James Hunt (1947 - 1993)

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James Hunt (1947 - 1993)

James Hunt


By the mid 1970s James Hunt was very much public property. He had battled his way up through a string of accidents in Formula Three to become Grand Prix chauffeur for the rich young Lord Hesketh who was regarded as something of a joke until Hunt started winning races for him. But during the 1975 F1 Season the champagne dried up first and then the money. By the end of the year Hesketh announced he couldn't afford to continue and Hunt was stranded without a drive at a time when all the major teams had settled their drivers months earlier.

By a stroke of sheer good fortune for Hunt, Emerson Fittipaldi told Teddy Mayer he was quitting the McLaren team at the end of December. The marriage of convenience was consummated at the first Grand Prix of the season when Hunt started from pole position. He won the first GP for his new team in Spain, had it taken from him because his car was a fraction too wide, and returned after a protest on the severity of the punishment. From being a flag-waver in a rich man's team, an under-dog against the works teams, Hunt suddenly found himself as a front-line factory driver overnight.

He was expected to win. He was into the big-league money stakes too and he opted to live in Spain to avoid crippling British tax. His marriage broke up and former wife Susie married film star Richard Burton before the end of that season, but the breakup was less than traumatic. She continued to phone James at most tracks. Hunt dined out with the Burtons and was jokingly encouraged to call Richard his father-in-law. Not a very traditional way of running a life by accepted means, but it did speak volumes of James Hunt's personality.

Hunt made the rules as he went along. A trend-setter. Bill Jupe, long-time competitions boss at Ferodo, later told the story of Hunt in the dining room at the plush Villa D'Este in northern Italy wearing a t-shirt when everyone around was dressed for the occasion. Jupe called the head waiter over and told him that he wasn't paying fifty quid a mouthful for his dinner to have some character at the next table in a t-shirt and jeans. Throw him out. The head waiter protested that it was Mister James Hunt. Jupe reminded the waiter that he was speaking to Mister Bill Jupe - and wanted Hunt thrown out! Hunt stayed and Jupe re-told the tale to illustrate the tenacity of the new champion.

James Hunt's Early Life

James Hunt was born in Belmont, Sutton, Surrey as the second child of Sue and Wallis Hunt, a successful stockbroker. His parents were brought up in strict Victorian environments and worked hard to maintain discipline in the family. He had an older sister, Sally, three younger brothers Peter, Timothy and David along with one young sister, Georgina. The family lived in a flat in Cheam, Surrey and moved to a home in Sutton when Hunt was 11 and then to a larger home in Belmont.

Before his 5th birthday, a joung James Hunt was enrolled at a nursery class at Ambleside. He was educated at Westerleigh School in Hastings, East Sussex from 1955 and later Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire, and originally wanted to become a doctor. In school, Hunt played for the Westerleigh cricket team and for two years, played in football as a goalkeeper. He entered a tennis tournament at the age of 12 for the under-16's and lost out in one match making Hunt not accept defeat. In his childhood, he had been fascinated with animals and birds which his family supported.

Behind the wheel of a Tractor

As a child, Hunt had a personality of being persistently rebellious and had violent tantrums. As an adult, Hunt acknowledged that anger dissipated very fast with himself. His parents believed that Hunt had started smoking from the age of 10. His parents tried to persuade him to stop but with no effect. Later on, Hunt had learned to drive on a farm in Pembrokeshire, Wales whilst on a family holiday. He was driving a tractor which was demonstrated by the owner. He found changing gears frustrating because he lacked the strength required.

One week after his 17th birthday, Hunt passed his driving test which he called the time when his life "really began". Hunt also took up skiing in 1965 in Scotland and made plans for further expeditions in 1966. Hunt suffered a sore arm on the journey back to England which remained for some time. Before his 18th birthday, he went to the home of his partner in Doubles Tennis, Chris Ridge. He saw his brother Simon Ridge who raced Minis, preparing his car for a race that weekend. They took Hunt to see the motor race at Silverstone which gave Hunt an instant obsession.

Formula Ford and Formula Three

Hunt's own racing career started off when he raced his own Mini. His first outing ended up being a false start - the Snetterton race organisers prevented Hunt from competing as his Mini was deemed to have too many irregularites. In need of funds, Hunt started working as a trainee manager for a telephone company so that he could afford to enter three events. He graduated to Formula Ford in 1968. He drove a Russell-Alexis Mk 14 which was funded via a hire purchase scheme. In his first race as Snetterton, Hunt had lost 15 hp from an incorrect engine ignition setting but managed to finish 5th. Hunt took his first win at Lydden Hill and also set the lap record on the Brands Hatch short circuit.

Hunt later raced in Formula Three in 1969 from a budget conceived by Gowrings of Reading which brought a Meryln Mk11A. Gowrings had a view to run the car in the final two races of 1968. Hunt won several races and constant high placed finishes which was evaluated by the British Guild of Motoring Writers which awarded Hunt a Grovewood Award as one of the three drivers to have promising careers. Hunt was involved in a controversial incident with Dave Morgan during a battle for second position in the Formula Three Daily Express Trophy race at Crystal Palace on 3 October 1970. Having banged wheels earlier in a very closely fought race, Morgan attempted to pass Hunt on the outside of South Tower Corner on the final lap, but instead the cars collided and crashed out of the race.

Hunt's car came to rest in the middle of the track, minus two wheels. Hunt got out, ran over to Morgan and furiously pushed him to the ground, which earned him severe official disapproval. Both men were summoned by the RAC and after hearing evidence from other drivers, Hunt was cleared by a tribunal but Morgan was given a 12-month suspension upon his racing license. Hunt later met with John Hogan and racing driver Gerry Birrell to obtain sponsorship from Coca-Cola.

The Works March Team

Hunt's career continued in the works March team for 1972. His first race at Mallory Park saw him finish 3rd but was told by race officials he was able to exclude himself from the results when it was discovered that his engine was outside the regulations but had passed scrutineering tests at the next two races in Brands Hatch. In these races, Hunt finished 4th and 5th respectively. He collided with two cars at Oulton Park but finished 3rd at Mallory Park after a long duel with Roger Williamson. The cars did not appear at Zandvoort with Hunt still attending the race, but as a spectator. In May 1972 it was announced by the team that he had been dropped from the STP-March Formula 3 team and replaced by Jochen Mass. When Hunt attempted to contact March, he was unable to get any response from his employers.

Hunt decided to consult Chris Marshall, his former team manager who explained that a spare car was available. This followed a period characterized by a series of mechanical failures, and which culminated in a decision by Hunt, against the express instructions of March director Max Mosley, to race at Monaco in a March from a different team, unexpectedly vacated by driver Jean-Claude Alzerat, after Hunt's own March had first broken down and then been hit by another competitor in a practice lap. After the termination of his racing relationship with STP-March, Hunt joined the Hesketh team, where he was seen as a kindred spirit. The team initially entered Hunt in Formula Two with little success but Lord Hesketh announced that they might as well fail in F1 as in F2, as it wasn't significantly more expensive.

Racing for Hesketh

Hesketh purchased a March 731 chassis, and it was developed by Harvey Postlethwaite. The team was initially not taken seriously by rivals, who saw the Hesketh team as party goers enjoying the glamour of Formula One. The Hesketh March proved much more competitive than the works March cars, and their best result was second place at the 1973 United States Grand Prix. Hunt made a brief venture into Endurance car race at the Kyalami Nine Hours, where he was parterned with Derek Bell with the pair finishing second. After the season's end, Hunt was awarded with the Campbell Trophy from the RAC marking his performance in Formula One as the best for a British driver.

For the 1974 F1 season Hesketh Racing built a car, inspired by the March, called the Hesketh 308, but an accompanying V12 engine never materialised. Hunt's first test of the car came at Silverstone and found it more stable than its predecessor, the March 731. Hunt was retained on a £15,000 salary. The Hesketh team captured the public imagination as a car without sponsors' markings, a teddy-bear badge and a devil-may-care team ethos, which belied the fact that their engineers were highly competent. In Argentina, Hunt qualified 5th and led briefly before being overtaken by Ronnie Peterson before Hunt spun off the track and eventually retired due to engine failure. In South Africa, Hunt retired from 5th place from a broken driveshaft. Hunt's season highlight was a victory at the BRDC International Trophy non-Championship race at Silverstone, against the majority of the regular F1 field.

During the 1975 F1 season Hunt scored a 6th in Brazil and retired with an engine failure in South Africa. In Spain, Hunt led the first six laps before colliding with a barrier with the same cause of retirement in Monaco. He had a further two retirements in Belgium and Sweden which were both down to mechanical failures. Hunt's first win came in the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. He finished fourth in the Championship that year, but Lord Hesketh had run out of funds and could not find a sponsor for his team. With little time left before the 1976 F1 season, Hunt was desperately looking for a drive until Emerson Fittipaldi left McLaren and joined his brother's Copersucar-Fittipaldi outfit. With no other top drivers available, the team management signed Hunt to McLaren for the next season on a $200,000 contract - he was one of the cheapest World Champions ever (Keke Rosberg in 1982 similarly found a drive at the last minute). Hunt immediately caused a stir by refusing to sign a clause in his contract which stipulated he wore suits to sponsor functions. Hunt wore t-shirt and jeans and was often barefoot for sponsor-led functions with world leaders, chairmen of businesses and media moguls.

James Hunt converses through intercom with Teddy Mayer and Alistair Caldwell
James Hunt converses through intercom with Teddy Mayer and Alistair Caldwell during a testing session during 1976, his best ever F1 season.

The 1976 Formula One Season

1976 was Hunt's best year; the season proved to be both dramatic and controversial. He drove the McLaren M23 to six Grands Prix wins. After a slow start in which rival Niki Lauda pulled out a vast points lead, Hunt was disqualified and later reinstated as the winner of the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix for driving a car adjudged to be 1.8 cm too wide. At the British Grand Prix, Hunt was involved in a first corner incident on the first lap with Lauda which led to the race being stopped and restarted. Hunt took a spare car to take victory. Hunt's victory was disallowed on 24 September by a ruling from the FIA after Ferrari complained that Hunt was not legally allowed to restart the race.

At Zandvoort, Hunt overtook Ronnie Peterson on the 12th lap and resisted pressure from John Watson to win. At the Italian Grand Prix, the Texaco fuel that McLaren used was tested and although apparently legal, the Penske cars, running the same fuel, had a much higher octane level than allowed and subsequently both teams were forced to start from the rear of the grid. At the penultimate round in the United States, Hunt started from pole and took victory after a close battle with Jody Scheckter to bring the title fight to Japan.

The Japanese Formula One Title Fight

It was the morning of the last race of the 1976 Grand Prix season, the clincher in Japan, Driving rain has left the Mount Fuji track with puddles that make driving very difficult, very dangerous, but not impossible. Back in 1976 the world knew that the Japanese Grand Prix held the key to the World Drivers Championship and so did the two drivers who battled for it - James Hunt and Niki Lauda. If Hunt could win the GP, he would beat Lauda for the title. Other permutations could also give Hunt the crown but to nail it, he really needed a win - and victory would also underscore his right to the championship.

But Hunt would have to wait. There was a lot of rain that day, and the event was delayed as the drivers and organisers debated when safe racing conditions had returned. Peterson, Brambilla, Stuck, Jones and Pryce were all for racing - "After all", said Pryce at an interview after the race, ''we're supposed to be the best drivers in the world so we should be able to cope with the conditions." But Hunt and Lauda agreed that it was tempting fate, provoking the chances of a crash at best and a fatality at worst for them to be chasing the championship this wet afternoon. Hunt told Lauda that if the race went ahead despite the atrocious conditions, that he would drive, but at a pace to suit the conditions rather than a risk-all race at the front.

Formula One World Champion

Perhaps this was bluff; perhaps Hunt had meant it this time, but when the race started a short time later Hunt stormed off the start into a lead at the first corner and a remarkable advantage of 100 metres at the end of the first lap. Back in the pack, scrambling among the peloton in 17th place, was Lauda, blinded by spray, battling for vision and finding that his eyes couldn't adjust their focus quickly enough, a legacy of the facial burns in his Nurburgring fire. In two laps Niki was out; the 1975 World Champion rolling to a stop and climbing out, all but conceding the title to Hunt. It wasn't the way Hunt wanted to win the championship, he said afterwards. Although he knew Niki had withdrawn, he finished the Grand Prix not knowing that he was the new champion.

"I wasn't racing hard from the 15th lap," he said. "I was anxious to protect the tyres with the track drying out." A puncture in the left rear tyre slowed him late in the race and dropped the car on one side to the point where sheets of sparks flew from the bottoming monocoque body. "I wasn't even defending my lead at that stage, I was just trying to finish without a pit stop," said Hunt. Eleven laps to go and Depailler went ahead in the Elf-Tyrrell six-wheeler only to puncture a rear tyre two laps later and go from a leader to a limper. In second place only five laps from the finish, Hunt had his left front tyre fail on the last corner and scorches straight down the pit lane. A fast change for a set of four new rain tyres and he was away again, cursing his luck, knowing he has lost his chance at the championship, knowing that Lauda could now win from the pit counter.

But on his new wet-weather Goodyears, Hunt was fairly flying on the near-dry track, not hampered now by the need to preserve his tyres. But he had slipped into fifth place. In two laps he came upon Regazzoni and Jones battling for third place on rain tyres that had become slicks with wear. He drove round the outside of them and was instantly third. Confusion reigned in the pits. The pressure of the crucial race was unbearable and Hunt's surprise pitstop frazzled the Marlboro-McLaren pit signals. Hunt was livid as he took the finishing flag, not knowing where he has finished and angry at the team for not signalling him in for a tyre change earlier. When he stopped at the pits and struggled from the seat harness he was totally unaware of the crowd around him cheering, unaware that he was champion. He shouted at team manager Teddy Mayer, cursing him for the pit signals which confused him, shouting that he should have been brought in. Mayer, delight switching to concern, interrupts to say "But you've won the championship!"

Hunt spoke later to journalists claiming he did not believe Mayer. "I thought he must be mistaken. I didn't want to let myself think I'd won if I hadn't. The disappointment would have been terrible. Then everyone started shouting that I'd won the championship and I realised that I really had ..." Hunt didn't only win the World Championship along with eight GPs and eight pole positions, he had survived a season of political wrangling that, as mentioned above, took one Grand Prix from him (the British), threatened another (the Spanish), and penalised him in another (the Italian when he had to start from the back of the grid after the fuel octane infringement). He also had to cope with a slanging match between himself and Lauda, manufactured mainly by the media in the closing stages of the season when feeling was obviously running high. Hunt later told that it all started when one of them was misquoted and the other over-reacted.

It was a situation helped by the complete dissimilarity between the two men - Hunt the flamboyant hippie racer with t-shirt, jeans and sandals; Lauda as the conservative, dedicated, technical driver still recovering from burns and other injuries that would have killed a lesser man after his crash at the Nurburgring.

The Tarmac Trophy

Before the start of the 1977 F1 Season, Hunt attended a gala function at the Europa Hotel in London where he was awarded the Tarmac Trophy along with a two cheques which were for £2000 and £500 respectively, a magnum of champagne and other awards. The presentation was made by HRH The Duke of Kent. Hunt made an acceptance speech after the event which was considered "suitably gracious and glamorous". The media became critical of Hunt as he attended the event dressed in jeans, t-shirt and a decrepit windbreaker.

Before the South African Grand Prix, Hunt was confronted by customs officials who searched his luggage finding no illegal substances but a publication that contravened the strict obscenity laws of South Africa. Hunt was later released and tested at Kyalami where his McLaren M26 suffered a loose brake caliper which cut a hole in one of the tyres. He recovered and put the car on pole position and the race saw Hunt suffer a collision with Jody Schekter's Wolf and another collision with Patrick Depailler's Tyrrell but still managed to finish 4th. The season did not start well for Hunt. The McLaren M26 was problematic in the early part of the season, during which Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti took a considerable lead in the Drivers' Championship.

Towards the end of the year Hunt and the McLaren M26 were quicker than any rival combination other than Mario Andretti and the Lotus 78. Hunt won in Silverstone after trailing the Brabham of John Watson for 25 laps. He then took a further victory at Watkins Glen. At the Canadian Grand Prix, Hunt retired after a collision with team-mate Jochen Mass and was fined $2000 for assaulting a marshal and $750 for walking back to the pit lane in an "unsafe manner". At Fuji, Hunt won the race but did not attend the podium ceremony resulting in a fine for $20,000. He finished fifth in the World Drivers' Championship.

McLaren no match for Lotus

Before the 1978 F1 season Hunt had high hopes to win a second world championship; however, in this season he scored only eight world championship points. Lotus had developed effective ground effect aerodynamics with their Lotus 79 car and McLaren were slow to respond. The M26 was revised as a ground effect car midway through the season but it did not work, and without a test driver to solve the car's problems, Hunt's motivation was low. His inexperienced new team-mate Patrick Tambay even outqualified Hunt at one race. In Germany, Hunt was disqualified for taking an shortcut to allow for a tyre change.

Hunt was greatly affected by Ronnie Peterson's fatal crash in the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. At the start of the race there was a huge accident going into the first corner. Ronnie Peterson's Lotus was pushed into the barriers and burst into flames. Hunt, together with Patrick Depailler and Clay Regazzoni, rescued Peterson from the car, but Peterson died one day later in hospital. Hunt took his friend's death particularly hard and for years afterwards blamed Riccardo Patrese for the accident. Video evidence of the crash has since shown that Patrese did not touch Hunt or Peterson's cars, nor did he cause any other car to do so. Hunt believed, however, that it was Patrese's muscling past that caused the McLaren and Lotus to touch, but Patrese argues that he was already well ahead of the pair before the accident took place.

Walter Wolf Racing

For the 1979 Formula One Season Hunt had resolved to leave the McLaren team. Despite his poor season in 1978 he was still very much in demand. He was offered a deal to drive for Ferrari in 1979, but wary of the potentially complicated political environment at the Italian team, he opted to move instead to the initially very successful Walter Wolf Racing team. Again he had high hopes to win races and compete for the world championship in what would be his last, and ultimately brief, Formula One season. However, the team's ground effect car was uncompetitive and Hunt soon lost any enthusiasm for racing. Hunt could only watch as Jody Scheckter won the World Driver's championship that year driving the Ferrari 312T4. His private life was also becoming increasingly turbulent.

At the first race in Argentina, he felt the car was difficult to handle and on a fast lap, the front wing became detached, narrowly striking his helmet. In the race, Hunt retired due to an electrical fault. In Brazil, he retired on lap 6 due to instability under braking caused by a loose steering rack. During qualifying in South Africa, the brakes on his car failed but he managed not to collide with the wall, but only finished 8th in the race. He retired at the Spanish Grand Prix after 26 laps. At Zolder, a new Wolf WR8 was raced but Hunt crashed into a barrier hard enough to bounce back onto the track. After failing to finish the 1979 Monaco Grand Prix, the race where six years previously he had made his debut, Hunt made a statement on 8 June 1979 to the press announcing his immediate retirement and walked away from F1 competition citing his situation in the championship. Despite going into retirement, he continued to work to promote his personal sponsors Marlboro and Olympus.

Hunt died in 1993 at the age of 45, of a heart attack at his home in Wimbledon, only hours after proposing marriage to Helen. Two days previously, Hunt cycled from his home to Television Centre to commentate on the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix. His funeral service included a solo trumpeter playing lively hymns in an attempt to raise the spirits of the mourners. The pallbearers included his father Wallis, his brothers Tim, Peter, David and his friend Bubbles Horsley. They carried the coffin out of the church and into the cortège which drove two miles to Putney Vale Crematorium, where he was cremated. After the service, most of the mourners went to Peter Hunt's home to open a 1922 claret, the year of Wallis Hunt's birth. The claret was given to him by James in 1982 as a present on Wallis's 60th birthday.
James Hunt
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