It’s incredible to think that more than a quarter of a century has passed since James Hunt’s unexpected and premature death.
If ever there was a Formula 1 Titan, it was James: he had survived the 1970s, motorsport’s most dangerous decade, weathered the excesses of the 1980s and discovered modest sobriety and love before dying of a heart attack on June 15 1993, aged just 45.
Here, in an extract from Maurice Hamilton’s beautifully written McLaren book on the British legend, we recount James’ post-racing career, his role as a TV commentator of great not, his decline into a spiral of drink and drugs, and the last, heartbreaking flourish of his life.
“I never ever felt I wanted to race again,” James Hunt admitted a year after calling a day to his brief but explosive Formula 1 career. It was a typically forthright soundbite from a man not known for holding back – in any situation.
“As I said, I stopped for reasons for self-preservation. I was able to do that because I was financially secure and I wanted to keep on living without taking a risk. If it wasn’t dangerous, I probably would never have stopped. I would be very happy about that. But I just don’t want to top myself particularly and it is sort of tempting fate to come back.”
Since retiring, James had moved his permanent residence back to England. He had renovated a mews house in London’s Baron’s Court and also bought a large estate, including a working farm, in Buckinghamshire. He was continuing to do promotional work for Marlboro, Texaco and Olympus inbetween playing as much golf as he could with a view to lowering his handicap to scratch.
The voice of a (new) generation
Hunt had also made a move that would come to define him among younger generations that had never seen him race; he had accepted a role as race summariser for BBC Television. Jonathan Martin may have correctly noted Hunt’s ability to communicate when interviewed as a driver but the decision by the Head of Sport was not immediately welcomed by the BBC’s main commentator of long standing.
“I had been commentating alone until that point,” explained Murray Walker. “When Jonathan Martin called me in and said there would now be two commentators, and one would be James Hunt, my immediate reaction was one of outrage. I thought: ‘What the hell does he know about commentating? He's a racing driver. And, anyway, I don't like James Hunt.’
“I have to be objective and try to work out where and why the friction came from when we were together. I was old enough to be his father. My views on life were diametrically opposed to his. I was a plonking straightforward up-and-down bloke, and here I was with this booze-swilling, cigarette-smoking, womanising, drug-taking chap who I associated with rudeness and being objectionable. I was pretty wary about it, I have to admit.
“Monaco 1980 was the first time we did a Grand Prix together; exactly a year after he had retired. And in those days there weren't any commentary boxes. We sat out in the open, opposite the pit lane exit. We were each given a folding chair with slats and one television set. There was the Armco and the race track. I had Jonathan Martin shouting in my ear and the extremely loud noise from the cars just a few feet away.
“James appeared shortly before the start of the race in a pair of tattered cut-off jeans, no shoes, a T-shirt and half a bottle of rosé in his hand; half a bottle because he had drunk the other half already. He sat down in the chair alongside me, put his plaster cast in my lap – and we did the race like that. It went alright as far as I remember. James did a perfectly adequate job. But it was pretty clear to me that this was not going to be an easy relationship from a commentating point of view.”
The plaster cast was the result of an incident during a skiing holiday at Verbier in Switzerland. As a guest of a Marlboro-sponsored team of acrobatic skiers, James had enjoyed ‘a major lunch’ with the team before unwisely attempting to join them on the slopes. The result was detached ligaments in his left knee, an injury that would require a major operation followed by a lengthy and painful recuperation.
A knock-on effect of the frustration created by the lack of mobility and sleep would be the deterioration of the relationship James and Jane Birbeck had tried hard to make work on a more permanent basis, even to the point of becoming engaged. This, in turn, contributed to a downward spiral as drinking and smoking played an increasing part in both their lives, Hunt not helping with his philandering. By the end of 1981, they had parted as good friends and as amicably as possible under the circumstances.
James had bought a five-bedroom house in Wimbledon. The grand 1930s detached property was slightly frayed round the edges; perfect for James, just as a large garden was ideal for his beloved Alsatian, Oscar. The house was handily located for his busy round of relaxed social engagements but the much-prized bachelor existence would come to a sudden halt in September 1982.
While taking a break in Spain, James met Sarah Lomax at a beach party. Sarah, an Englishwoman working for an interior decorating firm based in Washington DC, was instantly smitten. The feeling was mutual. When they weren’t dating in the UK, James would commute to Washington. By early 1983, Sarah was living in the house in Wimbledon. By late December of the same year, they were married in the registry office in Sarah’s home town in Wiltshire. The blossoming of the relationship really was as swift and as starry-eyed as that.
Scouting out new talent
Hunt wasn’t merely working as a co-commentator, though. He was also coaching a young Swedish driver, Tomas Kaiser; a task that took James to Formula 3000 races on free weekends between Grands Prix.
This aspect of Hunt’s character had not escaped the attention of Marlboro’s John Hogan: “When he retired, we wanted to keep him on as an ambassador. By that I mean an ambassador on a short lead, stay with the script, don’t get creative. Being keen to bring on young drivers, we’d noticed that James had an amazing ability to read the game – which is actually quite rare. A lot of people think they can – but they can’t. James could spot what was happening, which was why he was a good commentator. He could see with the young drivers who was really good, who was going to get there, who was the real talent.
“It was while he was doing this sort of stuff that he became a bit of a coach. And, again, most drivers can't do that. They know what’s going on but they can’t actually communicate it to the young driver.
“James wouldn’t sit them down or anything like that. He just sidled up to them, or walked into their pit, or sat on the side of the car and said: ‘You know, you shouldn't be doing that. It would be much better if you did this, or you did that.’ And they listened and took it on board – or, at least, they would if they were bright. Eddie Irvine was a classic example.”
A lost weekend in Dijon…
Irvine himself agrees: “I first met James through his role as consultant to Marlboro. I’d seen James race, of course. I was a great fan. I liked his attitude; James was very much his own man. When I was invited to test for the 1988 Marlboro Formula 3 drive, I really wanted to do Formula Ford 2000 first. But I was offered the drive and James and everyone else said I should accept and move straight into F3 which, for me, was a massive step. But I did it, had a good season and that led to being in line for a Formula 3000 drive the following year. I was told to go to the final F3000 race of the season at Dijon in France, just to see what it was all about. I didn’t learn much that weekend thanks to the antics of my mentor, James Hunt.
“I met him at London Heathrow. The first thing he did was visit the Duty Free shop and buy a bottle of blue vodka. When we landed in Paris, he nipped off to meet two girls at a railway station. As it turned out, the TGV express trains were cancelled due to a strike and we had to catch a slow train loaded with naval conscripts on their way to Marseilles. It took us about five hours to get to Dijon – by which time there was nothing left of the vodka.
“We crawled through the doors of the hotel. Luckily it was very late by then and the motor racing people had gone to bed. So we retired to James’s room, where he began playing Beethoven at full blast on the portable stereo he carried everywhere with him. James ignored the banging on the walls and the ceiling until someone arrived from reception and told us to stop the party because it was 3 a.m. And James was supposed to be instructing me on how to be a professional racing driver…
“I went down for breakfast the following morning and met Volker Weidler, who was racing for the Marlboro-supported F3000 team that weekend. Volker said: ‘Last night was unbelievable. I never got any sleep at all. The people in the room beside me were partying all night. I had to ring reception to get it stopped.’
“‘Jeez, Volker,’ I said. ‘That’s awful.’ He didn’t find out who the culprits were until about four years later. We were racing in Japan and, one night, I told him. His reaction was incredible. He said: ‘I knew it! I knew Marlboro wanted me out. They sent you and James Hunt to party and keep me awake all night before the race.’ He really believed that and didn’t understand it had been the result of a five-hour train journey and a bottle of vodka; nothing more, nothing less.
“It was also the wrong reflection of what it was like having James as a mentor. He really understood what was going on between the driver and the car and could talk to you about that and a number of things to do with the racing itself. He was always very good to me and played a part in my involvement with Marlboro when I got to F1.”
James and his ‘dippers’
At the time of the Dijon trip, neither Irvine nor the rest of the motor racing world knew about the torment beginning to ferment in Hunt’s mind. Struggling with his marriage – through no fault of Sarah – and life in general, Hunt was at the start of a downward spiral that would gradually lead to a form of depression. Hard though it would have been to believe had they known, Hunt’s wide circle of acquaintances had no idea that James was becoming introverted, spending more and more time with his budgies inbetween what he referred to as ‘dippers’. These black periods of despair would lead to alcohol and marijuana for respite that would only be temporary. He was becoming a mess, which only served to increase the inner torment. In October 1988, James and Sarah separated. Just over a year later, they had divorced. Hunt had hit rock bottom.
Striving to do something about it, he tried a range of healers and psychologists to no particular avail. The desperate situation was aggravated by financial difficulties brought on by the usual proceedings of a divorce and its legal fees plus, crucially, a personal loss in the region of £200,000 thanks to being a Lloyd’s Name at the point where members of the investment syndicate were suddenly discovering the down side of risk.
With his back well and truly against the wall, Hunt began to fight back, as only he could. And just as he had under the very different but no less personally important crisis that had hit him just before the final three races of that eventful 1976 season. He bought a pushbike as part of a typically intense campaign to return to fitness that included attempting to give up cigarettes (up from a daily intake of 20 when he was racing to more than 30 per day) and cut back on alcohol. The change was remarkable and noticeable.
“Initially, I had no idea he was in such trouble,” says John Hogan. “I always thought he was suffering from a hangover when, in fact, he was actually a depressive. Which was quite amazing when you think about how he was, or appeared to be. I think it became worse as he got older. In the early days, if he appeared to get the hump or act a bit funny, you left it at that but, as he got older, you could see there was something there. He was under terrible pressure for all sorts of reasons, particularly financial. Then he just turned it all around through nothing more than sheer willpower. It was amazing to see – but not really a surprise if you knew James and what he was capable of. He had enormous strength of character and this is when it really paid off. He cut back on everything; the booze, the drugs, the cigarettes – even the womanising. His focus was phenomenal, which tells you how bad he had been when he couldn’t get out of it initially.”
Turning it all around
‘Attack’ was always a favourite word in Hunt’s vocabulary and he used it to the full as he went to work on becoming established as a member of the media. Writing columns for British national newspapers and, of course, continuing his broadcasting, James became a happy member of the F1 motor sport press. Journalists who had reviled him as a racing driver when away from the cockpit grew to enjoy his company as one of their own. Because that’s what he was; hard up financially, revelling in gossip, appreciating free meals – and in love with the sport.
As ever, he didn’t hold back in his criticism of drivers or events that, in his view, were not up to the mark. For drivers willing to listen, he would provide useful and informed feedback. Ayrton Senna, no less, was among their number. Paradoxically, the respect for Hunt had grown after James had criticised the Brazilian for a particular driving tactic, realised later that his judgement was flawed, sought out Senna to tell him as much and then apologised on air. From that grew an appreciation of Hunt’s ability to be totally honest, a human trait highly valued by Senna.
James may have been achieving the personal turnaround through his own efforts but he was about to receive a huge boost courtesy of hamburgers. Or, to be precise, the attractive blond serving him in a Wimbledon restaurant. Helen Dyson worked in Hamburger Heaven at weekends to help fund life as a student in fine arts at Middlesex Polytechnic. Eighteen years Hunt’s junior and knowing nothing about him other than the fact that he seemed a charming, likeable man, Helen accepted the offer of a first date. The relationship quickly blossomed although it would be more than two years before she moved into the house in which Hunt had created a studio for Helen to practice her skill as an artist. Given the state he had been in not long before, James had never been happier as his life continued to turn around.
On 4 October 1992, Denny Hulme died of a heart attack when at the wheel of a BMW M3 touring car during the Bathurst 1000 in Australia. It would be five months before a memorial service for the 1967 World Champion could be arranged on 24 March in Chelsea Old Church. James, dressed in a tracksuit, arrived on a pushbike with a wicker basket on the front. He pulled a crumpled shirt and suit from the basket and proceeded to strip down to his underwear and get changed on the pavement. The service over, he went through the wardrobe exchange in reverse. Although paths would cross during the work-a-day world of the next few Grands Prix in Europe, the image of James pedalling off down Old Church Street with a cheery wave to one and all would become the lasting memory for many.
“It’s no secret now that the BBC would cover the races outside Europe from the studio in London,” says Walker. “As far as the public were concerned, we were live at the race. You couldn't say you weren't there because, if you weren't there, how could you commentate on the race? But, equally, you couldn't say you were there because that would've been a downright lie. So you used to say things like: ‘I can't see the track from my commentary position’, which was perfectly true because we were 6,000 miles away.
“We were doing the South African Grand Prix one year and James was never short of an opinion on almost anything – and certainly not on apartheid in South Africa. About halfway through the race he starts banging on about the evils of apartheid, none of which was relevant to the race and hardly conducive to improving relations between Britain and South Africa. Mark Wilkin, our producer, writes on a piece of paper ‘Talk about the race!’ and shoves it in front of us. James looks at this piece of paper and says: ‘Well, anyway, thank God we’re not there.’ He completely blew it!
“Anyway, we were covering the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix as usual from London. James cycled from Wimbledon to Shepherd’s Bush. He was riding his bike everywhere. He was seemingly as fit as a fiddle because he had stopped drinking; stopped smoking; he was back into sport again. We did the commentary; it went perfectly well. James then phoned Gerald Donaldson, who was ghosting his newspaper column. That done, we went our way, James cycling the five or six miles back to Wimbledon and I went home to Hampshire.
“On the Tuesday morning (15 June 1993), my wife Elizabeth phoned me. She said: ‘Brace yourself. I have got some bad news.’ My mother was 96 at the time and I thought it must be her. ‘No,’ she said. ‘James has died.’ I said: ‘James who?’ When she said James Hunt I simply could not believe it and said something silly – like you tend to do on these occasions: ‘But I was with him on Sunday and he was perfectly okay.’ It was a truly dreadful shock – not just for me, of course, but for millions around the world. He was only 45.”
James had died of a massive heart attack in the early hours of the morning. Having had a snooker session in his home with a friend, he had retired complaining of feeling unwell. He never made it to the bed. Earlier in the evening, he had telephoned Helen who was on a short break with a girlfriend in the Greek islands. James had proposed. Helen had accepted. Now that joy was suddenly turned to devastating sorrow, as it had for many, many friends and associates.
Innes Ireland had given an address at Hulme’s memorial service a few months earlier. A former racing driver with a tearaway reputation and a president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, Ireland had nevertheless been appalled occasionally by some of Hunt’s antics, and told him so in words of one syllable. Yet he had come to like and respect James enormously. Having retired from the cockpit, Ireland had proved equally adept at handling the written word. His tribute summed up the feelings of many who had come to feel affection for James in the same way.
‘Often verging on the outrageous,’ wrote Ireland, ‘his sometimes wild behaviour hid the fact that he was a warm, friendly person of deep understanding and intelligence. More recently the depth of his caring nature became obvious with the love and consideration he showed for his two sons. Always something of a rebel, he appeared to take some delight in standing – not always gently – on the toes of the establishment. I must say I thought he went over the top on one or two occasions. Somehow, with his acute sense of humour, he always managed to get away with it.’
Ireland would die of cancer in October 1993, less than a month after he had read Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ at a Celebration of the Life of James Hunt. St James’s Church in Piccadilly had been chosen for the memorial service, attended by his parents, family and 600 people from all walks of James’s life. It was a grand ceremony and, fittingly, a joyful one aided by a trumpeter, two soloists and the Wellington College Choir.
Zadok The Priest was included in the lively order of service, members of the congregation unfamiliar with the piece being caught by surprise as the choir, positioned upstairs and at the rear, suddenly began their urgent rendition after the more solemn and lengthy introduction of organ music.
Composed by Handel for the coronation of King George II in 1927, it was a favourite of James’. The affirmation of a new reign on this sad yet predominantly happy occasion somehow seemed appropriate. As did a party lasting long into the night and partially funded by £5,000 left strictly for that purpose in James’s will. A comparatively brief but hugely colourful life was being remembered exactly as it had been lived.