At the age of 45, James Simon Wallis Hunt died far too young. Astonishingly, for the driver they called ‘Hunt the Shunt’, he did not die whilst burning rubber at the wheel of a racing car; he passed away in the bedroom of his Wimbledon home having brushed his teeth, said goodnight to his two sons and spoken to his new fiancé on the telephone. James Hunt died of a heart attack.
This tragically mundane death was never befitting of a rebel racing driver from the ’70s, and the thought of James Hunt, the 1976 World Champion, arriving at the pearly gates in his pyjamas rather than racing overalls doesn’t bear thinking about. But 20 years on from his death, the James Hunt we remember is still the maverick blonde with a cigarette dangling from his lips, a bevy of beautiful women at his side and a winner’s trophy held aloft.
I was just three years old when James passed away, utterly unaware of who he was or how much I would one day idolise him. Tales of James’ racing spirit and the way in which he lived life to the fullest inspired me to follow motor sport as closely as I do; in a time of increased professionalism among drivers, James was a breath of fresh air, harking back to older times when a driver lived life on the limit both in and out of the car.
The lifestyle James lead was frowned upon by many – the drink, the drugs, the women – and the great question hanging over the memory of James has always been “What could he have achieved if he applied himself like the others, like Jackie Stewart or Niki Lauda?”. A strict exercise regime and more respect for the establishment may have resulted in a few more Grand Prix victories, perhaps even another championship, but he wouldn’t have been James Hunt – the good-looking, loveable rogue who captured the imagination of millions of fans like nobody before or since.
Unlike other champions, James seemed to give up very little of his desired way of living in the pursuit of glory. And that should be respected, for he never grew too big for his boots; James remained James and who could fail to admire that? Punching that marshal in Monaco may have been pushing it though.
Twenty years without James Hunt seems a long time; he isn’t just missed as a racing driver but also for his talent behind the microphone alongside Murray Walker. His educated and honest opinions are sorely missed, and while his disdain for Ricardo Patrese (whom he blamed for the death of Ronnie Peterson) left a bad taste, his say-it-like-it-is attitude towards commentary was refreshing as well as entertaining.
I was born 14 years after James won his World Championship for McLaren and it saddens me that I wasn’t alive to read the headlines about Britain’s number one playboy champion; the reports on his latest conquest – either on the track or off – or the images of him with Barry Sheene or George Harrison simply living life and loving every moment.
They certainly don’t make them like James Hunt anymore.