James Simon Wallis Hunt was born on 29 August, 1947, in Belmont, Surrey. The son of a successful stockbroker, he was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire, and his aim was to become a doctor. However, his career plans were to change somewhat when, at the age of 18, he went to see his first motor race.
Ever the flamboyant cad, James Hunt, with his dashing good looks, embodied what many think is the typical English racing driver. He liked fast cars, fast women, drink and drugs, and always let his personality come through, whether on or off the track or even in the commentary box. It is said that at Grands Prix his favourite place to relax was the Marlboro motor home, where he would always have a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and be surrounded by beautiful girls. He wasn't just a playboy, however: many believe that one reason for his abrupt retirement from Formula One was so that he could spend more time rearing his beloved budgies1 for competition.
It wasn't all glamour though. In the later years of James's life, he could no longer afford to keep his Mercedes running, and put it up on bricks to avoid paying the tax. He drove instead an old Austin A35 van, which was perfect for transporting his budgies.
Hunt the Shunt
James Hunt began his racing career by building his own Mini for racing, but quickly moved up through the ranks into Formula Ford and Formula 3, where he earned the nickname 'Hunt the Shunt' by being involved in some spectacular crashes. Somehow he always made it out alive, often against the odds. One of his Formula Ford races ended in the middle of a lake, and he probably would have drowned had he been wearing the seatbelt that he couldn't afford to buy. He never conquered his fear of crashing2, often vomiting through fear before getting into the car, and trembling so much that the car would vibrate on the starting grid. He might never had made it any further, had it not been for the fact that he was good friends with Lord Alexander Hesketh, who hired him as a driver with his fledgling Hesketh team in Formula One in 1973.
James Hunt was immediately at home in Formula One, with his first win coming in 1975 in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. He then joined the McLaren team for the 1976 season, as team Hesketh folded due to lack of funds. He won six Grands Prix that year, in a season that involved disqualification and reinstatement in the Spanish Grand Prix due to supposed technical infringements, and in which his win at the British Grand Prix was taken away from him due to conflict over a first corner accident he was involved in. He finally won the world championship, pipping Niki Lauda to the title by just one point, in no small way thanks to Lauda's near-fatal accident earlier in the season at the Nurburgring, and Lauda's later refusal to race at the final Grand Prix, saying that the wet conditions were too dangerous. Hunt and Lauda remained good friends, however, which wasn't all that usual in an era of huge, yet fragile, egos.
One driver that he didn't get along with, however, was Ricardo Patrese. He blamed Patrese for the crash at Monza that lead to Ronnie Peterson's death, and even though he was later proved innocent, Hunt never forgave him.
His successes were a direct result of his learning to control his explosive emotions in the car. Controlling them out of the car, however, was a different matter. He came to blows with a driver and a marshal, and more than once stood in the middle of the track hurling abuse and shaking his fists at his opponents. James reckoned that because the other drivers thought he was 'barking mad', they let him overtake without too much argument.
1976 was to be the peak of his career - in 1977 he only won three Grand Prix championships and the following year he hardly scored any points. 1979, when he drove for the Wolf team, was his final season in Formula One.
In 1980, James Hunt was back in Formula One, but this time partnering Murray Walker as a BBC commentator, where he would remain until his fatal heart attack in 1993, at the age of just 45. He took a while to get into the swing of things - during the gap between racing and commentating he had fallen into depression and had taken to even wilder partying in an attempt to lift himself out of it. It was hard for him to take his new job seriously, and drunk two bottles of wine during his first broadcast, but he soon got himself back on track and became a reformed character.
James was popular with the public - he didn't seem to care that he was on the BBC and always said exactly what he was thinking. He and Murray had a tentative relationship at first, but soon had respect for each other and worked together well, despite their not-so infrequent arguments, one of which nearly ended in fisticuffs. Their commentating styles couldn't have been more different, with Murray always trying to make the best of things, and James coming out with comments such as 'The trouble with Jarier is that he's a French wally; always has been and always will be.' Another memorable moment was Murray's 'There's flames coming out of the car as he goes into the swimming-pool3' followed by 'Well, that should put them out then' from James.
James was a ladies' man: he was almost never to be seen without a beautiful girl on his arm. However, a few touched him more than most. The first was Suzy, a model, whom he married, but who later left him for Richard Burton. His second wife was Sarah, with whom he had two children, however this relationship ended in divorce. He later found love with Helen, who was half his age, but who accepted his proposal of marriage on 15 June, 1993. Sadly, James was to die of a massive heart attack, no doubt caused by the lifestyle he had led, only a few hours later.
1 It has been said that his first wife gave him his first pair of budgies, and his resulting fanaticism contributed to the break-up of their marriage.
2 Although you'd think he'd have got used to it...
3 A corner of the Monaco circuit.