James Hunt

He may have only led the World Championship for one race but that was enough for James Hunt to deliver the 1976 Formula 1 title. Charismatic, good looking and engaging – this gregarious but at times volatile Englishman was the darling of the British press who generated column inches on the front pages as well as the back. His epic battle with Niki Lauda is now the stuff of Hollywood – the 2013 movie Rush taking Hunt’s fame to a whole new audience, two decades after his premature demise.

Childhood and his start in racing

“Racing driver” was hardly the career envisaged by his wealthy stockbroker father. Hunt was educated at Wellington College but he forsook a potential life in the professions to begin racing a Mini in 1967, working in a nearby supermarket to help fund these early stages. He switched to Formula Ford a year later with an Alexis but failed to shine.

He acquired a Merlyn Mk11A for 1969 before graduating to Formula 3 in the middle of the season – his Motor Racing Enterprises Brabham BT21B finishing third at Brands Hatch as Emerson Fittipaldi dominated.

James Hunt in the 1970s

Also a winner in Formule Libre races that year, Hunt remained in F3 for 1970 with a works Lotus 59 sponsored by Molyslip. Hunt’s impetuous nature and several accidents earned the unwanted sobriquet “Hunt the Shunt” but he began to show promise as the season progressed. He won continental races at Rouen-les-Essarts and Zolder before being involved in a controversial incident at Crystal Palace. He clashed with Dave Morgan’s March at the final corner with both cars crashing heavily. The furious Hunt pushed his rival to the ground but it was Morgan who was banned for dangerous driving.

The 1971 season was a similar mix of raw pace (Hunt winning at Montlhery and Brands Hatch) and accidents and he joined the works March outfit for the following F3 campaign. Unfortunately, the STP-backed team was soon in disarray and it disbanded after Monaco. Hunt was rescued by eccentric nobleman Lord Hesketh who soon bought a March 712M-Ford for his new protege’s Formula 2 graduation. Hunt relished the increase in power for he qualified on the front row for his European F2 debut at the Salzburgring and finished third in Oulton Park’s British Championship race despite a spin. Fifth at Albi, Hunt’s racing career now had momentum.

From the archive

Hunt began 1973 in Hesketh’s F2 Surtees TS15-Ford but a one-off F1 appearance in the Race of Champions raised the team’s ambitions. He drove a hired TS9 at Brands Hatch and finished a noteworthy third on his F1 debut. Rather than continue in F2, Hesketh acquired a March 731-Ford and Hunt joined the World Championship from the Monaco Grand Prix. He lost sixth position and a point on his debut with a late engine failure before finishing the next three races in the top six. That included fourth in his home race and third in the Dutch GP. Hunt capped a fine first F1 campaign by finishing second and setting the fastest race lap at Watkins Glen as he clinched eighth overall.

The patriotic team had even more ambitious plans for 1974 – introducing the Harvey Postlethwaite-designed Hesketh 308-Ford at the Race of Champions. Hunt qualified on pole position for that debut and won Silverstone’s International Trophy to suggest that the team was more than a band of happy-go-lucky gentry. Hunt finished third in Sweden, Austria (from 18th on the grid) and the United States but mechanical failures and a couple of avoidable accidents restricted him the eighth in the standings once more.

Second in the Argentine GP at the start of 1975, Hunt withstood Lauda’s race-long challenge at Zandvoort to score a popular breakthrough victory for Hesketh. He was also second in France and Austria during an impressive campaign. Both team and driver finished fourth in the World Championship but the strain of running an F1 team without commercial backing proved unsustainable. Hesketh withdrew his support from the team at the end of November leaving Hunt temporarily unemployed. However, Emerson Fittipaldi’s surprise move to his brother’s team suddenly left McLaren searching for a suitable replacement.

James Hunt’s 1976 F1 championship-winning year

The 1976 F1 season was one of the most memorable in the sport’s history. In truth, the year began with Lauda seemingly on course to retain his title for Ferrari with Hunt’s campaign initially dogged by controversy. Winner of non-championship races at Brands Hatch and Silverstone, the Englishman lost victory in the Spanish GP when his McLaren M23-Ford was found to be marginally too wide. Victory in France was followed two days later by news that the FIA had overturned his Spanish disqualification. Hunt was suddenly back with an outside chance of challenging for the title.

Further controversy followed at Brands Hatch when the victorious Hunt was excluded for switching to his spare car for the restarted race. The complexion of the whole season changed with Lauda’s crash during the opening laps at the Nurburgring. Hunt won that day and again at Zandvoort while the Austrian recovered from his near-fatal injuries. Remarkably, the badly scared Lauda was able to return at Monza, just five weeks after his accident. Forced to start from the back of the grid due to fuel irregularities, Hunt crashed out while Lauda finished in a brave fourth position. Hunt then converted pole position in Canada and at Watkins Glen into commanding victories to close the gap to just three points with a round to go. The Japanese finale was marred by torrential rain and Lauda withdrew from the race after just two laps due to the unsafe conditions. Hunt then recovered from a late stop for new dry tyres to snatch third-place and clinch the world title by a single point.

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Hunt began 1977 by qualifying on pole position for the opening three GPs although an effective challenge was thwarted by poor reliability. His three victories during his title defence included passing John Watson’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo to win the British GP for the only time. Subsequent success at Watkins Glen and Fuji proved to be the final GP wins of his career with Hunt only fifth in the World Championship.

A third and final season with McLaren provided little but frustration, for 1978 was dominated by Lotus and “ground-effects”. The principle of using the air flow under the car to generate downforce revolutionised F1 but McLaren were slow to copy. Hunt seemed to grow disenchanted although he fought off illness to finish third in France.

With an eye to his Hesketh days perhaps, Hunt joined Walter Wolf Racing in 1979 when reunited with designer Postlethwaite in a one-car team. Unfortunately, the car proved both uncompetitive and unreliable and Hunt suddenly walked away from racing after the Monaco GP. His 92 GP starts had delivered 10 victories and the championship lead for one, decisive day in 1976.

Life after racing

Extroverted and articulate, Hunt soon found a new role in the sport as Murray Walker’s expert foil in the BBC TV commentary box. Just as the outwardly so different Lauda and Hunt had become firm friends, then so did these new BBC colleagues. During that time Hunt enlivened many a race with his always opinionated view but he continued to live life to the full (and more). However, now in his forties and with a new partner in his life, Hunt had finally cleaned up his lifestyle and found contentment when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1993. Britain’s most charismatic and engaging World Champion was gone before his time.

Non Championship Races