“It’s now 40 years since the un­for­get­table James Hunt won an amaz­ing world cham­pi­onship”

F1 Racing (UK) - - CHEQUERED FLAG -

They broke the mould when they made James. There’d never been an out­spo­ken and con­tro­ver­sial cham­pion who gripped the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion like he did, and it’s hard to imag­ine there’ll be another given that cir­cum­stances now re­quire driv­ers to al­ways toe the line.

At­trac­tive, im­mensely per­son­able, a wom­an­iser who smoked like a chim­ney, drank like a fish, cared noth­ing about the con­ven­tional niceties of how to dress, and who spoke his mind re­gard­less of the con­se­quences, James could be rude, dis­mis­sive, of­fen­sive and fright­en­ingly short-fused. But he could also be ut­terly charm­ing, cheerful, dev­as­tat­ingly ac­cu­rate in his all-too-hon­est ob­ser­va­tions – and very like­able.

The first time I met him was in dra­matic cir­cum­stances. An­gered by driver Dave Mor­gan’s ag­gres­sive driv­ing in a 1970 For­mula 3 race at Crys­tal Palace, James, on live TV strode across the track and struck Mor­gan down. James was later cleared by a tri­bunal and Mor­gan had his li­cence sus­pended for 12 months.

Three years later, thanks to Lord Hesketh, the ebul­lient Le Pa­tron, James was in F1. Those of you who have seen Ron Howard’s film Rush, the story of the battle for the 1976 cham­pi­onship be­tween James in his Mclaren and Fer­rari’s Niki Lauda, will know the way it went. But such was its drama that its high­lights bear re­peat­ing.

In Spain James won, only to be ex­cluded for a tech­ni­cal in­fringe­ment with the de­ci­sion later re­versed. In Bri­tain he won again af­ter a re-start, but his vic­tory was dis­al­lowed fol­low­ing a Fer­rari protest. At the Nür­bur­gring, Lauda suf­fered a dread­ful crash and the burns that scarred him for life. But, three races on, he was bravely back com­pet­ing in Italy. The ti­tle-de­cider was at Fuji in Ja­pan where, in dan­ger­ous con­di­tions, Lauda with­drew and James fin­ished third, in spite of a punc­ture, to win the cham­pi­onship by one point.

Now he was the na­tion’s hero, but his ca­reer went down­hill from then on. Only fifth in the 1977 cham­pi­onship as Lauda won again, then a lowly 13th in 1978. The fol­low­ing year, now driv­ing for Wolf, he’d had enough. Unashamedly con­cerned about the dan­gers of rac­ing, he an­nounced his im­me­di­ate re­tire­ment af­ter only the sev­enth event of the sea­son, in Monaco.

James’s F1 ca­reer lasted just six-and-a-half years and 93 races (com­pare that with Jen­son But­ton’s 16 years and 284 races) but in that time he not only won ten grands prix and the world cham­pi­onship, but he turned Bri­tain on to F1 through his per­son­al­ity and achieve­ments.

Then his sec­ond ca­reer be­gan as he joined me in the BBC com­men­tary box for 13 years, dur­ing which his wit, wis­dom and out­spo­ken­ness en­deared him to mil­lions of English-speak­ing view­ers world­wide. I was old enough to be his fa­ther and saw life through very dif­fer­ent eyes but, even so, I think we made a good part­ner­ship.

Our last joint com­men­tary was on the 1993 Cana­dian GP. Back then, we com­men­tated on some long-haul events from a Lon­don stu­dio, and James cheer­fully ap­peared af­ter cy­cling from his home in Wim­ble­don. All went well but two days later, my wife phoned me with the shock­ing news that James had suc­cumbed to a mas­sive heart at­tack at the trag­i­cally young age of 45.

James Hunt’s im­pact on the world of F1 was im­mense. He was a unique char­ac­ter who made an in­deli­ble mark on the world of motorsport and will long be re­mem­bered and talked about. Es­pe­cially by me.

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