Few Formula 1 drivers are truly born to be in the spotlight, and one of the few blessed to do so was James Hunt. Quick – but hardly convincing – in his early career, he graduated to Formula 1 and struck gold, confounding his critics to win the 1976 World Championship crown.
Outspoken, humorous and an utter prankster, Hunt was also a made who battled terrible demons during and after his motorsport career, and his death – on this day in 1993 – shocked many around the world, just as he was starting to get his life back on track.
Born into a well-to-do family in Surrey, James had to secretly fund his early motorsport outings with a job stacking shelves at the local Sainsbury’s. Starting out in a Mini, he moved into Formula Ford and up into Formula 3. Quick and wild, he earned the moniker ‘Hunt the Shunt’ for his many accidents.
It wasn’t until 1970 that success started to come his way. He won the European championship rounds at Rouen and Zolder, and shot to further prominence when he was involved in a last-corner accident with Dave Morgan at the Crystal Palace race. Clambering out of his battered car, he strode across the track and punched Morgan in the face!
His 1971 F3 season saw speed and controversy in nearly equal measures – rarely at the same time, however – and he moved to March’s works team in 1972 and then into Lord Hesketh’s Dastle team when the March operation fell to pieces.
It proved a stroke of good fortune. Almost immediately, he moved with the team into Formula 2 and promptly put the car on pole on debut at the Salzburgring. He led until the engine died, but backed that up with a fine podium at Oulton Park. People were starting to take notice.
Hesketh decided that his team should move into F1 and bring Hunt with it, and James didn’t disappoint with a scintillating performance in a rented Surtees at the Race of Champions to finish third.
The team acquired a March 731 for its debut F1 season, and Hunt delivered with great performances at Zandvoort and Watkins Glen. The following season saw the team launch its own bespoke car, and it was an immediate success when Hunt won in it at the International Trophy. But it was an up-and-down year overall, blighted by mechanical issues and driver errors – but he still put in a few sparklers, such as his drive to third at Austria after an early pit stop.
Hunt was now starting to gather serious attention, and his talent was totally confirmed in 1975 when he took the Hesketh to an incredible win at the Dutch Grand Prix, holding off Niki Lauda to the chequered flag. He backed this up with three more second-placed finishes at Argentina, France and Austria.
The strains of running a self-funded Grand Prix team were proving too great for Lord Hesketh by the end of the year, and James found himself let go so some paying drivers could be brought on board to keep the team afloat. He was without a drive for the 1976 season until, as luck would have it, Emerson Fittipaldi made the career-destroying decision of joining his brother Wilson’s Copersucar team. This left a vacancy at McLaren which Hunt gladly snapped up.
The 1976 season will go down as one of the greatest and most dramatic in the sport, and it’s currently being made into a much-anticipated film, Rush, directed by Ron Howard.
Hunt fought all season long with his great friend Lauda, in a battle that recaptured the public’s interest in the sport. He won (via the appeals court) at the Spanish Grand Prix, and followed this up with a win at France. After controversially being disqualified from his home race, it seemed his championship hopes were all over, but then came Lauda’s fiery accident in Germany.
Niki’s absence from the grid allowed Hunt to close the points gap, and his momentum – coupled with a cautious and still-injured Lauda now returned to action – saw the gap narrow with further wins in Canada and the United States.
The pair would have their championship showdown at Japan’s Mt Fuji circuit in the final race. Lauda withdrew from the action in soaking conditions, while Hunt tiptoed through the flooded track to finish third and claim the championship crown.
James was the darling of the media and the intense public scrutiny saw him become a regular headline-maker. There was his much-publicised marriage breakdown with his wife Susie (who ran off with actor Richard Burton), as well as constant rumours of heavy drug and alcohol use, which ran long after he retired.
His championship defence was the start of a slow decline for James. While he still managed to put in some superb drives in the McLaren, his motivation seemed to wane and the increasingly-nervous Hunt showed more reluctance to go racing.
With Lotus beginning to master the art of ground effect in 1978, McLaren struggled for competitiveness and Hunt’s motivation suffered further. He made the ill-fated decision to move to Walter Wolf’s eponymous team in 1979, but abruptly quit after seven races, glad to be free of the confines of racing.
But another career path would open up for the articulate and outspoken Hunt, when he joined Murray Walker in the BBC F1 commentary booth. The pair were like chalk and cheese, and (the sometimes inebriated) Hunt would enliven the dullest races with his astute and dry-humoured ‘colour commentary’.
By the early 1990s, James was finally starting to get his life back together, giving up the alcohol and cigarettes for good, and beginning to invest more time with his two sons, whom he adored.
Battling financial troubles – which he kept remarkably private – Hunt went on a major health kick and rode almost everywhere on his bicycle, even into London to the BBC studios to record his ‘flyaway’ race commentary with Murray Walker.
On the weekend of the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix, James proposed to his then-girlfriend and rode into the London studio to record his commentary with Murray. Upon returning home, he suffered a massive heart attack. The Formula 1 world would be robbed of one of its most charismatic and fascinating characters. He was just 45 years old.
Rest in Peace, James Hunt.
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