James Hunt

29/8/1947 - 15/6/1993

Record updated

Formula 1 World Champion in 1976 and was subsequently a commentator for BBC. Also famouse for driving with Lord Hesketh's colourful F1 team. Hunt died at the young age of 45 from a heart attack.

James Hunt
English racing driver and Formula 1 world champion and subsequently a commentator. His brother David Hunt also later raced in Formula 3 and later owned the Lotus racing brand after the team left Formula One.

James Simon Wallis Hunt, born on August 29, 1947, into the family of a London stockbroker, was an unruly child: hyperactive, contrary and persistently rebellious. As a self-confident, competitive and determined youth he taught himself to play tennis and squash to a high standard. The tall and handsome public schoolboy also enjoyed considerable success with women. He originally studied to be a doctor. But just before his 18th birthday, he was taken by a friend to see a motor race, and Hunt was instantly hooked.

Starting off by building his own fast but rather ramshackle racing Mini, and then graduating to Formula Ford and Formula Three, Hunt was noticed as a fast and spectacular driver, but one prone to having lots of spectacular accidents, hence his well earned nickname of 'Hunt The Shunt.' Hunt was involved in a controversial incident with Dave Morgan in a 1970 race at Crystal Palace - Hunt took both cars out of the race and then hit Morgan, which earned him severe official disapproval. In another one of his incidents his Formula Ford crashed and sank in the middle of a lake. He might have drowned had he been wearing the requisite seatbelts he couldn't afford to buy.

Learned to stay on tthe black bits long enough to win races was one thing, learning to conquered his fears was another. In the garage his nerves would often cause him to vomit and on the grid he shook so much the car vibrated. This potent mix of adrenaline and testosterone made him one of the hardest of chargers out there.

Hunt's career continued in the works March team, but that disintegrated and he soon fell in with Hesketh, who James refered to  as 'The Good Lord' . At Hesketh he was seen as a kindred spirit. The team initially entered Hunt in Formula Three and Two with little success but Lord Alexander Hesketh decided that they might as well fail in F1 as in F2, as it wasn't significantly more expensive (and it allowed Lord Hesketh to parade his yacht, helicopter, Porsche and Rolls Royce in front of a more appreciative audience). Since the Good Lord was having so much fun in racing's lower ranks he thought it naturally followed that even more sport could be had at the highest level. The Hesketh Racing team had the seeming ability to consume as much champagne as fuel and also for having more beautiful women than mechanics.

A March 731 chassis was purchased, and developed by Harvey Postlethwaite - the car was much more competitive than the works efforts, scoring several remarkable results, including a second place at the US Grand Prix. A Hesketh car inspired by the March appeared in 1974, but the accompanying V12 engine never materialised.

The Hesketh team captured the public imagination - the car without any sponsor markings, a teddy-bear badge and the atmosphere of devil-may-care fun hid the fact that they were an extremely competent outfit and Hunt started to thrive.

His first win came in 1975, in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. He finished 4th in the championship that year, but Lord Alexander Hesketh had run out of funds and could not find a sponsor for his maverick team. With little time left before the 1976 season, Hunt was desperately looking for a drive until Emerson Fittipaldi left McLaren and joined his brother's Copersucar outfit. The McLaren management wasted no time and signed Hunt with McLaren for the next season - he was one of the cheapest World Champions ever (Keke Rosberg in 1982 similarly found a drive at the last minute).

1976 was Hunt's best year, as he won six Grands Prix. It was an incredibly turbulent season. He was disqualified and later reinstated as the winner of the Spanish Grand Prix for supposedly driving a McLaren that was 1.8cm too wide. A seventh win at the British Grand Prix was disallowed after a row over an accident at the first corner that Hunt had got involved in. At the Italian Grand Prix, the Texaco fuel that McLaren used was tested and although legal, the Italian scrutineers deemed the fuel to be illegal and Hunt was forced to start at the back of the grid.

Niki Lauda's near-fatal accident in Germany allowed Hunt to close the gap to the Austrian and, as they went to the final round in Japan, Hunt was just 3 points behind. The Japanese Gran Prix was torrentially wet, and Lauda refused to race, saying the conditions were too dangerous. After leading most of the race James suffered a puncture, but managed to splash back to third (4 points), enough for him to win the World Championship by a single point.

Hunt's lifestyle was as controversial as some of the events on track. He was associated with a succession of beautiful women, he preferred to turn up to formal functions in bare feet and jeans, he was a casual user of marijuana, and he lived an informal life near the beach in Marbella. It was often assumed that he did not take racing seriously enough, yet through 1976 and 1977 the results continued to come. He famously wore a badge on his racing overalls that read Sex - Breakfast of Champions.

The following season started unlucky for Hunt, although he eventually won three GPs and placed well in the Championship. However, in 1978 he hardly scored any points due to a mix of low personal motivation and McLaren having been outclassed by Lotus; for 1979 Hunt moved to the initially very successful Wolf team for what would be his last Formula One season. In 1978, Hunt was the man who heroically rescued Ronnie Peterson after the latter had crashed into the barriers of Monza track and his Lotus had burst in flames, but the Swede died one day later because of an embolism.

Hunt's 1979 season with Wolf was perfunctory - the team's ground-effect car was uncompetitive and Hunt had lost his enthusiasm for racing - his private life was becoming increasingly turbulent. Hunt did not complete the season and retired forever from racing after the Monaco Grand Prix.

Soon after retirement, Hunt became an outspoken and entertaining TV commentator for the BBC alongside Murray Walker. Hunt fought depression and overuse of alcohol and despite severe financial setbacks in his business life, approaching his mid 40s it seemed that he had finally overcome many of his demons and had finally achieved happiness. This was however not to last long - Hunt died at the age of 45 of a heart attack at his home in Wimbledon SW19, sadly, only hours after having proposed to Helen, his girlfriend at the time.

Hunt was one of the most charismatic drivers, notorious for his unconventional behaviour on and off the track. Having been part of Formula One when the series was consolidating, and when it was conquering the attention of the motor sport press, Hunt became the epitome of unruly, brilliant, playboy drivers and was celebrated for his English eccentricity. Many later day drivers will be compared with Hunt for their antics, among them Eddie Irvine and Kimi Räikkönen.