb OWNER, BRANDS HATCH

Really, he caused us nothing but embarrassment. His general behaviour, outside of being a very good racing driver, was quite embarrassing. While he was courageous on the track, off-track he did a lot of harm.

Simon Taylor JOURNALIST AND COMMENTATOR

What stays with me is that James was a very clever bloke. He thought about motor racing very hard, in a way that not many other drivers did. I remember sitting with him in the McLaren motorhome and he was saying ‘it isn’t possible to be world champion in Formula One unless you’ve got a fair bit of intelligence’. Just at that moment a certain former world champion walked past. James said ‘mind you, there are exceptions to every rule’…

John Watson DRIVER

James was delighted when Suzy [his first wife] ran off with Richard Burton. That was probably more valuable to him than winning the world championship because it took him off the sports pages and put him onto the news pages.

Hugh MacLennan SCHOOL FRIEND

As we were about to leave school, saying ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ James comes up to me and says ‘You know a bit about cars, Hugh, how do I become a professional racing driver?’

Taormina Rieck FRIEND

He was happy in the beginning, probably because he had to work so hard to get where he did. He really appreciated it when he got there. When he got his first drive for March the joy was ‘I’ve done it all myself’.

Tony Dron JOURNALIST and DRIVER

The persistent image of a wealthy young playboy could not be further from the truth. In 1968 James was on £20 a week working for Telephone Rentals. To get started he had two hire-purchase deals, one on a Russell-Alexis FF car and another on an engine. He was well into F3, with the Russell-Alexis long-since written off, before he paid these off. We dossed down in places like the press box at Snetterton to avoid paying B&B prices.

Chris Marshall TEAM OWNER

He’d be sick before he got in the car. I think it was a combination of adrenalin and tension build-up. It wasn’t fear, it was tension. In an attempt to calm him we’d walk round the paddock arm in arm and rehearse the first lap. ‘OK, you’re coming to the first corner and so-and-so is alongside. What are you going to do?’. We’d do that for each corner — the main thing was that his mind was off the hurting aspect.

Bubbles Horsley HESKETH TEAM MANAGER

We were actually very serious about it but the Party Division run by The Lord got the column inches. This really wasn’t the image of F1 that people like Teddy Mayer at McLaren were trying to portray! But James was supremely confident, while quite fragile in that confidence. He also, I think, suffered from depression which, when he was driving an F1 car, was kept at bay. When he retired, that started to come more into his consciousness and he would have dippers. He had an addictive personality; addicted to succeeding. And he was very driven. He had come through an unbelievably tough journey when he came to us. Many another person would have given up.

J R Richardson FRIEND

He was devastated [when Roger Williamson was killed]. But he conquered his fear and got back in — got beyond the physical danger — because of the rewards, the lifestyle and what he could achieve. It was his competitiveness, his single mindedness and his selfishness, I suppose. He had world championship focus in everything right from the word go.

Chris Marshall TEAM OWNER

The [first] marriage wasn’t perfect. After a while he said to her ‘look, you need to be kept in the manner you’ve become accustomed to; the best thing is for you to find someone who can do that’. So he packed her off to St Moritz. She saw Richard Burton in the ski queue and accidentally collided with him. He picked her up, took one look, took her into the ‘egg’ going up the mountain and by the time they got to the top they were off and running. James was delighted; of course he was desolé in public and everyone was on his side, but in fact he was rubbing his hands because it didn’t cost him anything.

Hugh MacLennan SCHOOL FRIEND

James sent me a long letter — a suicidal letter — from a hotel room in Melbourne, after he was champion. It wasn’t suicidal — I’m exaggerating, but it was about how he was tired of being so popular. Wherever he went in Australia he was being mobbed. I think the letter was about reaching out. He was lonely in the crowd. He was in some bloody hotel room and he was saying ‘I have no private life’.

Mick Mapston BUDGERIGAR BREEDER

The budgie world was not jokey as far as he was concerned. He was very serious about it. He was building a competitive stud and didn’t want to exploit his celebrity. In budgie circles he wanted to be known as a decent breeder and exhibitor.

Lord Hesketh TEAM OWNER

He was the kind of guy you’d be perfectly happy going tiger shooting with because he had a combination of competence and bravery. But I think that towards the end he was much more at peace with himself.

Sarah Lomax SECOND WIFE

Did James have a short fuse? No. Never. His home life was very, very calm. Very relaxed and nothing like the character he needed to adopt as a racing man. He used to amaze me because he could let things go. Someone would do a wind-up remark, I’d be going mad and he’d have forgotten it. I’d be carrying it for a week and he’d go ‘why?’ It’s only men who take control of their lives who can do that.

Taormina Rieck FRIEND

I have always said James’s life was in three stages: growing up and getting into motor racing; when he got there until he finished; and then afterwards the commentating. The first and last stages were far more the same person, and the person in the middle wasn’t really him. He was almost a creation of other people.

Richard Lloyd DRIVER SPORTSCAR TEAM OWNER

James wasn’t a good qualifier, but the team noticed he went better when he was furious. So in the last few minutes of practice they would jack up the car, Bubbles saying, ‘we’re doing something to the back’, they’d be messing around doing nothing. He’d be getting more and more frustrated. They’d time it so that there was just enough time for two laps; when they dropped the car he was absolutely on the rev limiter.

Bubbles Horsley HESKETH TEAM MANAGER

Yes, that’s true! He’d be starining at his seat belts saying ‘what’s going on?’ You’d drop the car, he’d go out and do a blistering laP and come back in and give us a bollocking – ‘incompetent amateurs’!

Peter Warr WOLF TEAM MANAGER

James spent about three hours in the Wolf mobile home pleading with Harvey Postlethwaite and myself to let him off the contract he had signed because he didn’t want to be a racing driver anymore. This should have been a premonition of this incredibly nervous guy that we would have to work with.

Murray Walker COMMENTATOR

I have often reproached myself for being a bit harsh in my outlook towards James when I first knew him, but a lot of people agree with me that in his early days he was an arrogant, self-opinionated so-and-so, and putting up with his Hooray Henry characteristics was very difficult. But over the years he mellowed considerably.

Memories of James Hunt,

by Christopher Hilton

Published by Haynes. ISBN 1844252159 – £19.99

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