Kimi Räikkönen the new James Hunt?

My favourite driver is Kimi Räikkönen, and I often hear him compared to James Hunt in attitude. I know nothing of James Hunt as I was too young when he raced. Can you tell me a little about him and how/if he is similar to Kimi?
Michael Spitale, USA

Dear Michael,

In terms of attitude, Räikkönen is indeed reminiscent of James Hunt, not least in his taste for a drink or three. James, I have to say, was rather more forthcoming in an interview than Kimi, but neither conformed to the stereotype of the Grand Prix driver – and that of course contributed in large measure to their popularity with the public.

I was very fond of James, and his death in 1993 – at only 45 – came as a particular shock, not least because he had latterly changed his way of life, started thinking about his health, and even taken to using a bicycle to get around.

He arrived in this fashion, I remember, for Denny Hulme’s Memorial Service in Chelsea. As we all stood around outside the church, the former World Champion hove into sight – his bike an old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg type, complete with basket on the front.

“Morning, chaps! Back in a minute...” And with that he briefly disappeared. It had not escaped us that James was less than suitably dressed for an occasion such as this, but soon he was back, immaculately suit-ed, having popped round the corner to change. After the service, he reversed through the procedure. That was James.

If Hunt never got quite the recognition he deserved, it is probably because his time at the top of motor racing was comparatively short. In Formula 1 he began to make his name in 1973 and ’74, won his first Grand Prix in ’75, the World Championship in ’76, had another great season in ’77, faded badly in ’78, retired early in ’79.

It was only after his retirement from F1 that he and I became friends – indeed, truth to tell, in his racing days I never much cared for him. At the height of his fame, in the mid-’70s, he had about him a bunch of hangers-on guaranteed to set your teeth on edge.

It wasn’t that they were offensive people, in any important sense, but they maddened you with their self-importance. Glamorous and successful, James was an obvious target for folk of that kind, but when he gave up racing, they mercifully disappeared, and what remained was a man urbane, charming, lucid, kind.

There was nothing about James that was phoney. Later he began a second career in racing, as a broadcaster and journalist, and I was one of many former detractors who came to hold him in great affection, as well as respect.

As a racer, Hunt was of the instinctive kind, and never one to work at it very much. It was the same with squash, another sport in which he was highly gifted: put him on a court, and he gave everything.

He would admit willingly that his approach to racing was not particularly deep, and that he believed both good and bad. He was not one to ‘think himself’ into a Grand Prix for a week beforehand, and never allowed distractions to get to him. Conversely, by his own admission, he was not the man you needed to regenerate enthusiasm in a team when things were going badly.

It was in such circumstances that James retired, and, typically, he did it in the middle of a season. Following his World Championship year, he won several races for McLaren in 1977, but after a poor season in ’78 left to join Walter Wolf’s team. At the Monaco Grand Prix of 1979, his car broke, and he walked away from it without a backward glance. “I knew this was my last race, and I hated that car, anyway. I felt no sadness at all, just immense relief.”

If Hunt always raced with consummate bravery, he was well aware of the risks in an era far more perilous than this one. Often he was sick before a race, but from tension rather than fear. Once in the car, he was all business.

In a car, his natural ability was high, his audacity considerable, his racing brain unusually sharp. Tactically, James was always strong in a race, and this was also to serve him well in his TV work for the BBC.

He became, I think, one of the great sports commentators, the mahogony voice and dry humour meshing perfectly with Murray Walker’s more overt delivery. As an analyst of Grand Prix racing, he was unmatched. There was always the substance of personal experience.

Hunt never artificially romanticised motor racing. “I won’t compromise myself by saying things I don’t mean,” he said. “What tends to happen, in fact, is that I compromise myself by saying exactly what I think!” So, too, he did. James was always honest, not least with himself.

He was a rich man when he retired, but the 1980s were to deal harshly with him. There was a costly divorce, and a series of poor investments progressively dissipated a considerable fortune. There remained, however, his beautiful, slightly tatty, house in Wimbledon, where he lived in splendid anarchy. Invariably the front door, like the French windows, would be open, and a variety of folk would wander through the sitting-room in both directions. Presumably James knew most of them. With his beloved Alsatian gnawing at the sofa, and one of the parrots squawking unsuitable English, he would sit back and smile.

It was an irony that towards the end of his life Hunt worked hard at his fitness, and had given up both cigarettes and booze. “Quite simple, really,” he cheerfully acknowledged. “The tail was starting to wag the dog.” And in the same way he made no attempt to hide that – in his terms – he was close to broke. Whatever his turmoils, his demeanour never changed, and it was perhaps this quality his friends most admired. He had not a grain of self-pity.

Ultimately James came to love racing a great deal, but it wasn’t always so. While he was actually doing it, he once told me, he didn’t really like it very much. He retired young, a few months short of his 32nd birthday, and never regretted it.

After his retirement, the drivers he most admired were Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Not only did he consider them the best, he also had boundless respect for their 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 tooling around nowadays to see who’s got tired brains...”

For all his laid-back irreverence, however, James could be intensely serious when the moment demanded. That was what made him such a gem of a commentator. The mellow voice helped, of course, but he was never bland, never followed party lines. A great performance from a driver or team received due tribute, a poor one stinging rebuke.

Like all journalists, admitted or not, he had his likes and dislikes, and sometimes rattled a cage or two with his observations. On these occasions, when confronted by the object of his criticism, he would fight his corner vigorously, but always with good humour.

I still miss the visits to that lovely house in Wimbledon, with the old Mercedes and A35 van outside, the soppy Alsatian, foul-mouthed parrot and bare-footed owner within. In an age made increasingly colourless by political correctness, he was truly a free spirit, and it was terribly sad that, personally happier than at any time in his life, he left the party so early. “It’s always the bores that stay to the end, isn’t it?” he would say.


November 2019
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