Jochen Mass on James Hunt

Rivals in Formula 3, Jochen Mass and James Hunt forged a fruitful bond during their two years together at McLaren 

James Hunt with Jochen Mass at the 1977 Italian Grand Prix

Hoch Zwei via Getty Images

The mantelpiece at his home in Monaco has been creaking, these past years, under the weight of invitations to appear at what the Germans call ‘old timer’ events all over the world. Now 60, this engaging and popular old timer is busier than ever, racing and demonstrating a huge range of classic racing cars, particularly for the Mercedes-Benz museum. Hermann the German, a moniker given to him by his mechanics at McLaren, is just one clue as to the affection that has followed this man throughout his long career.

It was at McLaren, of course, that Jochen Mass spent two seasons as team-mate to James Hunt, after a year alongside Emerson Fittipaldi. But the relationship began many years earlier.

“I knew James from our Formula 3 days,” Jochen recalls with a smile. “We fooled around together in London a lot in those days, so we knew each other well by the time he came to McLaren in 1976. He was always crashing in F3, you remember, and I replaced him in the March team, which is funny when you consider what happened later when he came to McLaren and won the world championship.

“Anyway, he matured a lot as a driver after that, did some Formula 2, and when he came from Hesketh in ’76 he had won a grand prix. He was a much more solid driver, quite outstanding in fact. He had much more confidence, more maturity about him.”

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Mass is one of those racing drivers who is comfortable with himself, knows his own abilities and looks you in the eye. There’s no shuffling around the facts, not a hint of rose tint between him and history. “Look,” he says, “you are judged by your performance against your team-mate so he is your team enemy, your opposition, so if he’s quicker in the same car there’s no excuses left. When James came from Hesketh he was used to a one-car team, getting his own way, and I had just come to grips with Emerson Fittipaldi the year before so it was a difficult time for me. I’d started to snuggle up to Emerson’s pace when he left and I was chucked in with James.  It was a difficult pill to swallow.

“I realised what was coming but I didn’t get too bothered about it. I just thought time would tell, and we’ll see what happens. Maybe I should have been harder, a bit tougher, but I learnt about that later in my career. Formula 1 has always been the same; you can look at Prost and Senna at McLaren, and now with Alonso and Hamilton – there comes a point when the team has to make a choice about which driver will get the best support.”

In 1976 it quickly became evident that Hunt was benefiting from the best equipment. “He had all the skills, and he was very quick, no doubt,” says Jochen, “and he was younger than me. But it was a confusing time for me because I knew I was quick, I had this natural talent and so I could not understand why he was faster than me over a lap. I followed him in the corners and I saw no reason why he should be any faster. You end up screwing around with the car, making changes and in the end I got uptight and I was irked by this situation.

Niki Lauda leads James Hunt and Jochen Mass at the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix

Lauda leads Hunt and Mass at Jarama, 1976

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“In those days the Cosworth guys were always developing the engines and trying new ideas, and there weren’t enough of the best engines to go round. It was the same with all the teams: Andretti and Scheckter had better engines than their team-mates and so it was with McLaren.

“James and Emerson were very different but they both covered their cards, never gave away any secrets, while I was more open, thinking – you know – whoever is quicker is quicker.”

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Just as open and honest today, Jochen talks about the talent that took Hunt to his championship that year. “He was a masterful driver and he always used the car to the best effect whatever the circumstances. He was very precise, very quick and totally focused on the job. James was a pleasure to watch, very masterful in the car, very brave, and maybe I was more laid back. I only learnt much later that the team had given him the best equipment, that he had the best engines. And, yes, it was an English team with an English driver so there was the national chauvinism but that is normal, except in the case of Michael Schumacher at Ferrari.”

Jochen’s ego is firmly under control, but the history books show that on his day his pure natural ability saw him on the pace of his illustrious team-mate. And his bravery was never in doubt, memorably at the Nürburgring with its roller-coaster dips and crests, and at Paul Ricard, where the mile-long Mistral straight was followed by a deep breath into the awesomely fast right hander at Signes.

“I could have passed him that day. But we were team-mates and I wanted to help McLaren”

“Yes, I could match him sometimes,” smiles Jochen, “especially at Le Castellet, but James was very committed, very strong and when he was within sight of the championship he became very intense and hyped up. He got so uptight he used to pee up against the fence before the start, in front of the spectators. But he trusted me to back him up in the last race at Fuji. We had a mutual respect, and I could have passed him that day. But we were team-mates and I wanted to help McLaren to win the title. Frustrating. But you learn to swallow these pills in life.”

At the end of 1977 Mass was replaced by Patrick Tambay, but he and James kept in touch. “One story exemplifies the man and the Seventies,” he grins. “At the Spanish Grand Prix in ’76 we went to lunch with King Juan Carlos. He kept cheetahs and asked if we’d like to see them. James’ girlfriend ‘Hottie’ went in first and the cheetah clawed down her skirt to reveal an early version of a string thong. James yelled ‘Aren’t you glad you’re wearing your knickers today?’ The King laughed loudly but Queen Sophia was not so amused. James was a wild man.

“We did some crazy things; lots of girls. I think he remained a wild man all his life: he never calmed down completely. There was a reckless streak in him that came between him and his own well-being. He could be very rude, very coarse and he was sometimes oblivious to tact. For him it was playful but it could be hurtful and the effect it had on people seemed to elude him. And I never understood the pop star image, the superstar thing when he was world champion; that was a waste of time. He was, though, a masterful racing driver.”

While Hunt became world champion, Mass went on to make his name in sports car racing. Both men were always on the podium when it came to having fun.