The 1970s was the decade of excess. It was a decade of glamour. It was a decade of mavericks. It was the decade of fun. No driver better encapsulates the 1970s than James Hunt. The flamboyant, quick-witted driver, with his devil-may-care attitude, brought Formula One to the front of the British consciousness. Hunt was a mainstay on the back pages of newspapers for his driving talent and the front pages for his alcohol bathed playboy image and excesses. He was also World Champion and engaged in a legendary rivalry with Niki Lauda.
Graduating through Formula Ford and Formula Three, Hunt gained the moniker ‘Hunt the Shunt’ for the level of damage he seemed to attract. Even at an early age, Hunt courted controversy, especially for his boxing skills in 1971.
Struggling for funds, Hunt caught the eye of Aristocrat, Lord Hesketh. Hesketh injected some much-needed funds into Hunt’s Formula Two career, where he was driving a March. The Hesketh-Hunt partnership stayed together as they took their first foray into Formula One.
1973 saw hunt deliver some good performances in a customer March, culminating in a second place finish at the season-ending US Grand Prix behind Ronnie Peterson.
For 1974, Hesketh introduced its own chassis for Hunt. Of course, it was painted in patriotic red, white and blue. It was also notable for not having any sponsorship stickers– something utterly incomprehensible today. Even though they cultivated a playboy image–one which Hunt despised–, the team had a successful first season that upset the establishment. Hunt managed a trio of third places in Sweden, Austria, and America.
1975 saw an escalation of success for the team. Hunt first won the International Trophy at Silverstone, before claiming that first Championship win at that year’s Dutch Grand Prix. The driver he beat for that victory was none other than reigning World Champion and future rival and friend, Niki Lauda. Unfortunately, at the end of 1975, Hesketh withdrew his funding for the team and Hunt, a very popular and talented driver, was without a seat.
It did not last long. As Emerson Fittipaldi departed McLaren for Copersucar, Hunt took his seat. This led to his greatest season. In a ding-dong battle with Niki Lauda–one which saw the Ferrari ace comprehensively dodge death–Hunt won six races to win the title. He overcame a 17 point deficit with three races to go to win the Championship by one point.
It would be remiss not to mention that great rival Niki Lauda missed two races while recovering from his horrific accident at the Nurburgring. In fact, at the final race of the season in Fuji, in torrential rain, Niki completed one lap then retired in protest of it being too dangerous. This left Hunt needing just a third place, which he duly achieved, to win his only World Championship.
Still, his friendship and admiration for his great rival were never in doubt. “I feel really sorry for Niki, I feel sorry for everybody that the race had to be run in such ridiculous circumstances, and quite honestly, you know I wanted to win the championship, and I felt that I deserved to win the championship. I also felt that Niki deserved to win the championship, and I just wish we could have shared it.”
Hunt’s title defence did not go well. Winning three races–his final victories–but retiring from eight, meant he finished in fifth place. His great rival, Lauda, romped to the title in his Ferrari.
By 1978, McLaren was left behind by the introduction of ground-effects by Lotus. His best result was a solitary third place in France.
In 1979 he joined the promising Wolf Team, looking to rebuild his career. However, this did not come to pass and by mid-season, disenchanted with Formula One, he retired.
Hunt did not leave the sport, however. Instead, he took up residence with Murray Walker in the commentary box, adding his unique, laconic, and often frank views.
His death, in 1993 from a heart attack, shook everyone in racing. His legend, however, has always lived on, so-much-so that when competing in a snowmobile race, former F1 champ, Kimi Raikkonen, would use the pseudonym, James Hunt.
Hunt was not the most successful British driver, but he was one of the most exciting and left an indelible mark on Formula One.