News of his death stunned the world of racing and beyond. Mansell said: 'This is a terrible shock to me. He was a fantastic character and he will be a great loss to the world of motor sport.'
Lord Hesketh, his mentor and benefactor in the Seventies, said he was 'devastated', adding: 'I would look at myself and then at him, and he was so fit. He was truly outstanding and represented the archetypal British sportsman.'
Stirling Moss, perhaps the best driver never to have won the championship, said: 'You don't win the title without being very good and as a man he was terrific. He had given up smoking, given up drinking, he was dieting, riding a bicycle and training.'
Hunt retired in 1979 and joined Murray Walker in the BBC commentary box the following year, a partnership which endured and flourished until Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix. More recently, Hunt also became a newspaper columnist.
Last night, Walker gave this appreciation of his colleague: 'James Hunt was rare among top sportsmen in that he was supremely good at talking with dignity, authority and expertise about his chosen sport. His comments about the craft of driving a grand prix motor car were sometimes provocative, sometimes contentious, but always fair.'
Hunt had always been provocative and contentious. His individuality was his strength and attraction. He was intelligent, articulate and forthright, often unconventionial in
manner and dress. He thought nothing of walking into a five-star hotel barefooted.
He once said: 'I wouldn't call it a noncomformist attitude. I think it's a practical one. I am anti-humbug and bull. That is just part of my philosophy of life. I suppose one goes through phases. I went through my hippy phase when I was driving. I am still a bit of a hippy at heart, but just a bit too old to be practising.'
That he lived and died around the corner from the All England Club is a great irony. His early sporting love was tennis. The son of a stockbroker, he went to public school and was supposed to become a doctor.
Then, at 18, he was steered both away from tennis and the medical profession. He explained: 'My doubles partner took me to watch his older brother racing at Silverstone. He was driving a Mini he built himself. It was only a club race, but I thought 'This is pretty bloody good' and decided that was what I was going to do. It was as simple as that. I started in a Mini.'
Success was not as simple as that and, in classic motor racing tradition, he had to undertake a series of jobs, including ice-cream selling, to fund his new obsession. A number of accidents prompted the nickname 'Hunt the Shunt', and his career seemed to be going nowhere until he linked up with Lord Hesketh, a large man with a large estate near Towcester and a still larger appetite for life.
Despite an ill-starred stint in Formula Three, they advanced, via Formula Two, to Formula One. They ran a March-Ford in 1973 and, in the following year, the Hesketh Ford was introduced to grand prix racing. So was the Hesketh-Hunt lifestyle. And yet the joviality and champagne belied the professionalism of the team. They had their fairytale victory at the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix.
Financial pressures, however, proved too much for the team and Hunt had to seek another drive for 1976. There was a vacancy at McLaren, and he took it. At the end of his first season with them, during which he won six races, he was world champion. He edged out Niki Lauda by one point after the Austrian
refused to continue in the rain at the Japanese Grand Prix, the final race of the 1976 season.
His rivalry with Lauda intrigued the world and was always a source of investigation for the press. So what was their relationship like? He told me: 'I got on very well with Niki and always had done. For example, at Watkins Glen, in 1976, we had adjoining rooms with a connecting door and in the evenings we had our door open and we socialised together. I'll never forget Niki's attempt to psyche me on race day.
'I always got up at 8am on race days to be at the circuit at nine. Knowing full well what time I had my call booked for, he barged into my room at 7am. He was fully bedecked in his overalls and stood to attention as he said: 'Today I vin zee championship]'. With that he marched out again. I thought it was hilarious.'
Hunt joined the Wolf team in 1979 but, saddled with an uncompetitive car, he decided to retire mid-season. Contemporary observers said he was often ill with worry before a race and he saw no point in risking his life when he had no prospect of winning.
Lord Hesketh said last night: 'He told me at the time he was going too fast and didn't want to continue. That was probably the bravest decision he ever made.'
His decision to join Walker in the commentary box was some consolation for his fans. Walker stood, ranted and raved; Hunt sat, analysed and generally said what he thought. They were the perfect combination.
Most of the world's top drivers bore the brunt of Hunt's withering wit and assertions, but he was never discouraged from being himself. Hunt said: 'I try not to make a strong comment unless I'm certain I'm right. I think, by and large, that I am and the people who are having the finger pointed at them by me are happy to take it because they know I am right. When I have been wrong, I have been at pains to rectify it.
'The only person who has ever said anything to me is (Nelson) Piquet and that was just Piquet being childish about my calling him childish. One would expect it.' Just as one would have expected Hunt to be Hunt.
He revelled in his television role as foil to Walker and found diversion in breeding budgerigars. Last year, on the weekend of his 45th birthday, he revealed he would have to sell them. He also said: 'I'm sure Murray will go on long after me.'
THE JAMES HUNT FILE
Grand Prix career: 92 races; 10 wins; poles 14; 179pts.
1972-75: raced for Lord Hesketh in March and Hesketh cars.
1975: won Dutch GP.
1976: joined McLaren. Won world championship.
Brazilian GP: Did not finish, accident. South African GP: Second. United States GP West: Did not finish, accident. Spanish GP: First. Belgian GP: Did not finish, transmission failure. Monaco GP: Did not finish, engine failure. Swedish GP: Fifth. French GP: First (originally disqualified but reinstated on appeal). British GP: Disqualified for technical infringements. German GP: First. Austrian GP: Fourth. Dutch GP: First. Italian GP: Did not finish, accident. United States GP: First. Japanese GP: Third.
1977: won British, United States and Japanese GP
1979: joined Wolf; retired
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