Artwork by Dina Volskaya James Hunt

Remembering James Hunt: Good Times with the Good Lord

Artwork by Dina Volskaya James Hunt

Artwork by Dina Volskaya

With the 2024 Japanese Grand Prix rendered to history, in parting the Land of the Rising Sun, it’s worth remembering the man who immortalised the country’s first Formula 1 GP more famous than most: James Hunt.

It was in Japan, albeit Fuji not Suzuka, where Hunt enjoyed his finest hour in F1. Winning the 1976 title in the most dramatic of circumstances. On a tempestuous day at Fuji, the last race of a torrid and controversial season, James finished third in the final title-deciding race, enough to beat his archrival Niki Lauda to the crown.

We take a glimpse into a unique F1 career, politically incorrect would be perceived today, he still remains an icon and the epitome of the swashbuckling, carefree, death-defying race drivers of his era. That he survived during a decade of so much mortality on Grand Prix circuits is a miracle in itself. He is an icon and legend of the sport.

James Hunt, born on August 29, 1947 had this motto: “I always gave my best as a driver when I was angry or at least aggressive.”

The lanky Englishman discovered the merry world of motorsports on a casual visit with friends to Brands Hatch, a picturesque circuit located in Kent, England. A decade or so earlier another young Englishman had been smitten in a similar way by the sight and sound of racing cars – Graham Hill.

While Hill was methodical and took copious notes to set up his car, Hunt was aggressive and a hustler in his approach, both on and off the track.

Early Days & Happy Ways

Hunt grew up in Surrey, his father was a successful stockbroker. Breeding budgies was an early passion of the future world champion. According to his ex-girlfriend, Taormina Rieck, he came alive when he discovered motor racing.

Hunt started racing a Mini in 1967 and moved from Formula Ford to Formula 3 in 1969. His hard charging ways and crashes earned him the nickname ‘Hunt the Shunt.’

In 1970, he won the tragic French Formula 3 race at Rouen in which two local drivers, Jean-Luc Salomon, and Denis Dayan, lost their lives.

The following year Hunt won the Raymond Sommer Challenge Formula 3 race at Montlhery, ahead of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Patrick Depailler.

Lord has mercy & money

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Hunt’s performance in a year-old March at the XLI Grand Prix des Frontières (1972) on the Chimay street circuit in Belgium caught the attention of Hesketh driver ‘Bubbles’ Horsley.

Hunt qualified on the front row and finished fifth. ‘Bubbles’ became self-appointed team manager of Hesketh team and hired Hunt to drive for his Lord.

They went racing in Formula 2 and the good times started rolling immediately. Hunt qualified third at Salzburgring, but after only three races in the formula, the team, according to Hunt, ‘since we were not winning in Formula 2, we decided to move up to Formula 1.’

He made his Formula 1 debut in the 1973 non-championship Race of Champions and finished third on the podium behind Denny Hulme and race winner Peter Gethin in a F5000 car. His Formula 1 Championship debut came two months later in Monaco.

Remembering Hunt and Hesketh’s arrival in the Formula 1 paddock with champagne and pretty girls, Murray Walker described him as “arrogant, overbearing, drunken, drug-taking Hooray Henry.”

In October 1974, Hunt married model Suzie Miller. She left him for Richard Burton in 1976. James explained at the time; “The problem with Susie and me was marriage didn’t suit my style of life.”

Rain & Shine

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Hunt and Lauda, in a scenario unlikely in today’s F1 environment, were fast friends and intense rivals on the track.

Driving for Lord Hesketh, Hunt called him ‘the Good Lord,’ and in a car designed by Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite, Hunt held off the Austrian ace in the rain at the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort to score his maiden win.

Emerson Fittipaldi opened the door for the party-happy English driver at McLaren for the 1976 season by, what he now calls ‘the worst mistake of my life’, joining his brother’s (Wilson) Copersucar team.

The epic battle between Hunt and Lauda in the 1976 season was as thrilling and dramatic as Senna vs Prost in 1988 and Hamilton vs Verstappen in 2021.

There was high drama at Brands Hatch and Jarama. In the British Grand Prix, the Ferraris of Clay Regazzoni and Niki Lauda collected each other on the opening lap. Hunt was caught in the chaos that ensued.

With the passionate home crowd demanding ‘we want Hunt’ and fear of track invasion looming, Hunt was allowed to restart. He chased Lauda lap after lap, and finally took the lead on lap 45 and went on to win his home Grand Prix.

Nine points, twenty thousand dollars and a lot of happiness

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Asked what the Spanish Grand Prix victory meant to him, Hunt responded, “Nine points, twenty thousand dollars and a lot of happiness.”

Ferrari lodged a protest and two months later Hunt was stripped of his home victory, elevating Lauda as the winner. Hunt’s winning car was disqualified for exceeding the width limits – only to be reinstated as winner following an appeal. The bulge on the new Goodyear tires was the culprit.

The flashpoint of the season came at the Nürburgring where Lauda crashed and was dragged from his burning car by Arturo Merzario and Brett Lunger.

The Austrian made a remarkable recovery and heroic comeback at Monza where he finished fourth. Hunt did not finish after spinning out on lap 11 of 52.

When the championship contenders arrived in Japan for the season finale Lauda still had a three-point lead over the McLaren driver.

Heavy rainfall around Mount Fujiyama delayed the start of the race by several hours. The show must go on, in Bernie speak, “we have commercial contracts.”

Mario Andretti started from pole position and took victory driving a Lotus; his first win since his maiden F1 win in South Africa, 1971.

On the second lap of the race, Lauda came into the pits because of dangerous track conditions, saying; “my life is worth more than a title.” Hunt was third man on the podium and was pleasantly surprised when told by the team he was the new world champion.

Journey to the end of the road

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The following season he won three races and finished fifth in the standings. In 1978, his third and final season with McLaren was winless. Only podium finish came at Paul Ricard. He retired from nine of the sixteen races.

For the 1979 season he signed to drive for Canadian oil man Walter Wolf. After retiring in six of the first seven races, he ended his F1 career where it had begun, Monaco.

Hunt’s boozy ways caught up to him in life after racing. His second wife, American Sarah Lomax, and mother of his two sons, Freddie and Tom, divorced him in 1989 after six years of tumultuous marriage.

Lauda is on record saying how Hunt came to meet him in London and did not even have money for a cup of coffee.

The 1976 Formula One World Champion had parked his Mercedes on bricks to avoid paying road tax. He died of a massive heart attack on June 15, 1993. Hunt was only 45 years old.

A sad end to a glamorous Formula 1 career and an eternal racing legacy. That being Hunt competed in 92 Grand Prix races, celebrating on F1 podiums 23 times, 10 times as a winner and the 1976 F1 title, etching his name among motorsport greats.