Born in Belmont (UK) on 29 August 1947, James Hunt would have been 74 today had he not succumbed to a heart attack back in 1993.
Rightfully so, much has been made of the playboy Englishman’s triumph over Niki Lauda in that unforgettable 1976 Formula 1 World Championship season. The excellent movie “Rush” gave a brief glimpse into his life behind the scenes.
It is no secret that James, like many of his peers at the time, was not exactly loaded with money and scrapped his way in the minor leagues. But the Englishman’s unique character and movie star look caught the eye of motor racing aficionado Lord Alexander Hesketh who att the age of 23 and a small fortune at his disposal.
The young maverick peer lived by the motto: “A lot of people want to make a lot of money to store it away. I want to make a lot of money to spend it. I like spending to create something which is entirely my own and this is why I have the racing team.”
This was exactly what James needed at a very low point in his career which had always been hampered by lack of big budget. With fun-loving but remarkably serious Lord Hesketh, the 26-year-old driver was thrust into the Formula 1 limelight where, history shows, he remained for a half dozen years.
He was always thankful that he survived the sport’s most dangerous era. Eleven drivers perished in F1 alone during the decade Hunt was in and around the top flight. Famously, he won the F1 drivers’ title in 1976.
Along this journey, he launched hundreds of headlines with his party antics featuring the likes of two-wheel legend Barry Sheene and, of course, always surrounded by a bevvy of A-list models and actresses.
While James was never comfortable ‘bad-boy’ and the hard-partying image he had acquired during his early days, but simultaneously he was adamant to do things his way when he became the sport’s World Champion.
He told his biographer Gerald Donaldson, “Don’t forget, I came from nowhere. I’d just won my first Grand Prix in the year before I became World Champion. So I was pitched pretty heavily in at the deep end. When I was driving, everything was fine, but all the rest of it, what people expected of a World Champion, really got to me.
“It was a huge change and all I could do was operate in the only way I knew — which was not to compromise myself. I just had to get on with it, in my own odd style,” he explained.
That style went against the blazer-and-tie brigade that dominated the upper echelons of motorsport at the time, “I refused to be shoved around. If that meant calling a spade a spade and not toadying to middle-class ego-massaging and being dressed in jeans and T-shirt, so what?
“I wasn’t prepared to truss myself up in a monkey suit and I always thought I turned out cleanly and comfortably dressed. The whole point was that I was basically getting on with my life in my own way and I didn’t really care about what anyone thought.
“Even though it made a lot of people dislike me intensely, I said to myself: Stuff it. I’ll do it my way.”
Indeed in those early days, James did rattle cages and rattle the establishment, but fast-forward half a century and it would be hard to imagine him in full party mode of the Hesketh days and those notorious post-1976 title celebrations.
At the same time, it must be remembered later in his life James walked the straight and narrow, close to his loved ones and his dog named Oscar. He and Murray Walker were THE voices of F1 during the early years in which the sport boomed on TV.
However, it would not be hard to imagine James celebrating his birthday, sharing a quiet toast with loved ones as later in life he shunned big gatherings and crowds, perhaps having overdosed on the wild party life.
Alas, today James is not here to celebrate, but it’s worth tipping our collective hats to a paddock legend.