June 14, 2014 (F1plus/Katie Grimmett).- As far as charismatic drivers go, you would be hard pushed to find anyone quite like James Hunt; he was truly one of a kind. A flamboyant and daring person on and off the track, Hunt died twenty-one years ago today on June 15th 1993, aged just 45. Despite retiring in 1979, three years after his sole championship win, he is still remembered as one of the most notorious and spirited drivers of 1970s Formula 1.
It was quite the decade for racing; Jochen Rindt was awarded the first and only posthumous championship in history, Niki Lauda came back from the brink of death to win two further titles and Gilles Villeneuve carved his name into the record books with memorable and consistent performances. Alongside these great racers, who were much less outgoing than the paddock’s biggest personality, Hunt’s unique presence ensures he stands out as an anomaly.
He was a cliché of this era. His larger-than-life personality is synonymous with that period, a time when the glamorous and extravagant lifestyle so many associate with Formula 1, came into its own. His one-time McLaren team mate Niki Lauda was methodical and calculating in his approach, but a deceptively competitive Hunt could use his reputation to mask a shear desire to win and compete. In his presence, no driver could afford to become complacent.
The competition between Lauda and Hunt became a subject of fascination to the adoring public. Lauda’s 1975 championship win and Hunt’s fourth place in an otherwise unimpressive Hesketh, set up a promising 1976 season which certainly did not disappoint. Indeed, it was to be a year of triumph for the British racing star as, in a rain-sodden Fuji, he secured his world championship for McLaren. Jody Schekter was the third placed man in the title standings that year but the season belonged to Hunt and Lauda, two names which simply work hand-in-hand.
It was Hunt’s first year with the British outfit and a truly impressive feat when you put it into perspective. To change team, face a new environment and the scrutiny of the world, can be crippling. However, this achievement perfectly sums up the racer so many fans felt connected to; a ruthless yet charming competitor who would not be fazed by the names, faces or successful careers around him. In many ways, James Hunt’s attitude made him simply unique.
Niki Lauda’s second place finish overall and his early retirement from the wet conditions in Fuji, further fuelled their infamous rivalry - a rivalry so intense, it is depicted in the film RUSH. I will not speak of the film much, mostly because no driver should be defined by the screen adaptation of themselves, but I will note the obvious standing Hunt has in racing history as a result. After all, he may not be the most decorated of drivers but his spirit has ensured the longevity of his memory decades after his premature death.
Shortly after Lauda’s near-fatal crash at the Nurburgring, Hunt reportedly noted the disfigurement of his rival by saying: “you are the only man I know who could be in a fire and come out better looking”. It was all in good taste and respect remained at the core of their relationship on track. Only Hunt, a true one-of-a-kind whose politically incorrect ways were accepted and, on occasion, celebrated, could get away with such comments about a fellow racer. Many drivers of the 1970s explain that making light of a dark situation was in his nature and if this story does not accurately depict the care-free attitude of this great driver, little else will.
Twenty-one years ago, Formula 1 bid farewell a great racer and a truly unique man. The loss was sudden and the grief painful. If F1 has taught us anything over the years, it is this: move on but never forget. No driver’s legacy is dismissed in their absence. Instead, their careers are remembered and protected by legions of fans all over the world. Today, we remember his ninety-two race starts, ten victories and twenty-three podiums but above all else, raise a glass (in true James Hunt fashion) to a truly unique character. A true sporting personality.