Recalling James Hunt, Champion of a Different Era

by Craig Scott on November 21, 2010

James Hunt: a champion from a different era

In 2007, the F1 world champ to be of that year, Kimi Raikkonen, entered a Finnish snowmobile race (which he won) under the name of James Hunt, the former F1 pilot who is said to be the Kimster’s idol.  While many young drivers today idolize such driving legends as Senna, Prost and Schumacher, the Kimster’s role model of choice is James Hunt. For those too young to remember, or who didn’t begin following Formula 1 until the era of cable TV and internet coverage, James Hunt was the swashbuckling driver who won the title by a single point in 1976.  And why has Hunt earned Kimi’s admiration?

While Hunt’s driving abilities were widely respected when he was at his peak, it will be for his extracurricular activities that he will be remembered.  His preparation for the season’s finale at Fuji in 1976 provides perhaps the best example of the Hunt approach to racing.  To prepare for Fuji, Hunt hunkered down in Tokyo for the last two weeks of October.  His method of preparation?  Rigorous sessions with his personal trainer and physio-therapist?  Not exactly.  He spent much of that time on a round-the-clock booze, pot and coke binge with fellow party animal Barry Sheene, who was world motorcycle champion that year.

James Hunt following his favorite training regimen

And with Hunt, partying was never a guy-only endeavor.  Whenever Hunt was in Tokyo, he stayed at the Hilton, where British ­Airways ­stewardesses were dropped off for their 24-hour layovers.  Hunt would meet them in the lobby, and escort them upstairs – to his room, not theirs.  Apparently, there was always a party in session at Chez Hunt.  During the week leading up to the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, Hunt is said to have bedded 33 British Airways stewardesses.  If that doesn’t keep you in shape, I don’t know what will.

But the story doesn’t end there.  On the morning of the race that decided the title that year, Patrick Head, now co-owner of the Williams team, but then a car designer, accidentally walked into the wrong garage in the pit area.  He first realized his error when he saw Hunt with his racing coveralls coiled around his ankles, having a knee-trembler with a young Japanese woman who was apparently an ardent fan.  Hunt laughed as Head scurried away in embarrassment.

Once Hunt had finished with the Japanese woman, he shooed her away, and hurried outside to perform his regular pre-race ritual of copiously vomiting.  Hunt’s stomach was notoriously volatile on race day, from a combination of pre-race jitters and morning-after hangover.

James Hunt

It was by a stroke of luck that Hunt was able to win the title that day.  The title was really Niki Lauda’s to lose that year, and he did.  You can’t entirely fault Lauda, though.  It was the year of his horrific crash at the Nurburgring, which nearly killed him.  To this day, Lauda bears the scars of that crash: parts of his ears and scalp were permanently torched away.  Nevertheless, in 1976 it was thought miraculous that he missed only two of the races that followed the German Grand Prix.

The loss of potential points from those three races, including Nurburgring, had a severe impact on his momentum towards the title, however.  It had given Hunt an opportunity to close the gap.  And once they reached Fuji, another stroke of luck would turn Hunt’s way.  The race began in the wet.  Lauda returned to the pits after only the second lap, claiming that the conditions were too dangerous for racing.  In doing so, he virtually handed the title to Hunt.  No doubt, Lauda’s crash at the Nurburgring was still fresh in his mind, and why wouldn’t it be?  It had resulted in a fireball.  Under the circumstances, Lauda can probably be excused for opting out.

Mario Andretti won the race, foreshadowing the successes he would have with Team Lotus during the next two seasons.  As for Hunt, he soldiered on in his McLaren, bad stomach and all, and managed to come in fourth.  It was enough to clinch the title.   And he’d won it with the same insouciance that had been the trademark of his whole career.  Considering his training regimen, the real surprise wasn’t that he became world champion that day, it was that he even managed to climb into the cockpit on Sunday morning.

The 1976 season was Hunt’s moment in the sun, when it seemed he could do no wrong, despite the fact that off track he was doing virtually everything wrong.  After 1976, however, his career in F1 began a downward slope.  Three years later, in the middle of the 1979 season, after he’d failed to finish at Monaco, Hunt declared he’d had enough, and simply walked away from the sport. He was only 31.

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