Hotshoe Spotlight: James Hunt – The Playboy Champion

1974:  JAMES HUNT WITH HIS WIFE SUZI DURING THE BRITISH GRAND PRIX AT BRANDS HATCH. Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK/ALLSPORT

Photo Credit: Allsport UK/ALLSPORT

Much has been written about James Hunt, and with 2013’s Rush, his name made its way into the minds of people who’ve never cared much for racing. The quintessential British playboy racing driver, James Hunt embodied all that was good about the 1970s. Excess, exuberance, sex, drama, and tragedy all marked his climb to the championship in 1976, but much of the racing icon’s life is casually looked over.

The archetypal racer, James is often written off as a hedonistic thrill-seeker without much depth. However, this bland assertion could not be further from the truth. A lucky Lothario with a penchant for speed was only one side of a complicated, multifaceted man. While cool and fun-loving on the outside, his need to prove himself and his strong sense of independence were what carried him from an inauspicious start to the World Title, to an emotional, drug-laden darkened period and back into fine form in only 45 years.

Those three qualities were what set the young man off on what many considered to be a pipe dream. After witnessing a race meeting at Brands Hatch when he was 17, he decided he would not only leave behind his aspirations to become a doctor and instead race professionally, but that we would become the next World Champion. His parents were not willing nor capable of supporting young James’ ambition, so he set to scrape together money through jobs as a hospital porter and a milkman. Hardly surprising then, that no one took him too seriously – a motif that would plague is career.

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However, his persistence and determination saw him through Formula Ford, into a few crash-heavy years in Formula Three, and finally into the hands of Lord Alexander Hesketh and his wild, fun-loving Formula 1 team. The young aristocrat saw James as the perfect bon vivant performer, and his team was the perfect environment for James, who was as interested in the next party or the next woman as how he was in scoring his first Grand Prix points.

James’ problem, in the eyes of his greatest appreciator, Niki Lauda, was that his discipline did not live up to his talent. Simply put, James was not the kind to lounge around the pits and refine the car on a rainy Wednesday morning. Instead, James’ talent and tenacity showed themselves overtly – he was a charger. Dedicated once in the cockpit, James was the kind of driver whose adrenaline would turn him into a fearsome competitor if properly harnessed.

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Fortunately, his team learned the secret to get the most out of their temperamental driver. As the team strapped their hotshoe into the seat, they’d delay. Sitting there with his hands shaking and his pupils dilating, James would begin to boil at his team’s perceived incompetence. Just as he was about to blow his stack, they’d drop the car and off he’d storm, using that energy to find a fast lap. Whereas many top-tier drivers try to calm themselves beforehand to improve their concentration, James’ excitement was his strongest weapon.

His heated approach could get the better of him, and as a result he was awarded the nickname “Hunt the Shunt,” though his crashes, like so much of his life story, is blown out of proportion. However, James was no stranger to controversy, and after emerging from the cockpit of his crashed racing car, competitors and stewards were better off avoiding the fuming young man – he had a knack for knocking down those in the vicinity.

James reveled in the drama, and was not a subtle or understated man by any means. His approach to dress reflected this, as he was prone to show up in jeans and t-shirts at formal events. He also smoked regularly and showed little concern for public relations, once suggesting he was “practicing for his sponsor” after coughing during a television interview.

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His cheeky sense of humor and quick wit endeared him to many, and with good looks and a certain British eccentricity, became a racing hero for many well before his championship title. During that year, 1976, Hunt found himself in a position to challenge Lauda and the dominant Ferrari. James fought hard, dealt with disqualification and hard charges, and kept in contention with the assiduous Austrian, Lauda.

After Lauda’s near-fatal crash at the Nuburgring that year, his stay in the hospital took him out of the running – or so it would seem. However, James and Lauda had been well-matched that year, and this gave the Brit a chance to streak ahead. By the time Lauda returned three races later, James was in a striking position and carried that momentum to the final race at Fuji. Upon dealing with torrential rain, Lauda retired and Hunt stayed in, but buckling under the pressure of the title on the line, destroyed his tires. With seconds to spare, Hunt clawed his way back to third place, where he was awarded four points – just enough to clinch the title.

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Such drama couldn’t be written into a Hollywood portrayal, but that was the nature of the man. After becoming Britain’s greatest sporting hero and achieving his goal, his motivation waned and he retired from the sport after three luckless years. In his post-racing years, without a goal to focus his attentions on, his excesses grew stronger, and the depression he referred to as “the black dog” followed him around as he drank and smoked his fortune away. For a man bursting with life, it seemed an unlikely path. But the reality was, James was a sensitive, complicated man whose reliance on adrenaline was rearing its ugly head. He was seen as a shadow of his former self; a man without direction.

His then-wife was a drug abuser as well, and the eighties began quite darkly for James. As his money ran out, he scrambled for work and found a position as a commentator, where he flourished. Paired with the buttoned-up Murray Walker, the two inevitably clashed. James once failed to appear for the entire Belgian Grand Prix, and later excused himself as “having a tummy ache.” Though not the most dependable, his personality made him a stimulating commentator. In fact, his humor, his eloquence, his irreverence, and his intimate understanding of the sport colored Formula One in a way it hasn’t been since.

However, his new profession hardly kept him afloat. After losing most of his money through poor investments and a divorce caused by his infidelity, he was forced to put his Mercedes up on bricks. His drinking reached a peak as well, and the once-handsome young man looked quite weathered, and his excess had him incarcerated after drunkenly throwing a cup of coffee in a doorman’s face. His life seemed to be spiraling downwards quickly.

As the somber eighties ended, James somehow managed to turn it all around. Kicking his habits and taking up cycling, he found himself full of vigor and enthusiasm once again, and set to cleaning the skeletons out of his closet. His life was a succession of ups and downs; relationships fractiously ending and passionately blossoming. Such was the nature of a man driven by his emotions, who, to used a tired phrase, genuinely packed plenty of life into a fairly short space of time. The day before his passing, he proposed to his girlfriend, Helen Dyson – the woman who helped him set himself straight. James died in his sleep on June 15th, 1993, from a heart attack. He was 45 years old.

Though the commonplace death of James Hunt did not fit well with the life of a man who lived in such extreme ways, his will reflected his lust for life. In it, a decent amount of money was set aside for a wild party to properly send him off. With a crack of the champagne bottle, the soiree was off, and close friends could revel in the idea of having spent time with a free spirit, a challenger of opinions, and a driven, self-made man who managed to squeeze the juice out of life’s lemon far better than most mortals.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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