The annals of Formula 1 history will remember him mostly for his title won in 1976 by just a single point from Niki Lauda, who had miraculously returned from the deadly fire at the Nürburgring. But the story of James Hunt goes way beyond that. He was the epitome of a 1970s racing driver: all instinct and risk, surrounded by women and parties in a life that was spent on the edge. He had huge talent (a lot of which was wasted) and boundless energy – frequently expended on distractions that would throw even the strongest sense of professionalism off kilter. It’s what Enzo Ferrari eloquently described years before as ‘the parabolic curve of champions’. In other words, their rise and fall.
But back to James Hunt. From his early years, he loved all sorts of sport. He played cricket, football (where he was an excellent goalkeeper) tennis and loved skiing too, right up to the point where he broke his arm on a Scottish piste. When he was 17 years old he got his driving licence. And that, as he would point out later, was when his real life began.
At 18 years old he got to know Chris Ridge: the brother of James’s tennis doubles partner Simon Ridge. Chris was preparing his Mini for a club race at Silverstone and invited James along. It was love at first sight between James Hunt and racing. James started to race in his own Mini but by 1968 he was in Formula Ford, which at the time was a real crucible of talent. He made his debut in a Russell-Alexis Mk14, which he paid off in instalments through a job that he had picked up with a telephone company. James finished an excellent fifth on his debut, despite an engine that was down on power. It wasn’t long before he won: at Lydden Hill in Kent – a true temple of British motorsport – while at nearby Brands Hatch, he set the fastest lap of the race.
In 1969 he made his Formula 3 debut, and he was on the podium by the second race together with Emerson Fittipaldi: who would win the first of his three Formula 1 titles only three years later. Hunt’s early career was soon well-known not only for rapid pace but also sizeable accidents, which led to the nickname “Hunt the Shunt”. And it was with this reputation that he looked towards Formula 1.
On the track he wasn’t afraid to get his elbows out; away from it he loved late-night bars and would never say no to a drink or even other things that weren’t exactly becoming of a sporting champion. But why not? He was tall, blond and handsome: women would fall at his feet even before he became famous.
By 1972, Hunt’s racing career seemed to be over, when March pulled the plug on his Formula 2 campaign. But then one day he met the eccentric (and super-rich) Lord Alexander Hesketh. Like Hunt, Hesketh loved glamour, big nights out, and Champagne in the pits. He took the young man on, and so Hunt’s career unexpectedly continued: in a March and then a Surtees. Despite a string of disappointing results, Hesketh then decided to move up to Formula 1. Why? “Because we’re no good at Formula 2!” was the reply…
In 1973, the Hesketh Formula 1 team made his debut. With a teddy bear as their logo and a team manger nicknamed ‘Bubbles’ (after his Champagne habit) the paddock struggled to take the new outift seriously. The car was an everyday March 731 but the work of talented aerodynamicist Harvey Postlethwaite made it surprisingly competitive. Hunt scored points in France and finished fourth in Brands Hatch, setting a lap record. Then he was third in Holland and second in the United States: all of which gave him eighth place in the championship, and the coveted Campbell Trophy for the best British driver of the year.
After three more podiums in 1974, 1975 was the year in which Hunt really emerged. The season was dominated by Lauda and Ferrari but Hunt took the unfancied Hesketh to a memorable victory over the Austrian champion in Holland. And so the scene was set for 1976.
So many books and even films have been produced about what happened that year, including the Ron Howard film Rush in 2013. To this day, 1976 remains the most dramatic and unpredictable season in Formula 1 history. It got underway with Lauda and Ferrari dominating as they had done the year before. Hunt, who by then had moved to McLaren, was the other side of the coin to Lauda. The two of them were fierce rivals on the track but good friends off it. Niki was known as the ‘computer’: he never made mistakes and took application to the next level, as the first real example of a driver who showed single-minded dedication to his cause. Hunt was the exact opposite: an anti-establishment rebel who used to go round the paddock barefoot, laughing and smoking (not only conventional cigarettes.)
Hunt regularly posed for advertising campaigns bare-chested in his overalls, with practically topless models hanging off his arm. When August came round, Lauda seemed unbeatable in the championship. Among the few races he had not won was Spain, where he competed with a broken rib, and France, where the Ferrari’s engine gave up. Hunt won both those races. Then in Germany on 1 August, the Ferrari driver ended up in hospital after a terrible accident in the wet at the Nurburgring.
The toxic fumes from the fire that destroyed the Ferrari also poisoned his lungs, while the flames ravaged his face and head. When Lauda returned to racing in Monza after missing two races, he found that Hunt had closed right up in the points table. The end game of the championship would take in the United States, Canada, and finally Formula 1’s first race in Japan. The Englishman dominated the American races to give himself a real shot at the title and arrived in Japan early; apparently in order to acclimatise to the time difference.