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James Hunt's was a turbulent life lived to the limit - in and out of racing cars. As a driver he overcame constant fear and enormous odds to become the best in the world - triumphing in one of the most dramatic championship battles in Formula One history. As a colourful personality and unconventional character he had no peers - alternately entertaining admirers and offending critics with his often outrageous behaviour. After he retired he continued to make a strong impact, as a TV commentator, but died suddenly in the prime of his life.
James Simon Wallis Hunt, born on August 29, 1947, into the family of a London stockbroker, was an unruly child: hyperactive, contrary and persistently rebellious. As a self-confident, competitive and determined youth he taught himself to play tennis and squash to a high standard. The tall and handsome public schoolboy also enjoyed considerable success with women. On his 18th birthday he saw his first race, a club meeting at Silverstone, and immediately decided to he was going to become World Champion. His parents refused to support their feckless son's foolish Formula One fantasy. James worked at odd jobs, bought a wrecked Mini and spent two years race-preparing it, only to have his first entry fail scrutineering because the driver's seat was an old lawn chair.
Many of his early races ended in huge accidents. In one of them his Formula Ford crashed and sank in the middle of a lake. He might have drowned had he been wearing the requisite seatbelts he couldn't afford to buy. In faster Formula Three cars 'Hunt the Shunt' had even bigger accidents. Eventually he learned to stay on the track long enough to win races, but never conquered his fears. In the garage his terror often caused him to vomit and on the grid he shook so much the car vibrated. As a racer his volatile mixture of adrenaline and testosterone made him among the hardest of chargers. However his reputation as a wild man with middling race results meant it unlikely he would have gone much further without the help of Lord Alexander Hesketh.
'The Good Lord' (as James called him) was an eccentric young British aristocrat who inherited a fortune and spent it lavishly on personal entertainment. Though he knew nothing about motorsport he decided to amuse himself by forming his own racing team and hired 'Superstar' (his nickname for Hunt) as his driver. The Hesketh Racing team had limited success in Formula Three and Formula Two but gained notoriety for seeming to consume as much champagne as fuel and for having more beautiful women than mechanics. Since the Good Lord was having so much fun in racing's lower ranks he thought it naturally followed that even more sport could be had at the highest level.
When Hesketh Racing arrived on the scene in 1974 the Formula One fraternity thought the team was a joke. The ridicule became grudging respect when James Hunt's Hesketh beat Niki Lauda's Ferrari to win the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix. At the end of that season, however, Lord Hesketh announced he could no longer afford trying to produce the next British World Champion and James was out of a job.
Fortunately, just prior to the start of the 1976 season he was the only experienced driver available to fill an unexpected vacancy when Emerson Fittipaldi left McLaren. James was immediately fast but only became a regular winner when he learned to control his explosive emotions, though he remained prone to temper tantrums. He attacked a driver and a marshal with his fists and on more than one occasion stood in the middle of the track screaming profane abuse at bemused opponents. James joked that his reputation for road rage made rivals move out of his way: "because they thought I was barking mad!"
His closest friend among the drivers was Niki Lauda, with whom he became embroiled in a thrilling battle for the 1976 driving title. Lauda had been well in front until he was nearly killed in a fiery accident at the Nurburgring. James won that race and five others to force a championship showdown with the miraculously recovered Lauda in the last race of the season. It was so wet in Japan that Lauda decided it was too dangerous to race and parked his Ferrari after a couple of laps. Hunt stayed out in his McLaren and drove furiously to finish third and become World Champion.
His good looks, extrovert personality and unconventional behaviour made the 'Golden Boy' hugely popular with a wide public. He had a commanding presence and spoke impressively in a deep voice with a cultivated accent, saying exactly what he thought. He hated dressing up, always wore tattered blue jeans and often walked around in his bare feet, even on formal occasions. He drank heavily, smoked 40 cigarettes a day, occasionally took drugs, had a madcap social life and a succession of beautiful girlfriends. He married one of them, Suzy, a fashion model who eventually left him for the actor Richard Burton.
While he became a media darling for the tabloid press his behaviour was less appreciated by Formula One journalists, who found him a frustrating mixture of boisterous charm and overbearing conceit. Twice he was voted the least liked driver and despairing members of the Formula One establishment accused him of bringing the sport into disrepute.
Having achieved his championship goal his enthusiasm for racing began to wane. He admitted he never really enjoyed driving and finally, after two more seasons with McLaren, then a few races with Wolf, he retired mid-way through 1979: "for reasons of self-preservation."
He found it difficult to adjust to civilian life and suffered deep depressions that even wilder carousing failed to dispel. In 1980 he began working (with Murray Walker) on BBC television's Formula One coverage. At first, James did not take it seriously (he drank two bottles of wine during his first broadcast) but soon became a highly respected, articulate and opinionated commentator. In his private life he became a reformed character. A second marriage, to Sarah, ended in divorce but produced two sons to whom James became deeply devoted. He fell in love, with Helen, a beautiful blonde half his age. On June 15, 1993, she accepted his marriage proposal. A few hours later James Hunt had a massive heart attack and died at the age of 45.
Among those shocked by his sudden passing was his old friend and rival Niki Lauda, who said: "For me, James was the most charismatic personality who's ever been in Formula One."
Text - Gerald Donaldson