The transformation of this Wellington-educated public schoolboy from the role of erratic F3 also-ran to serious F1 World Championship contender was a process which took little more than four years. But even at the pinnacle of his F1 achievement, James was out to enjoy his life to the full and never took himself too seriously.
The son of a London stockbroker, James cut his teeth in Formula Ford 1600 in the late 1960s before moving through the closely contested F3 category, where his oft-impulsive temperament got him into tight scrapes. He was unquestionably quick, but a succession of accidents led him almost to be written off as a bad job by the end of 1972.
Yet just when it seemed as though James had exhausted all career possibilities, support from the enthusiastic and individualistic Lord Hesketh lifted him up into F2 for the start of the ’73 season and then into the sport’s most senior category with a March 731 chassis. And James proved himself to be an instinctive F1 driver in short order, gaining fourth place in the British GP at Silverstone, third at Zandvoort and finally a superb second in the US race at Watkins Glen where he tracked Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 72 for the entire distance.
Drawing on the experience from running the March, Hesketh’s designer Harvey Postlethwaite built on his experience to develop the Hesketh 308 for James to drive in 1974 and the ambitious young team demonstrated its potential by delivering an impressive victory in the non-championship Silverstone International Trophy race. The following year, 1975, James won his first GP at Zandvoort, holding off Niki Lauda’s Ferrari in a straight fight.
Lack of money forced Hesketh to close at the end of 1975, but then Fittipaldi’s shock departure from McLaren opened up the perfect opportunity for James. In a matter of days he had finalised a deal to partner Jochen Mass for 1976.
James and McLaren made a formidable, high-octane partnership. The Englishman stamped his authority on the team by outqualifying Mass for his first Grand Prix, the Brazilian race at Interlagos. But James and McLaren were never very far from controversy; after winning the Spanish GP at Jarama, he was disqualified when his M23 was deemed to have infringed the dimensional regulations – new rear wheels had made the car 1.8cm too wide. McLaren appealed and the victory was reinstated, but it seemed to be a nerve-wracking case of swings and roundabouts as the season unfolded, with James being disqualified from the British GP at Brands Hatch after what proved to be an illegal restart following a first-lap collision. The circumstances were controversial but this time he stayed disqualified!
James’s season thereafter settled down to a slog with his arch-rival Niki Lauda, a close and genuine friend whom James respected unreservedly. Although James’s own title hopes received a boost after Niki suffered serious burns when he crashed his Ferrari during the German GP at the Nurburgring, Hunt knew enough about his rival’s determination not to rely on any short-term points advantage. Only a few weeks later Lauda would be back behind the wheel and picking up the threads of his title defence.
Confirmation of James’s Brands Hatch disqualification meant that he had to overcome a deficit of 17 points over the last three races of the season if he was going to have a hope of securing the crown. James rose to the challenge in brilliant style, adding wins in Canada and the USA to his personal tally, and then storming home to a championship-clinching third in the inaugural Japanese GP at Fuji, the race in which Niki pulled out after two tentative laps, declaring the torrential conditions impossible.
In 1977 James again drove well for McLaren but the team’s new M26 was, by common consensus, not as driver-friendly as the M23 which had carried James to his ’76 success. Gradually James’s and the team’s form faded until he decided that he would quit for 1979 and seek rejuvenation with Walter Wolf’s nascent F1 squad. But it was Hunt’s motivation that was now flagging and, a few races into the season, the popular British driver announced that he was calling it a day.
Off-track James may have retired, but he continued to be an ever-present item in the newspaper gossip columns. He remained on the F1 scene as an informed and charismatic BBC television commentator until his untimely death in 1993.