It is 15 years to the day that James Hunt passed away at his home in London due to a heart attack at the young age of 45 years. After watching from the trackside his rise from David “the shunt” Hunt to the 1976 World Champion, it was only at the 1993 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola that I finally had the pleasure to meet James personally.
They – literally – don’t make race drivers like James Hunt anymore. A tall and blond playboy, always exploring the limits on track, living in the fast lane outside race tracks in the true style of a rock star, rather than a sportsman. He was the kind of guy that would show up at some gala dinner with strict dress code wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a pair of jeans… and got in. More than once. Shocking the establishment seemed to be one of his hobbies.
In the seventies a race driver’s overall were increasingly turning into what they are perceived as now: A marketing tool for sponsors. While other drivers were selling every square inch of fabric on their outfits, James thought it would be fun to wear embroidery that read “Sex – the breakfast of champions.” He also quite fancied getting drunk und smoked like there was no tomorrow – an average of 60 cigarettes per day. And, towards the end of his career, even admitted to smoking grass. “I like it, it relaxes me,” he’d grin.
He was also a somewhat short-tempered personality. Always has been. A tussle with opponent Dave Morgan during the Formula 3 race at Crystal Palace in 1970 ended in the guard-rails and the fight continued track-side. At the title deciding race at Fuji in 1976 he climbed out of his McLaren willing to whack team principal Teddy Mayer over what – he believed – seemed to be a strategy mistake that potentially would have cost him the title. It wasn’t James secured the title and Teddy got away just one more time. And there was that incident at the 1977 Canadian GP, when James went off into the gravel and wanted to return to the pits by running across the track. Bad luck for the duty eager marshal who tried to pull James to safety behind the guard-rail… and got his lights punched out instead.
Nicknamed “Hunt the Shunt” in his wild Formula 3 days, Hunt built himself a fine reputation driving for Lord Hesketh’s independent F1 team and winning the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort opened the doors at McLaren to replace Emerson Fittipaldi in 1976. Hunt took the title challenge all the way to the final race at Mount Fuji and a third place in torrential rain lifted him to the pinnacle of his racing career – becoming Formula 1 World Champion. He would win only three more Grands Prix the following year, his career then went into a dive amidst of rumors of alcohol, tobacco and drugs abuse. He signed a deal with Walter Wolf for 1979 but the day after Monaco GP he decided to retire.
It has been voiced more than once that Ronnie Peterson’s accident in Monza the previous year, which ended with the Swede dying in hospital as consequence, took edge off James’ otherwise fearless driving. And that he had been in doubt whether it was all worth the risk, even when he signed his new deal. After a number of financial disasters he accepted the offer to become a TV commentator fro the BBC, leaving him fighting with Murray Walker over grasp the microphone more than once. There’s this delightful little story about the 1988 Belgian GP, where James apparently went off to celebrate his 40th birthday by bedding two girls he had chatted up at the paddock. Unfortunately he failed to show up at the commentary booth on time. The guys at BBC uttered something about a “gastric complaint”, hoping the real story would never surface.
Although it wasn’t much more than a polite conversation over an Espresso I had with James at the paddock of the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari at Imola, James still had that sunny-boy race driver allure about him. Although I was assured by my veteran colleagues Mike Doodson and Gerald Donaldson back then that James really had grown quite a fair bit more of a mature man than he had been in his active days. He was engaged to artist Helen Dyson and had changed his lifestyle, gave up smoking and drinking, and for the first tie in his life he was seriously considering on settling down. He proposed to Helen a couple of months later, just the day before he died. I was shocked to learn that James had died of a massive heart attack. Having met him, it seemed incredible. Just when the former wild boy seemed to have discovered a calmer, happier self, destiny had a different plan for James Hunt.