Working in Formula 1 is a life necessarily lived in the fast-lane; but, even still, it seems utterly incomprehensible that this weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of one of McLaren’s genuine F1 superstars.
Incredibly, it’s been two decades since James Simon Wallis Hunt died of a heart attack at his home in Wimbledon, London, on June 15 1993.
During his career, James won 10 world championship grands prix, nine of which were achieved at the wheel of a McLaren, but those statistics should have read 11 and 10 respectively as he was messily disqualified from victory at the 1976 British GP at Brands Hatch.
Had James been allowed his win that race, he would have breezed to that year’s title crown with points to spare. Yet, somehow, that Brands Hatch disqualification further burnished his reputation. Without it there would have been no nail-biting championship challenge against his old pal Niki Lauda, no shootout in the torrential rain at the Fuji Speedway, and no hero status achieved – the cult of which remains firm within the F1 community to this day.
Nor, I suspect, would Hollywood director Ron Howard have been minded to produce his upcoming film ‘Rush’, which brilliantly recreates the championship fight across the summer of 1976 that ended so grippingly in the wet at Fuji.
Back in ’76, I was one of a small group of UK journalists who made the journey to Japan in October hoping James could stem the momentum built up by Lauda, who still led the title fight despite suffering horrendous injuries in the fiery Nurburgring crash that kept him from the cockpit for three races.
Lauda’s enforced absence may have skewed perceptions somewhat; but, in truth, James fully deserved that championship. Not because he was the best driver all of the time, but because he did enough in a succession of high-pressure situations to continually surf the crest of a wave that would have swallowed a lesser man.
When the chips were down and James was in a tight corner, he was absolutely at his best. And that I think, is why he’s so fondly remembered.
Make no mistake, James was a fighter – whether that was as the furious protagonist we often saw waving his fists at fellow drivers in the immediate aftermath of a crash, or, as a commentator using words as a particularly blunt tool to pour scorn on those whom he felt deserved his wrath.
He simply wouldn’t back down: at Zandvoort in 1977, he willfully stuck to his line while Mario Andretti attempted to pass on the outside of Zandvoort’s infamous Tarzan hairpin. With nowhere left to go, Andretti collected Hunt and was punted into a spin; James continued gamely, but his M26 was fatally wounded and would soon crawl to a stop. It was a fight with no winner.
After the race, James sought out Andretti: “We don’t pass on the outside in F1,” he stormed, his volume-control fluttering on patronising full-boost.
“I’ve got news for you,” retorted Mario, “Where I come from, we pass whichever side we like.”
So that was that.
Occasionally, the 1976 world champion would fail to live up to the reputation invested on him by the fans. Not long before he climbed into the cockpit of his McLaren M26 to start the 1977 British Grand Prix at Silverstone – a race which, incidentally, he won – he successfully managed to put on an Academy Award-winning performance to acutely embarrass me in front of a group of friends.
“Come on Hens, you’ve been around long enough to know how the game works,” he giggled unpleasantly after I’d asked for a photograph for a friend‘s daughter. Pity he didn’t spend the time wasted on putting people down on actually driving the M26 a little quicker, I thought.
On the other hand, he could be amazingly good company.
The hours I spent over the years shooting the breeze with him on the ’phone must’ve come close to buying me a controlling interest in British Telecom, as it then was. “Morning Hens, J Hunt here,” was his opening gambit if he were leaving a message on my answerphone.
I often find myself wondering what the future might have held had he continued racing. I think he was definitely interested in the notion of a comeback, even going so far as to test a Williams-Renault at Paul Ricard at the start of the 1990s – a fascinating ‘what-if’.
The test either proved to him that he wasn’t quick enough, or that he wouldn’t have been sufficiently race-fit to make it work. Either way, it’s proof that he’d already ruled out the idea of his F1 return being a purely theatrical affair.
For a man who didn’t know when to stop, he played that particular career move perfectly.
As Neil Young so memorably put it, ‘It’s better to burn out, than fade away.’
In every respect, James lived up to that mantra, creating a legend that allows him to live on in Formula 1 forever.