THERE was a time when James Hunt was the John McEnroe of motor sport. He was the outsider who burst on to the Formula One scene in 1973 with Lord Hesketh's private team, and they all seemed like a lot of public schoolboys out on a wizard wheeze.
Hesketh had rescued Hunt from the obscurity of Formula Three, in which he had regularly been outpaced by the coming man Roger Williamson. At the time when they got together in 1972 he was better known by the nickname 'Hunt the Shunt' because of numerous accidents (not all his own fault), or because of the punch he threw that felled his fellow competitor David Morgan after a collision at Crystal Palace in 1970. Then Hesketh bought a March 731G, hired a young designer called Harvey Postlethwaite and they went gung-ho to the grands prix in 1973. Few observers rated them, until Hunt finished a competitive fourth in the British Grand Prix.
Like Hesketh, Hunt was a very serious young man beneath the veneer of humour. He finished third in the Dutch Grand Prix, in which Williamson was killed, and ended his first season by chasing Ronnie Peterson home in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Peterson was recognised as the fastest man in racing, yet Hunt finished only seconds behind him in an inferior car. He had arrived.
In 1975 he won his first grand prix, in the Netherlands, taking Hesketh's eponymous car to a calculated victory over Niki Lauda's Ferrari. But it was not until Hesketh's team folded at the end of the year and Hunt switched to McLaren that the tall Englishman with the long blond hair and dashing looks finally had the equipment to run at the front on a regular basis.
The 1976 season provided a titanic struggle. After a shaky start to the year Hunt won the Spanish Grand Prix as Lauda recovered from a rib injury sustained in a domestic tractor accident. A string of poor results followed as Lauda accrued valuable points, and then, in a bombshell decision, the governing body disqualified Hunt's Spanish triumph on a technicality. Hunt won in France, but though he subsequently had his Spanish win reinstated, his triumph on home ground at Brands Hatch was again annulled on a technicality. Then Lauda was almost killed in Germany. Hunt won that event and, as Lauda recovered, further triumphs in the Netherlands, Canada and the United States brought the crown within his reach. Hunt went to the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji neck and neck with the Austrian.
Hunt appeared to have victory in the bag after a masterful drive. Lauda had withdrawn in very wet conditions, but then Hunt sustained a puncture. He stopped for a replacement tyre and drove to the finish in a monumental rage that he vented on his hapless team the moment he erupted from the cockpit. He finished third, giving him the points he needed, but it was a long time before he could finally be convinced that he had indeed won the championship.
In the year in which he exploited his title he disappointed many. Rebelliously, he would turn up barefoot at black-tie events clad only in jeans and a T-shirt that invariably broadcast an offensive message. He indulged himself to the full; he was the complete brat.
On the track he was still a feared competitor and scored another three wins in 1977, but thereafter the quality of his machinery waned. In 1979 he switched to the Wolf team, for whom Postlethwaite had designed a new car. But Hunt's heart was no longer in it. He was frequently so keyed up before a race that he would retch before climbing into the cockpit, and the danger preyed constantly on his mind. After the Monaco Grand Prix he announced his retirement.
His private life was scarcely less complicated than his sporting career was extrovert and controversial. In 1974 he married a successful London model Suzy Miller, who left him to marry Richard Burton, and after a long relationship with the model Jane Birbeck he settled down again to marry Sarah Lomax. Their relationship ended in divorce. That, and a series of business-related problems sapped what had once been a sizeable fortune and in recent months Hunt had been living in straitened circumstances in his Wimbledon home.
His career as a motor-racing commentator took off when he joined Murray Walker on the BBC2 grand prix programme, where he indulged his passion for being outspoken to the full. Behind the scenes he was also passionate about collecting budgerigars and would talk about them at great length whenever the opportunity presented itself. It was an indication of his misfortune when he recently sold the entire collection to raise money. Only his companion Humbert remained.
In his later years, he still provoked controversy with his candid comments, yet his popularity was never higher. He was always an outgoing man, and now that the brat image had gone he was a valued part of the motor-racing scene. There were some who disliked his candour (usually those whom it concerned), but he was always his own man and always preferred to speak his mind. And despite his financial difficulties, he remained of great affable humour. He was one of those people whom you looked forward to meeting in a Formula One paddock, and conversations with him were inevitably hilarious and ful
He drove his beloved Austin A35 van around because he could no longer afford to use his Mercedes, but he was never sorry for himself. Recently, when friends gathered in Chelsea Old Church to remember the late Denny Hulme, who won the world championship in 1967, James arrived on his bicycle, wearing jeans and T-shirt, and promptly performed an unselfconscious transformation into suit and tie out on the pavement. He had no time to stand on ceremony, yet there was an engaging dignity in the manner in which he conducted his life.
Besides his commentaries, he wrote magazine and newspaper articles, including a series of columns for the Independent, which revealed an incisive knowledge of the sport, and this he also passed on to young drivers.
The image of Master James long faded, James Hunt had matured into a great champion for the sport and a thoroughly likeable fellow. His sport mourns him.
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