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James Hunt (29 August 1947 – 15 June 1993) was an English racing driver and Formula 1 world champion and subsequently a commentator and businessman. Never one to take himself too seriously, Hunt endeared himself to the British public with his charisma and charm and brought a whole new audience to Formula One in the mid 1970’s.
The son of a successful stockbroker, James Hunt was born in Belmont and educated firstly at Westerleigh School in Hastings and later Wellington College in Berkshire, and originally studied to be a doctor. But just before his 18th birthday, he was taken by a friend to see a motor race, and Hunt was instantly hooked.
Starting off by building his own fast but rather ramshackle racing Mini, and then graduating to Formula Ford and Formula Three, Hunt was noticed as a fast driver with an aggressive tail-happy driving style, but one prone to having lots of spectacular accidents, hence his well-earned nickname of Hunt The Shunt. Hunt was involved in a controversial incident with Dave Morgan in a 1970 race at Crystal Palace – Morgan took both cars out of the race and Hunt furiously punched him, which earned him severe official disapproval. Hunt’s career continued in the works March team, but that disintegrated and he soon fell in with 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 decided that they might as well fail in F1 as in F2, as it wasn’t significantly more expensive (and it allowed Lord Hesketh to parade his yacht, helicopter, Porsche, and Rolls Royce in front of a more appreciative audience). A March 731 chassis was purchased, and it wasdeveloped by Harvey Postlethwaite.
1976 was Hunt’s best year. He used the McLaren M23 to win six Grands Prix in an incredibly turbulent season. After a slow start, he was disqualified and later reinstated as the winner of the Spanish Grand Prix for driving a McLaren that was supposedly 1.8cm too wide. A seventh win at the British Grand Prix was disallowed after a row over an accident at the first corner that Hunt had got involved in. 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 had their cars forced to start from the rear.
Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident in Germany and disqualification in Canada allowed Hunt to close the gap to the Austrian and as they went to the final round in Japan, Hunt was just 3 points behind. The Japanese Grand Prix was torrentially wet, and Lauda refused to race, saying the conditions were too dangerous. After leading most of the race James suffered a puncture, then had a delayed pitstop and finally received mixed pit signals from his team. But he managed to splash back to third place (4 points), enough for him to win the World Championship by just one point.
Early in their careers, Hunt and Lauda had shared a one bedroomed flat in London together, and were close friends off the track. Lauda in his autobiography To Hell and Back described Hunt as an ‘open, honest to God pal.’ Whilst living in Spain as a tax exile, James was neighbours with Jody Scheckter, and they came to be very good friends, with Hunt giving Scheckter the nickname Fletcher after the crash prone bird in the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Another close friend was Ronnie Peterson, to the surprise of many insiders in F1. Peterson was a quiet and shy man, whilst Hunt was exactly the opposite, but their contrasting personalities made them very close off the track. It was Hunt who discovered the brilliant Gilles Villeneuve, whom he met after being soundly beaten by him in a Formula Atlantic race in 1976. Hunt then arranged for the young Canadian to make his Grand Prix debut with McLaren in 1977. Villeneuve came to rely on Hunt for advice and support during his career and Hunt was particularly upset after Villeneuve’s death in 1982.
Hunt’s lifestyle was as controversial as some of the events on track. He was associated with a succession of beautiful women, he preferred to turn up to formal functions in bare feet and jeans, he was a casual user of marijuana, and he lived an informal life near the beach in Marbella. He was regularly seen attending nightclubs and discos, and was generally the life and soul of the party. Hunt was an expert ball game player, and regularly played squash and tennis. He also played on the F1 drivers’ cricket and football teams and appeared on the BBC ’s Sporting Superstars more than once. He was also musically inclined, being able to play the trumpet and piano well. It was often assumed that he did not take racing seriously enough, yet through 1976 and 1977 the results continued to come. He famously wore a badge on his racing overalls that read Sex – Breakfast of Champions.
The following season started unlucky for Hunt, although he won three GPs and several podiums and eventually placed well in the Championship. The McLaren M26 was problematic in the early part of the season, and Hunt’s apathy towards car testing made for a difficult period of races, during which Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti managed to build up a considerable points tally that Hunt could not overcome. Eventually he knuckled down to sort the car’s problems, but unreliability during 1977 cost him a far better result.
Hunt was one of the most charismatic drivers, notorious for his unconventional behaviour on and off the track. Having been part of Formula One when the series was consolidating, and when it was conquering the attention of the motor sport press, Hunt became the epitome of unruly, brilliant, playboy drivers and was celebrated for his English eccentricity. Many latter-day drivers will be compared with Hunt for their antics, among them Eddie Irvine.
Hunt died at the age of 45 of a heart attack.