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