The quintessential playboy racer, James Hunt was always a brash, colorful, and unconventional figure in the stolid world of Formula One. With sheer nerve, bravery, and a serious determination belied by the somewhat laid-back attitude he expressed to the world, Hunt was a man of contrasts. Though his glamour and his hard-charging approach on and off the track are now things of legend, his thoughtfulness and his demons rarely get the attention they deserve.
Hunt was born into a respectable middle class English family just after the Second World War. Ever the rebellious child, James loathed schooling and found his fulfillment in athletics. His best performances came in solitary sports, and even then shunned group practices. Hunt was always his own man, and despised authority. This unwillingness to conform defined him through his racing career and well into his later life.
Even in his years in the junior Formulae, James strove to enjoy life as much as possible. Despite living hand-to-mouth as he progressed up the racing ladder, he still found the time – and money – to entertain himself in London’s bars, chasing women and living as a man about town. Passionate, handsome, and a bon vivant, James Hunt lived fast and continued his extreme habits well into his professional racing career.
When James made it to Formula One, his wild reputation had preceded him. Despite outwardly never giving a damn for anyone’s opinion, James was deeply trouble by the fact he wasn’t taken seriously as a driver. His motivation and temperament were deeply intertwined, and his frustrations often manifested in anger, and occasionally violence. Prone to outbursts when he felt he had been done wrong, drivers and marshalls were wise to avoid Hunt in tense situations for risk of getting knocked down.
It was this same energy and aggression which made him such a talented driver. While most racing drivers try to remain as calm as possible in the cockpit, James did the opposite and was at his best when he was almost frothing. In anticipation for a race, he would often vomit from the tension. The sheer amount of adrenaline coursing through him would obscure his memory, making him unable to recall the first few laps of any race.
For all of his histrionics, Hunt was actually a very thoughtful person. Though he had acquired the catchy moniker “Hunt the Shunt” for his aggressive approach, his driving was usually quite clean. He was respected by his rivals who felt comfortable going wheel-to-wheel at high speed with him, knowing he wouldn’t make silly errors. However, he would not spend hours trying to refine the handling of his ride. Though he was arguably less of an industrious, cerebral driver than Niki Lauda, he blended both schools in a way that few other drivers have.
The way motor racing often is told to the public is somewhat disappointing since it tends to sensationalize events without detailing them the way they ought to. Hunt’s wild nature tended to marginalize him among motor racing aficionados, who deemed him to have inherited the 1976 world title when incumbent champion Niki Lauda’s fiery accident at the Nurburgring took him out of the running that year. The reality of the matter is that James had placed exceptionally well throughout the year and made few mistakes. It was not luck but consistency, speed, and careful driving that led him to a victory that year.
Upon winning the world title, he had reached his goal and his motivation waned. Three unsuccessful years followed his spontaneous retirement in 1979. Without a goal to keep him focused, his life sank into a tumultuous downward spiral, and his demons began to rear their ugly heads. James, an admitted sex addict, had difficulties living a stable romantic life. Failed marriages and infidelities of his made headlines during his racing career, but when he retired, they only fueled the depression he was reluctant to make public.
His years post-retirement were often lonely and unfulfilling. He withdrew from friends and family and drank heavily. Though he was able to support himself through his commentating job for the sport he once dominated, his search for pleasure led to an even more extravagant lifestyle that dried up his funds. Broke, lonely, and again quickly, James Hunt’s life was beginning to mimic a Behind the Music episode.
By some stroke of luck, Hunt was able to turn things around in his twilight years. Finally able to settle on one woman, James became a devoted family man with two loved boys, Tom and Freddie. He was remarked on his caring, warm disposition and extreme generosity when around his children and closest friends. Having given up drinking and drugs for years, he made serious efforts towards living a healthy life, both physically and emotionally, as he neared his mid-forties.
For a man who lived in such extreme ways and filled more into his 45 years than most do in twice that time, his death was unfittingly ordinary. After a game of snooker one evening, James retired to bed and died from a heart attack the following morning – the result of a lifetime of excess. Two weeks prior, he had proposed to his fiancee, Helen Dyson. It was a particularly tragic end for a larger-than-life hero finally coming to terms with his lifelong demons.
While the motor racing world was moved, Britain lost a sporting hero who had transcended the bland, political sphere of Formula One. He could be extravagant, arrogant, and obnoxious, but was also considerate, intelligent, and warm-hearted. His multifaceted, human nature made him an icon, a symbol of the times and an inspiration for many young drivers. His love for life extended beyond his actual lifespan, too. In his will, a sum of money was laid aside for a big party that called for casual dress, lots of booze, and all of his numerous friends. James Hunt left his world in the same way he’d lived: as the life of the party.