There have been a veritable assortment of characters that have graced Formula One over its long-standing history, but there have been those that have truly made their mark in a significant period in their unique way, as did this certain individual. Just after the twentieth anniversary of this driver’s passing, we pay tribute to this iconic racing driver, as the film “Rush” by Ron Howard is released nationwide in the UK today. This film is set during the time of his intense rivalry with Niki Lauda, which spurred the two men to compete at the highest level with no quarter.
The on-track shenanigans from the son of a successful stockbroker, James Hunt, or as he was known, “Hunt the Shunt,” was a straight-talking and clearly opinionated individual. He told it like he saw it and drove fast and hard out on the track, as well as partying like the Formula One equivalent of a rock star when it came to having fun. This is even more personified with a good ally in that party-going life style with motorcycle champion, Barry Sheene, who was also a very good friend.
Hunt was born in Belmont, Surrey on 29th August 1947 into a disciplinarian family led by father Wallis and mother Sue with five other siblings, which moved around the Surrey area via Cheam and Sutton. The family finally settled in a house in Belmont, where he had aspirations of becoming a doctor in later life. However, his sporting prowess was to further showcase talents that would take the young Briton to a different lifestyle all together.
Hunt was a determined individual when it came to sports,, as he played cricket for Westerleigh and was also a goalie when he played football for two years. His competitiveness was further exemplified through a tennis tournament he entered that was for the under-16s and lost out in one match.
This was a sign of things to come for a future that he was destined for, but he would not find that out until a few years later, when a chance meeting took place with his tennis doubles partner’s brother, Simon Ridge, was preparing his Mini to compete in an upcoming event at Silverstone. James was hooked the moment he arrived at the Northamptonshire circuit, as they brought him along to watch to sample the ambience. A passion for racing started its infancy right there….
His racing career started at Snetterton shortly afterwards, but it got off to a false start. He was left rather upset due to his Mini race car not meeting the technical regulations, but this did not deter the hopeful racer. Hunt was able to compete later on that year, having secured the necessary funding to race in three events that season.
His first foray into single seaters began with one of the backbones of the racing pedigree in the UK, Formula Ford, having jumped behind the wheel of a Russell-Alexis Mk 14 for his first race. Even with a fifteen horsepower deficit through the setup of the ignition system being incorrect, he finished a credible fifth. Later that year, Hunt also scored his maiden win at Lydden Hill and set the lap record at the Indy circuit variation at Brands Hatch, which then lead to his rise into Formula Three the following season.
Formula Three saw the plucky Brit make his mark as a man to watch. Hunt was able to race a Meryln MK11A, due to a result of budget being put together by Gowrings of Reading. He won several races, and showed great consistency by also finishing up towards the sharp end of the grid. James was given a Grovewood Award in regards of his achievements, as the British Guild of Motoring Writers said that he was one three drivers that year that had careers that were clearly on the rise.
But with success also comes controversy, which was a staple element of his career over the years, which included foul-mouthed tirades and a bit of physical contact on some well-known occasions. The first well-known incident that started it all rolling was in October of 1970, when he had a coming together with Dave Morgan during the Daily Express Trophy at Crystal Palace after banging wheels whilst battling on track earlier. James pushed Morgan over in a fit of rage, which wouldn’t be the last time he used his hands or fists for that matter to show his disgust. The governing body was not at all happy with his actions, with the Royal Automotive Club pulling them both up on the issue. The tribunal then cleared Hunt with Morgan being given a year’s suspension on his license, as a result of what the others on track had to say about said event.
Hunt then joined the March squad, and was able to make some good headway early on, but was allowed to exclude himself from the results at Mallory Park having finished 3rd, due to an engine technical infringement. His relationship with STP-March abruptly ended at the end of the 1972 season, having been dropped in favour of Jochen Mass, but even though he had raced at Monaco in another March run by a different team, this clearly angered future FIA President Max Moseley, who was expressly against the event taking place, Joining Hesketh Racing in 1972 was the start of a new beginning and a great way to enter Formula One in only the way he could…
Lord Alexander Hesketh brought a sense of opulence and extravagance to the Formula One paddock in 1973, having decided that it would be privy to bring champagne, lobsters and a lot of partygoers into the sport, as well as James being very much a kindred spirit with Lord Hesketh on many levels. The team had purchased a March 731 chassis, which was more competitive on track that the factory team, proving so with a welcome second place at the US Grand Prix. That same year, Hunt also took part in the Kyalami 9 Hours race with Le Mans legend Derek Bell, with the pair finishing second in a rare sportscar outing for the Brit.
The Hesketh 308, a car that was built from the ground up, thanks to its predecessor being the inspiration to the new entity that Hesketh Racing would put into action, however a possible V12 engine that was meant to be there never materialized as a part of the package. Hunt was immediately impressed with the fact that the new car had better stability that the March 731 he used the season before during his first outing in the car at Silverstone. The livery on the 308 may have been sparse, but the devil-may-care ethos hid behind it a stealthy attack through the engineering team’s composition, bringing with it a heady spell of results.
The following year saw James receive a £15,000 salary as a retainer from the Hesketh team to continue his efforts in F1. In Argentina, he showed the competitiveness of the new car by qualifying 5th, before his lead was short-lived, as Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson, overtook the Brit for the top spot, before James spun off track. His troubles then worsened with retirement, as engine failure provided him with the chance for an early bath. He also suffered technical problems in Kyalami too, with a broken driveshaft taking his 5th place finish away, before taking the win at Silverstone for the BRDC International Trophy, which was a non-championship round.
1975 saw Hunt become a true championship contender, as he sped to victory at Zandvoort for his only win of the year, managing to finish a credible fourth overall in the standings. This, however, was before financial difficulties forced Lord Hesketh to pull the plug on the squad, having been unsuccessful on obtaining any sponsorship assistance to keep the team going. There was soon to be a silver lining behind a dark cloud that was clearly heading in the direction of his F1 career, which would prove to be the catalyst to put James up there into the F1 history books.
It was through Emerson Fittipaldi’s move from McLaren to the Copersucar-Fittipaldi outfit, run by his brother, Wilson, that James had a great opportunity to go with one of the teams at the forefront of the sport, and instantly was a man to be reckoned with. 1976 was the year that proved to be both dramatic and exciting and was not without its fair share of controversy along the way. Hunt went on to win six Grand Prix that season, on the way to securing his one and only Drivers’ World Championship, with a fierce rivalry between himself and Austria’s Niki Lauda, who came back from a near-fatal accident in Germany, to fight his rival to the bitter end.
The defining moment of that Championship was the sheer nature of the accident that Lauda suffered on the Nurburgring that year, as it really brought home how dangerous Formula One was. The Austrian was pushing the limits of man and machine, when it came to seeing just who was the best on the track, but it was a moment that would remain ingrained in the minds of many. This gave James the chance to shine, and pulled back the gap to the Austrian, who resolved himself to get back into the Ferrari at Monza, because of the championship fight.
Niki pulled himself back from the brink, having suffered such violent physical and psychological drama as a result of that horrific crash, as his motivation was seeing his friend and now chief rival in the title race get back in touch. No matter the cost, Lauda got back behind the wheel and gave his all to fight for what he felt was rightfully his, and the championship went down to the wire in Fuji that year.
Lauda was unable to finish in Japan, as he had being very vocal about the torrential conditions that the race was going to be held under, and decided to retire on Lap 3 on both safety grounds and the fact that he was unable to blink, due to his fire-damaged eye ducts. It was the final, monsoon-battered race of the season, where James was himself even saying that there should be no race, as the Brit was on the safety council, but was in with a shout of getting both hands on the trophy. He plucked up the gumption to get in the M23, and even misfortune, such as botched communications with the team and suffering a puncture did not stop him from securing the title from Lauda by just one point. It would be another 16 years before Nigel Mansell would be the next British World Champion, when he won with the dominant Williams.
From 1977 onwards, Hunt was to not have the run that he previously enjoyed with McLaren, with more flashes of his temper showing through as well at certain points during the season. He was not held in high standings from an award ceremony perspective, when it came to evening wear etiquette. Even though his acceptance speech for the Tarmac Trophy that he received from HRH The Duke of Kent was classed as “suitably gracious and glamorous,” he turned up in jeans, t-shirt and a windbreaker, which was clearly frowned upon.
But James was never one to completely conform, and this was one of many further indiscretions. This included being fined a total of $2750 at the Canadian Grand Prix for assaulting a track marshal, in other words ‘decking him with a right hook to the canvas’ in boxing terms, and then walking back to the pits in an unsafe manner. His ‘no-show’ at the podium at Fuji later that year was to set him back a hefty fine of $20,000, which would be a major impact on anyone’s finances in that day and age. Lauda and Mario Andretti capitalized that year on the lack of form that the McLaren M26 clearly had from the beginning. Hunt found himself to be the only one able to keep in touch with Andretti and his Lotus 78, and won on home soil at Silverstone that year after staying behind Brabham’s John Watson for 25 laps.
1978, however, was to be one of those years to put at the back of one’s mind, as the Lotus 79 came with heavily efficient ground effect aerodynamics, the likes that had never been seen on a Formula Once car before. French rookie, Patrick Tambay, who was somewhat inexperienced in single seaters in comparison with the Brit, joined Hunt at McLaren. However. The team was slow to react with the M28, meaning all had dropped the ball in failing to respond to Colin Chapman’s outfit in the rapid manner that was needed.
Hunt would then only score four points that season, with his younger teammate even out qualifying him at one point. But it all came to a head when James found himself hurting badly, as a result of the fatal accident that was to be suffered by Peterson at the Italian Grand Prix that season. The Swede’s Lotus ended up in the barriers after being forced off track and promptly exploded into flames. James, along with Clay Regazzoni and Patrick Depailler, rescued Ronnie from the car, but it was to no avail, as the Lotus driver died the following day in hospital.
Hunt squarely put the blame towards Riccardo Patrese with video evidence not even indicating that the Italian driver was at fault. Hunt remained firmly convinced that Patrese’s muscling past caused the Lotus and McLaren to touch, with the Italian begging to differ, as he said he was past the pair before the accident actually happened. The next season was to be James’ last in Formula One, as he joined Wolf Racing having made the decision to leave McLaren.
Even an approach from Scuderia Ferrari was not really a major consideration for James, being incredibly wary of the internal politics that were a mainstay within the Maranello titans of the sport. He was nevertheless hopeful of making it to the top step of the podium once again, but it was not to be the case. With a variety of technical issues plaguing the car run by Walter Wolf Racing including its ground effect properties being no real aid to the competitiveness of the outfit from the onset, the shine, lustre and enthusiasm that James had for the sport was to quickly dwindle into an abyss from which it would not return.
A loose steering rack causing a braking instability at Brazil, coupled with a brake failure in South Africa whilst fighting for as high a spot as possible during qualifying were just some of the faults that could not be hidden by the team. After his non-finish at Monaco, he publicly declared his retirement from the sport that had made him a household name just 6 years after his debut at the principality. He still, however, kept his commitments with personal sponsors Marlboro and Olympus, as he began a new life, but his personal life was still unstable at the best of times.
He had tried to make several attempts at making a comeback, firstly with McLaren at the United States Grand Prix West in 1980, but was only offered half of the $1m fee he demanded by his sponsor Marlboro. The discussions then soon fell flat rapidly, thanks to Hunt’s skiing accident that caused the 1976 World Champion to sustain a knee injury. Bernie Ecclestone had his offer boomeranged back to him with a resounding “No,” as Brabham were offering a £2.6million pound salary for the 1982 season. He even tried testing several cars in 1990 at Paul Ricard, before trying to get back in the race seat with Williams, even though he was found to be several seconds off the pace.
That just showed how ring rust can be a major factor when the evolution of Formula One technology is constant and never ending, as James found out. The next test in 1990 however, was at the beginning of his tenth season providing F1 colour commentary for BBC TV Sport’s popular racing series, “Grand Prix.” The no-nonsense, hard-punching and uncompromising style of delivery of Hunt was a bit brash for some people’s ears, and was at many times very colourful from the very beginning. The unusual pairing of Hunt with commentary legend Murray Walker was to bring forth more viewers over their 13-year partnership, which was sadly came to an abrupt end after the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix, with James sadly leaving us, as a result of a heart attack at just the age of 45.
James provided such candid and honest phrases, when he said the following in response to Murray’s discussion about Rene Arnoux not liking normally aspirated engines during the 1989 Monaco Grand Prix. James’ response was blunt and to the point, and even brought a laugh to some people it seemed: “And all I can say to that is bullshit.” Both James and Murray were completely different in their postures, gravitas and tones when it came to their individual commentary styles, but they were a duo to be well remembered as a great pairing in the history of Formula One commentary.
James’ love for all things in life were to make sure that all facets were explored, no stone was left unturned, as his behaviour on and off the track were not the conventional modus operandi that you would come to expect of an F1 Champion. This is especially the case if having the motto “Sex is the breakfast of champions” on your race overalls was something to brag about.
He had the swagger and confidence to be who he was, engaged in multiple types of recreational activities that all drivers nowadays would not even consider going near, as the way that Formula One is now requires athletes at the top of their game. He drank, smoke and took drugs too, even making sure he had a fling with a lovely lady before putting down the visor on race day. He was the one truly celebrated as an eccentric Englishman, whose playboy status and unruly attitude made him a fan favourite. His wayward streak, however, would come to an event when he met Helen Dyson in the winter of 1989, as James had made SW19 his location of habitat just 7 years earlier with former second wife, Sarah Lomax, who divorced James on the count of adultery. Well, in the words of Monty Python: Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more…..
James’ new found vigour for life was echoed in the changes that he made. This involved amongst other things, giving up the booze and the fags, his two sons now being a major priority in his life, his house and the old trusty “steed,” his Austin A35 van. Helen may have been 18 years James’ junior, with James keeping the relationship heavily under wraps from the prying eyes, but it seemed to have that great calming influence upon a man that was a true vagabond when it came to parties, women and socializing, and meant that the real man behind the façade was eventually revealed. Such a shame that it was not to be fully realized, as it could have been the case that as James’ lust for living life to the full both on and off the track may have eventually caught up with him.
Too bad we’ll never know, as James Simon Wallis Hunt, born on August 29th, 1947, was taken from us all on June 15th, 1993, with a sudden heart attack taking a charming rogue from us all. If there was one phrase that could truly describe how James truly lived, this is the one that can really ring true: “Carpe Diem.”
“Thanks for the memories, James, when the days were fast,
Be it on or off track, you truly showed your class,
But when you were taken from us at your time to pass,
You left a hefty legacy that will very much last.”
Images courtesy of welt.de, motorsportsunplugged.com and Richland F1.