James Hunt: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

He used to be ill before a race.  No wonder James Hunt only started enjoying motorsport once he stopped driving...

James Hunt, 1976 Dutch GP

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

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After who knows how many years, I went back to Brands Hatch in late September for the inaugural A1GP race, and as I walked into the paddock I was struck overwhelmingly by thoughts of James Hunt, who had some of his greatest days there. Man and place are inextricably woven in my mind and this was the first meeting I had been to at the circuit since Hunt’s death — ye gods, more than a dozen years ago now.

It was in June 1993 — the day after the Canadian GP — that a heart attack killed James. He hadn’t been in Montreal, instead doing the BBC commentary with Murray Walker in a London studio. I got back from Canada on the Tuesday morning, and at lunchtime had a call from Autosport, informing me of the sad news and requesting I write an obituary forthwith. Only the next day did I get around to my answering machine, and the last message froze me: “Nigel, J Hunt speaking. 6.25 Monday evening. Just calling for a gossip. If you’re back tonight, give me a shout; failing that, tomorrow perhaps. Bye…”

Anyone who covered Formula One through the perilous ’70s had grown sadly accustomed to the loss of friends, to people dying before their time: that was intrinsic to the sport as it then was. But Hunt didn’t die violently, and you don’t otherwise anticipate the loss of a bloke of 45 — particularly, in James’s case, since he had latterly changed his way of life, abandoned the booze and the fags, even taken to cycling rather than driving everywhere.

It was on two wheels, in fact, that he arrived at Denny Hulme’s memorial service the previous autumn. Beforehand some of us were standing around outside the church when the former World Champion made his entrance, his bike the kind Miss Marple might have used, complete with basket on the front.

Hunt’s loathing of formality went without saying — he once caused a minor scandal by turning up at a racing gala, with royalty present, in jeans and sweatshirt — and when he arrived in Chelsea that morning he was again less than suitably attired. But James well knew how to behave when it mattered and, after disappearing briefly to change, returned immaculate. When the service was over he reversed the process and pedalled off again, back to that beautiful, slightly tatty, house in Wimbledon, where he lived in splendid anarchy.

Like countless others, I was dreadfully upset by the news of his death, but in truth it had only been after his retirement as a driver that we had became friends. During his racing days some of the people who surrounded him, the hangers-on, were enough to make you understand how communism got started. The McLaren motorhome was like a school common room of the worst kind, but there was always the feeling that James — the object of their adoration — did not really belong with them. I always felt that only after 1979, when he retired from driving — typically, in the middle of a season — did the real man begin to emerge. Soon he started a second career, as a broadcaster and journalist, and I was one of many former detractors who came to hold him in great affection.

James Hunt, 1976 Monaco GP

A chance to drive for McLaren led Hunt to the title in 1976

Tont Duffy/Getty Images

“It was only then,” he once said to me, “that I began to relax. And it was only then, actually, that I really began to enjoy motor racing — I’d never really liked it when I was doing it…”

James was always brutally honest, not least about himself, always well aware of his failings as a racing driver as well as his strengths. “I was a good racer, I think, but I was never much of a worker, never that much involved, outside of when I got in the car. I’m the same with squash — but put me on a court and I can give everything.

“I wasn’t the sort of driver who thought about racing all the time, that’s for sure, never one to ‘think’ myself into a race for a week beforehand — and actually I thought that worked for me. Conversely, in bad times some drivers will get stuck into the root of the problem and regenerate enthusiasm in the team, but I was never the man to do that. I always needed to feel I could win and in my last couple of seasons I didn’t have the car to do it. No way was I prepared to go on risking my life to finish seventh…”

In reality Hunt, while always well aware of the risks in an era far more dangerous than this one, was among the bravest of drivers. Yes, he was invariably sick before a race, causing some to speculate he should have been in some other line of work, but it was from tension rather than fear. Once he was in the car that tension evaporated, for his natural ability was high and his racing brain acute. Few folk understood  a race as consummately as James.

Towards the end of his driving career, though, he frankly admitted that fear was creeping ever more into his thoughts, and he well understood why that was happening. “It’s a fact,” he said. “I was getting scared of hurting myself. I don’t think it would have happened if I had been in a car that could win, because that’s the way I am: put me in a competitive situation and everything else goes out of my head. But I didn’t have that for my last couple of years and I was never the type to get pleasure from simply being a racing driver. Driving a racing car, when you’ve got the ability, is like riding a bike. You don’t get worse at it. It’s only your head that moves around.”

His conclusion was that drivers begin to slow down because, for whatever reason, their motivation is not what it was, but he could never understand how or why their level of bravery should change. “In my book, driving at ten tenths is no more dangerous than driving at seven tenths — all it means, after all, is that you’re going 2-3 mph faster at any given point on a circuit. And how is having an accident at 167mph going to be any better than one at 170? For me, driving at the limit didn’t change the risk. Whenever I made mistakes on my own it was when I wasn’t trying — I wasn’t concentrating hard enough. So it was always more likely that I’d shunt in an uncompetitive car…”

James Hunt, 1977 British GP

James Hunt celebrates in his typical unique style

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Once free of the cockpit Hunt joined the BBC and, with his dark brown voice and irreverent humour, developed into one of the great sports commentators. As a grand prix analyst he was unmatched. As with Martin Brundle today, there was always the substance of personal experience. Unsurprisingly he was fearless in his opinions: “I won’t compromise myself by saying things I don’t mean; what tends to happen, in fact, is that I compromise myself by saying exactly what I think…”

In his broadcasting life, the drivers whom James most admired were Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Not only were they the best, he said, but they also had remarkable staying power. “To run at the front in grand prix racing — and to stay there — is mentally exhausting. The brain gets tired before the body does — I mean, you’ve only got to look at some of the geriatrics still tooling around nowadays to see who’s got tired brains…”

Ironically, towards the end of his short life Hunt began working hard on his fitness and had renounced both tobacco and alcohol, previously staples of his existence. “Quite simple, really,” he smiled. “The tail was starting to wag the dog.” Similarly, he made no attempt to hide that he was much less well off than he had been. There was not a grain of self-pity.

In a colourless age, James was a true free spirit, missed to this day by all who knew him, some of whom, it must be said, always suspected he might leave the party early. As he said himself: “It’s always the bores that stay to the end, isn’t it?”