James Hunt, McLaren's unlikely hero: "We didn't know he was quick..."

James Hunt wouldn’t have been McLaren’s first choice for the 1976 season, but circumstance cast him in that direction. It’s all very clear in team manager Alastair Caldwell’s memory…

McLaren of James Hunt at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix

Hunt at Monaco in 1976

Tony Duffy/Getty Images

A large Greek called Demis Roussos topped the charts. Water was rationed as Britain sweated in the hottest summer on record. Björn Borg beat Ilie Nastase to take the first of five Wimbledon titles. Viking 1 landed on Mars, the first spacecraft to visit the red planet. And on July 18 James Hunt became the first Englishman to win the British Grand Prix since Peter Collins in 1958.

Or did he?

This was the summer of 1976. Hot weather and hot tempers came together at Brands Hatch in a cauldron of a Grand Prix that had the Brits out of their seats, stamping their feet. None of us will ever forget that weekend in Kent.

Life in Formula 1’s pressure cooker had been intensifying all year. Something, or somebody, was going to blow. And it happened at Brands in mid-July.

James Hunt and Niki Lauda on the 1976 British Grand Prix podium

Hunt on the podium with Niki Lauda at Brands Hatch. He would eventually lose his hard-fought British GP victory


The season began as the previous one had finished, with reigning champion Niki Lauda winning the first two races in Brazil and South Africa. The Ferrari 312T looked unstoppable, the Scuderia taking a one-two at the next race in Long Beach, albeit this time with Clay Regazzoni coming home ahead of Lauda. Most observers believed the Austrian’s second title was a foregone conclusion.

In the McLaren factory at Colnbrook they had other ideas. Barely recovered from the abrupt defection of Emerson Fittipaldi, their tails were up and the trusty old M23 was evolving nicely. Signing James Hunt from the defunct Hesketh team was an enforced risk, but a very close second place at Kyalami was encouraging. Team manager Alastair Caldwell, who’s been closely involved with the production of Rush and a recent BBC documentary, was the man charged with keeping the lid on their new, somewhat volatile, driver.

From the archive

“It was an interesting year,” says Caldwell, “and we’d had the abdication of Fittipaldi, which meant a ragged end to the previous season. We were still testing with Emerson, but he kept telling me he had another job to go to. I don’t think anyone else believed him, but Emerson was a businessman first and foremost and wanted a big salary rise for ’76, which Teddy Mayer didn’t want to pay. This went on until nearly Christmas, when suddenly the shit hit the fan. Emerson announced his new Copersucar team and off he went. Philip Morris, our sponsor, was a bit surprised by this, to say the least. Anyway, with about a month to go before the first race we didn’t have a driver. At the same time Lady Hesketh had pulled the plug on her son’s racing team and so Hunt was out of work. He rang up and said ‘I guess I’m your new driver’, so we replied ‘Well, we guess you are’. That’s how it happened. We told him we weren’t going to pay him anything – after all, he was out of work and we had the second best seat in Grand Prix racing. So we paid him a pittance and off we went.”

Time was tight, the learning curve steep and there was no time to feel their way into a new season.

“Testing bored him to tears and we really shouldn’t have used him at all”

“We didn’t know if he was quick,” says Caldwell. “ We knew he’d had a lucky win at Zandvoort with Hesketh, and we’d seen him racing, but you don’t know about drivers until you get them in your car. We thought the whole Hesketh thing, including James, was a bit foolish and foppish and he would not have been our first choice, not our style of driver at all.

“Anyway, we were stuck with him and took him off to Silverstone to see what he could do. First impressions? He was odd physically, with those long legs, and he was hunched, a bit round-shouldered, with that weird shambling gait. He didn’t fit our car – that was the first problem. We had to cut the front bulkhead out then move the master cylinders forward, and he had to cut the ends of his shoes off to fit inside the monocoque. Anyway, off we went to Brazil and nobody really knew if he’d be any good or not. Poor old Jochen Mass. He wanted to know who was number one, and I told him that would be whoever was fastest. That was sorted pretty rapidly when James got pole at Interlagos and Jochen was halfway down the grid. And that’s how it stayed.”

Bernie Ecclestone with Teddy Mayer and Alistair Caldwell around James Hunt in cockpit of McLaren

Bernie Ecclestone (with Martini umbrella), stands with Teddy Mayer, as Hunt sits in the cockpit. Caldwell is opposite

Grand Prix Photo

The M23 was three years old and needed some revisions for 1976. A new six-speed gearbox was introduced for Brazil and later in the year Caldwell hounded Texaco into brewing a new fuel for the team’s exclusive use. The drivers stopped whingeing about gear ratios and the engines stopped blowing up. Progress was being made.

“It’s cutting a long and technical story short,” says Caldwell, “but the new gearbox and fuel, with its better engine numbers, certainly helped us get on terms with Ferrari as the year went on. As well as that, we had new pistons made for the Cosworths, but Keith Duckworth wasn’t too happy – we’d forgotten to tell him – and the service contract with Nicholson forced us to go back to the old ones. Anyway, then came the Spanish fiasco.”

From the archive

This was the first major controversy of a very tense season – and it was all down to a team error.

“Yeah, we screwed up,” admits Caldwell. “Stupidly, I didn’t measure the car after we’d moved the oil coolers to the side and, at the same time, Goodyear came up with new, fatter tyres that protruded just outside the rims. We hadn’t actually changed the width of the car itself, but when they came to measure up in Jarama it was illegal, no question.

“We’d won the race, beaten the Ferraris, but the bloody car was illegal and it was my mistake. We were disqualified on the spot but much later won our appeal and victory was restored. Meanwhile, we changed the car back to its original spec before we went to Belgium and it was a lot slower. We were nowhere.”

Where was James Hunt in all this? How did he cope with this rollercoaster ride?

“He wasn’t really that interested in the detail. He hated testing. It bored him to tears and we really shouldn’t have used him at all. He wasn’t a constant fiddler like Fittipaldi or Lauda, he just drove as hard as he could – he was good at that. James thought he knew about being a racing driver, he’d studied it all, but he didn’t have the application.

“We went testing at Paul Ricard. I’d invented the air starter, saving us a ton of weight, and we’d put skirts on the car. One of my jobs was to read the rulebook and I always made the most of the regulations, studying what they said and not what they meant. But still we weren’t competitive. We were nowhere in Belgium, Monaco or Sweden and Lauda won two of those, so we redesigned the configuration of the oil coolers, putting them into sidepods between the front and rear wheels. This gave us more downforce and this time it was narrower, and legal, having shortened the driveshafts to compensate for the wider tyres. And hey presto, the car was a whole second a lap quicker at Ricard. We went to the French Grand Prix and James won easily. Ferrari had new engines and Niki, with his mind games, came down to tell us the new engine was the dog’s whatsits and they’d run away. But that was a classic example of what not to do when trying to win a championship, you never race a new development engine mid-season – and they both went bang after about 10 laps or so. It was after that that we got the points back from the disallowed win in Spain.”

The joy of winning in France, quickly followed by the Spanish reinstatement, put McLaren on the front foot as the circus headed for Brands Hatch in July.

McLaren on James Hunt in the 1976 British Grand Prix

Hunt on his way to ‘win’ in Britain


“This is where it got quite exciting,” says Caldwell. “We were head to head with Ferrari, the gloves were well and truly off. We ignored the bullshit, that was the McLaren ethos, and ignored the drivers between races in those days. Ferrari had 10 times the people, two lawyers at every race, but we had no spare capacity. It was just Teddy [Mayer] and me – and Teddy wasn’t the best politician. So, yeah, we were stupidly under staffed in the politics department. But that didn’t bother me, because we just got on with the racing.

“The old M23 was now competitive again and Lauda only just pipped James to pole on the Saturday. It was going to be a hot, dry race – we knew that at least – and then, on Sunday afternoon, it all went wrong. Regazzoni lost it going through Paddock Bend on the first lap and all hell let loose. The race was stopped and James was off with damaged suspension.

From the archive

“He got the car to the pits and we set about fixing it for the restart, but the stewards decreed he’d had ‘outside assistance’ and was therefore not allowed to take part. As soon as the crowd got wind of this they started jeering, cat-calling and shouting, encouraged by me I have to say, because I could see there would be politics later. They yelled abuse at all and sundry – I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. The noise was incredible. They started throwing stuff and then the stewards relented, despite a protest from Ferrari, which was fairly predictable.

“James was getting pretty edgy and, when he sat in the car, it was jigging about on the stands. He was often like that before a race. Anyway, we got it all sorted, took the car out to the grid at the last minute and away they went. The race itself was equally dramatic, Lauda leading for 45 laps before gearbox trouble slowed him and James zapped past to win. Unbelievable. But it wasn’t over yet. Not until September did an FIA court rule that the win would be disallowed.

By then, of course, Lauda had suffered his accident at the Nürburgring.”

On August 1, after changing to wets at the end of the first lap of the German Grand Prix, Lauda crashed, the car caught fire and he was horribly burned. For a while there were rumours that he would not survive but, in a staggering display of courage, he was back in the Ferrari at Monza in September, having missed just two races. Hunt, meanwhile, had won in Germany, picked up a fourth in Austria and won again in Holland. By Monza, Lauda led Hunt by just two points.

“They just wanted to fight each other for the championship, never mind all the bloody politics”

“I have never seen bravery like it, not in any sport,” says Caldwell, “Lauda’s face was badly disfigured, he was in a lot of pain and after the race his balaclava was soaked in blood. Unbelievably he’d finished fourth and James had started from the back and spun off early on, having had his qualifying time disallowed because of what they called ‘fuel irregularities’, although of course we disputed that. So now the gap was five points and James was pleased to see Lauda back. They were good friends and enjoyed each other’s company.

“The only time they fell out was when Niki went to the FIA hearing after the British Grand Prix. It was a political thing, probably under pressure from Enzo [Ferrari] or Daniel [Audetto, Ferrari’s team manager] and he wore a bandage with blood on – it must have been tomato ketchup because by that stage he was well healed after the Nürburgring crash. But they made up and in Japan they were chasing girls together, the banter and the repartee back to normal. They just wanted to fight each other for the championship, never mind all the bloody politics, though it must be said they both spent Sunday morning at Fuji trying to get the race stopped.”

From the archive

Surely there could be no more drama in this spellbinding rollercoaster of a Grand Prix season? Wrong. Hunt was in sparkling form in North America, winning at Mosport and Watkins Glen while Lauda scored a single third place. When they arrived in Japan, for the final showdown, Lauda led Hunt by three points. The tension was almost too much to bear as those of us back home rose before dawn to watch the final act unfold.

“It was pretty spooky at Fuji,” says Caldwell. “The Sunday weather was terrible, with heavy rain and the top of Mount Fuji hidden in cloud. Everyone was a bit tense and the race was delayed until the last possible moment. Most of them didn’t want to race at all, including James: he said it was too dangerous, and the crowd became very restless. I told him, ‘Don’t be a prick, no race, no World Championship. We can win this’. Out on the pitwall we encouraged the crowd to ramp up the boos and jeers. Eventually the race went ahead, and James got away in the lead. At the end of the second lap we saw Lauda come down the pit road, park the Ferrari and walk away, saying the conditions were just too dangerous. It looked like we had it in the bag, but towards the end the track dried out and we were looking at a stop for tyres.

McLaren of James Hunt on the grid at 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Soggy grid in Japan


“Now James only needed fourth to take the title, but he went back out in fifth, and it wasn’t over yet. With just two laps left he passed Regazzoni and Jones and came home third. It was just about dark by now but we didn’t care, James was World Champion.

“He was confused by the last few laps and thought he hadn’t made it. So he was pretty tensed up and very vocal when he got out of the car – but once he’d understood what he’d done the piss-up started and went on for a very long time, through the night and into the next day if I remember rightly.

“He never said thank you, not to me or Teddy [Mayer] anyway, and I don’t think he ever bought anyone a drink all the time he was with us. That was James. If Niki had won he’d probably have found a way of getting his hands on a Rolex for every Ferrari employee.”

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How does Caldwell view the on-going fascination with Hunt’s place in racing folklore?

“James had charisma,” he says. “He had chutzpah, was never boring and lit up a room when he walked in. He was a jolly and outgoing person most of the time, always had a positive attitude and this made him very enjoyable company. So, yeah, he was a star and, let us never forget, he was a bloody good racing driver. He was very quick. He was the playboy driver, yes, and did it to a fine art, but you can’t make yourself into something you aren’t.

“He knew exactly how he was meant to approach it, knew he should be serious about spring rates, gear ratios, oversteer, understeer, all that stuff, but he didn’t do it because he was bored by it all. He hardly ever came to the factory and, if he did, he’d chat to me and then go home again.

“Niki, on the other hand, would have walked around, spoken to everyone, asked them how they were, what they were doing, told them his last win was all down to them. James just wasn’t like that, he couldn’t be arsed.”

A hell of a year, then, 1976, with unique dramas contested both in court and on track.

You couldn’t invent a script like it.