The controversy over Lewis Hamilton’s comments after the Monaco Grand Prix brought home to me two things: one, that there are a large number of people in this world who lack a sense of humour and two, that the world of the post-race interview has become so stilted, boring, uncontroversial and sponsor friendly that most of them have become interchangeable – take out the team and driver names and you would be hard pushed to say where a quote had come from. This has not always been the case and in the past certain drivers could be relied upon to say or do things that would cause a series of cardiac arrests around the boardrooms of their sponsors if it happened today. One of those drivers was James Hunt.
Some of you may remember his drawling, laconic additions to Murray Walker’s commentary during the eighties and early nineties, some of which caused their own share of controversy – including his blunt, on-air, description of René Arnoux’s claim that non-turbo cars didn’t suit his driving skills – but those of us with a few more miles on the clock will remember him as a driver and a World Champion during the 1970s.
I have always felt a bit of a personal connection to Hunt because we shared the same birthday (August 29th) and this year, on June 15th, I was the same age as he was when he died, which really brought things home to me.
James Hunt was born in Surrey, the son of a stockbroker, and was public school educated and on course to becoming a doctor, when he was introduced to motor racing by a friend at the comparatively late age of 18. He was instantly hooked and decided that this was the career he wanted to follow.
He began by racing Minis, before progressing to Formula Ford and Formula 3, where he raced for the March team. After some controversy with March team director Max Mosely, Hunt switched to the team owned and run by Lord Hesketh, where his rather cavalier driving style fitted right in.
The team ethos at Hesketh was made up of skilled engineering concealed beneath a reckless, devil-may-care exterior, symbolised by Lord Hesketh himself. One of my favourite images from Hesketh racing is of a pit board being shown to a driver requesting him to box with just the word ‘cocktails’ on it. Hunt thrived in this atmosphere, starting in Formula Two, until Lord Hesketh decided that being as F1 was not significantly more expensive than F2, they might as well fail there instead.
A steady first season in 1973, which included podiums at Zandvoort (3rd) and Watkins Glen (2nd), was followed by two seasons which combined mechanical problems and DNFs with podiums, including Hunt’s first win at Zandvoort in 1975. Unfortunately Lord Hesketh was having trouble securing sponsorship for the 1976 season and Hunt took advantage of Emerson Fittipaldi’s decision to join his brother’s team to fill the seat at McLaren vacated by the Brazilian double World Champion, just before the start of the 1976 season. He immediately caused controversy by refusing to sign the clause in his contract which stipulated he wear a suit to sponsor functions, instead he attended them in jeans and t shirts, often even barefoot. Despite all this, for McLaren the signing of this wayward driver was to prove a great decision.
The 1976 season was dogged by controversy for Hunt and McLaren. He was disqualified twice, in the first case in Spain for driving a car 1.8cm too wide, although this was overturned and his win reinstated. The second disqualification happened at his home GP at Brands Hatch where following a first corner crash Hunt took a short cut back to the pits under the red flag and was banned from the re-start. After protests from the crowd the stewards relented and Hunt not only restarted the race, he went on to win it. However a protest from Ferrari was upheld two months later and Hunt was disqualified again, giving the win to his Championship rival, Ferrari’s Niki Lauda.
Lauda had been involved in a near fatal crash at the following race in Germany, which Hunt had won, and he missed the next two races, which allowed Hunt the chance to close the gap again with wins at Zandvoort, Mosport Park in Canada and Watkins Glen. But there was further controversy for McLaren at Monza after problems with the Texaco fuel they were using. Although the problems were more with the Penske cars that were also using it, both teams had to start at the back of the grid. As a result of this, and the retrospective Brands Hatch disqualification, the Championship went to the final race in Japan with Lauda just three points ahead.
The weather conditions at Fuji were appalling and there was some doubt as to whether the race should take place. Eventually the organisers decided to go ahead and the majority of the drivers agreed, although some were opposed to this. The race started and several drivers withdrew from the event, including Lauda – who had not been happy with starting anyway – on lap 2. Hunt lead from the start and for most of the race until the track started to dry out and he began to lose places from lap 62. With Lauda’s retirement from the race he only needed to finish 4th to win the title, which seemed certain until a problem with a rear tyre dropped him back to 5th. Hunt managed to regain a couple of places with just two laps to go and finished the race in third place as the new Drivers’ World Champion.
His next two seasons at McLaren were hampered by uncompetitive cars, especially in 1978 when McLaren were slow to develop a ground effect machine to match the Lotus 79, though 1977 did see Hunt claim a British Grand Prix victory that no post-race protest could take away from him. On the other hand he was affected by the fatal crash at Monza in which his friend Ronnie Peterson died. Hunt was one of the drivers who got Peterson out of the car and for years after he blamed Riccardo Patrese for the crash.
In 1979 Hunt started, but did not finish, his final season in F1, driving for Wolf. The car was uncompetitive and, after failing to finish at Monaco, Hunt announced his retirement from the sport.
Off track Hunt was probably the driver who, more than any other, epitomised the playboy era of motor racing, with a steady stream of women, alcohol and drugs in nightclubs and fancy restaurants, where he would sometimes dine with his pet Alsatian, Oscar. This lifestyle took its toll on him and in his forties he started to clean up his life, settling down with a new partner and overcoming his addictions. Tragically, he died of a heart attack in 1993, aged just 45, hours after having proposed marriage to his partner.
Hunt’s legacy as a driver is denigrated by some, but no one can seriously argue that he did not deserve his World Championship. He was a swashbuckling driver, fast and aggressive. He occasionally reckless, leading to his nickname of Hunt the Shunt, but more importantly he was an individual, who refused to be shoehorned into a corporate image for the sake of the sponsors. This is something to be admired.
As a footnote, in 2007 a Finnish snowmobile race was won by a driver calling himself James Hunt. It was actually another highly individualistic driver and Formula 1 Champion, Kimi Räikönnen, showing that Hunt’s legacy lives on.