Motor Racing: Foot down with a blind corner ahead: James Hunt's personality didn't need embellishing by any marketing man. Richard Williams reports

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The Independent Online
WE SEE the blond hair, the open smile, the charm and the champagne, the trophies and the girls and the patch on his overalls that doesn't advertise fags or petrol but says: Sex is a high performance thing. And sometimes that is all we see.

'James always could get depressed,' Anthony 'Bubbles' Horsley said one day last week, looking out of his drawing room window over the gentle green acres of Northamptonshire. 'He did have mood swings.'

Ironically, the biggest mood swing of all came in the hour of his greatest triumph, when Hunt had just taken the prize for which he'll be remembered.

'I think when he'd done it,' Horsley continued, 'when he'd won the world championship, when he knew he was the best, there was an element of, 'Well, what was that all about?' And that, I think, is the difference between him and a lot of the others.'

Two days after the discovery of Hunt's body at home in Wimbledon, Bubbles Horsley was still slipping into the present tense as he talked about his friend. Not surprising: they had known each other since the early Seventies, when Horsley and Lord Hesketh had talked Hunt into joining their racing team, which they'd started 'for reasons of boredom, to fill weekends'.

They were raffish young ex-public school boys: Horsley, 28, had been to Dover College; Alexander Hesketh, 22, to Ampleforth; Hunt, 24, to Wellington. Kindred spirits flocked around them. 'It was probably the only team,' Horsley said, 'in which the second richest member was the van driver.' Second to Hesketh, of course. The young master of Easton Neston was paying the bills.

The gentleman van driver, Charles Lucas, was a grandson of the man who built St Pancras station, the Albert Hall and the docks at Buenos Aires. The bacon sarnies were cooked by Tom Benson, who had a fashionable restaurant in Beauchamp Place. The team photographer was Christopher Simon Sykes, who now does opulent picture books of gardens and the English countryside. Together they mixed the amateur spirit - parties, booze, recreational drugs, girls, yachts in the harbour at Monaco - with a carefully disguised professionalism, and were winning grands prix by the time Hesketh ran into cash-flow problems in 1975. Hunt moved on to McLaren and the championship while Horsley, eventually, went into commercial property, but they stayed friends, godparents to each other's children, talking about racing, making deals together.

'He kept his mates,' Horsley said. 'That was one of the things. All his mates were from when he was racing his Mini, or playing squash or golf, or school-mates. He moved in and out of the glamorous world, completely at ease with it, and yet it never got inside him. They didn't convert him, if you like. The marketing men convert people - like Mansell, a Brummie lad struggling for years, now a superstar with his own jet, moving around like royalty. They've converted him. They've got him. He can now be merchandised. They never got James. James never had those desires. No matter how much money he had, he never would have wanted a jet.'

What he ended up with, though, was a rusting Mercedes on blocks in his drive, wheels off, too expensive to run, stranded next to the A35 van and the pushbike that were the transportation of his last years. As it turned out, wanting a bit more might not have been such a bad thing. But once was enough for James Hunt: in his case, the single championship that always leaves room for doubt. Not just in the public's mind, but in his own.

The great champions in any sport are the ones who, having won the thing, go straight back and win it again. Niki Lauda, for instance, had won the title in 1975, and was to take it again in 1977. But in 1976, when Hunt won it, the Austrian had his bad crash at the Nurburgring, which kept him out of two vital rounds and, even after his astonishingly courageous return, reduced his powers. So Lauda's shadow has always hovered over Hunt's title.

'Because of that,' Horsley said, 'I think he felt that his championship wasn't taken as seriously as it should have been, that there were people who said that if Lauda hadn't had the crash, James wouldn't have won it that year. And I think that was a regret. I think that hurt him, because if you actually looked at the facts and the figures, it was not true. It was a fair win. You can't take that away from him.'

He'd won the title with McLaren, and he stayed there for the following season, winning three more grands prix but finishing only fifth in the championship. In his third season with the team a solitary third place was his best result, and 13th was his final place in the season's standings. Nevertheless his two post-championship years had set him up financially, and his lack of hard ambition was evident when he turned down the chance to move to Ferrari, at a time when the Italian team was still competitive. Instead, for 1979 he went back to a private team, this one run by a Canadian industrialist, Walter Wolf. But the Wolf-Ford could offer him nothing, and by this time the damaging effects of self-indulgence were being compounded by fear.

'Yes, he got frightened,' Horsley said. 'It was demoralising for him. In the end he said, 'I don't want to kill myself struggling for seventh place.' I think that's what got to him. How it manifested itself, whether as fear or frustration, whether he sought to escape from that in drink, girls, whatever . . . possibly. He must have known that his career was in decline, that he wan't in the right team, that it wasn't working for him, and yet his talent hadn't declined. It's rather like a film star who's suddenly getting bum scripts, but he needs to do it because that's what he does, he needs the money, and therefore he does it. But in the end the scripts got so bad . . .'

So bad that at Monaco, seven races into the season, he got out of the car and quit cold. The first champion to retire in mid-season since Fangio, who at least had the excuse of being 47 years old, with five titles on his mantlepiece.

After his death, the newspapers concentrated on his financial misfortunes: 'The hero who died penniless', said the front page of Wednesday's Express. Which goes back to Horsley's remarks about Hunt's unwillingness to market himself and his championship.

This year, Ayrton Senna is probably getting a million dollars a race. Twenty years ago, in his first season with Hesketh in Formula One, Hunt took a retainer of pounds 2,500 - with which he bought a Ford Capri, and the best in- car sound system he could find - plus 45 per cent of the prize money. The whole season, including seven grands prix, cost Hesketh pounds 78,000. In 1974 Hunt's retainer rose to about pounds 10,000; and, since the team was now building its own cars rather than renting them, the proprietor's liability shot above pounds 200,000. After a handful of races in 1975, including a victory in the Dutch Grand Prix, Hesketh told Horsley that he could no longer support the team.

Things got so tight that Horsley was having to buy an engine with the revenue from sales of their famous T-shirts, featuring a helmeted teddy bear and a union jack. To get the team to the French Grand Prix, he had to sell Hesketh's Rolls-Royce. 'We didn't have the money to go, and I saw it parked in front of the house, so it went. He came back and said, 'Where's my Rolls-Royce?' I said, 'It's gone.' He wasn't very pleased. He forgave me when we came second, though.'

By that time, Hunt was driving for nothing - or at least letting Horsley run a tab. 'He was very good. In fact he was very good in 1976, too, when he'd gone to McLaren. He gave us lots of time to pay him for the previous year. He was supposed to get pounds 75,000, and eventually he got about half of it. He had a Porsche, too, which he kept.'

So Hunt signed with McLaren and won his title. Horsley and the team took sponsorship from Penthouse magazine and Rizla cigarette papers and, in Horsley's words, 'went from the front of the grid, from being the glamour boys, to the back of the grid, and forgotten. But on the other hand the bank balance went from zero and filled up again.' The carefree amateurs had become grafting pros.

By 1978, though, the game had lost its joy. 'I think there are those for whom motor racing is an obsession, like Frank Williams. For us, though, while it was fun, while there was a chance of winning, we'd do it. But when it stopped being attractive, and the alarm would go at five o'clock on a Wednesday morning to tell you to go down to Gatwick and get the charter flight, and you found yourself thinking, 'Oh, God' . . . then it was time to stop. James stopped, too. And he felt a huge relief. He never regretted it.'

There was a night club in Marbella, which went bust. There were relationships which ended and cost him money: the amicable divorce from Suzy Miller, and the split from Jane Birbeck, to whom he was generous, and the less than amicable divorce from Sarah Lomax, the mother of his two sons, which made a few lawyers a lot wealthier. He was also in Lloyd's - 'not one of the racier syndicates,' Horsley said, 'but he was never very rich, and when you combine all that with a recession . . .'

It was a problem of transition, of course. 'When you're a driver in Formula One,' Horsley said, 'your days are completely organised for you. You don't have to think. When that stopped, he was lost for a bit. And I think it led to some of the problems with his relationships. But he'd turned the corner. He was much, much happier in the last year or so. He wasn't drinking, he was getting much fitter, he was beginning to see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. And also, of course, discovering that life doesn't really change if you're driving around in an A35 van and bicycling everywhere. It's actually not that different from driving around in a pounds 70,000 Mercedes.'

Of all that Bubbles Horsley had to tell me about James Hunt, I liked best what he said last. 'James was a very good father,' he said. 'He understood people and situations. He could take a small child who was very unhappy about something and walk off with him and talk it all through and really communicate - he was a marvellous communicator, which was why he was so good on TV. And the child would come back grinning and everything would have been solved, just with a few words. That was one of his great strengths. But people who're brilliant at solving other people's problems often struggle with some of their own, don't they?'

(Photograph omitted)