James Hunt and what could have been
James Hunt and what might be the only alternative point of view you will ever read about him.
Disclaimer: this is an old piece I wrote early 2016. After Lewis Hamilton got accused of being more busy with partying than F1. Ironically enough, often by people who adore James Hunt. Today (11-10-2017) I noticed that, once again, I had a different opinion about the F1 related issues we discuss in the drivetribe F1 chat than my English friends. So I brought up this old Hunt piece I had written but never published here. So now seemed to be a good time to put it online. It was written as an 'on this day' feature for the judge13 site back then. And it is unlike anything you have ever read about the man. That is a promise.
29 August 1947
On this day a boy was born. Not just any boy, but a boy who’d go on to become a world champion of the sport that is so dear to us. And not only a world champion, but a champion in one of the most iconic cars ever built in the history for Formula One - the McLaren M23.
When I was a kid I had a Tamiya model car of it, and I loved it! From its shouting Marlboro colour scheme to its massive rear tyres; from the enormous rear wing to the way in which you could see the intricacies of the engine. There could be a whole new article just about that car. But this one is about the boy…
His name was James Simon Wallis Hunt and the year that he “lucked” into the 1976 world championship. Yes, that’s right – Hunt LUCKED in to it. The only reason why this coke-sniffing, booze-drinking, doobie-inhaling, chain-smoking playboy became a world champion is because Niki Lauda had his horrible accident.
But before you start kicking and screaming, hear me out. First of all, don’t get me wrong; I’ve done all the above-mentioned things except become a champion of Formula One. So I say ‘Advantage Hunt’. Furthermore, Niki Lauda does not know who I am, or that I exist, and he considers James Hunt as one of the best drivers of all time. ‘30-Love Hunt’. Bruznic trailing… time for a pick-me-up… where’s my coke? 😃
But let’s be honest, do any of you believe that Hunt would have been champion if it was not for Lauda’s horrendous accident? And even with said accident taking Lauda out for a period – almost handing Hunt the title - Hunt still almost managed to lose it after Lauda made a God-like effort to come back, which might be considered the biggest comeback in any sport in the history of planet Earth. Not only did Lauda escape death, but in fact punched death in the face and laughed at it. There are people who have won medals for less...
Anyway, the point is, Lauda could have still snatched the title from Hunt even after his accident and subsequent missed races, but in the end the tough-as-nails Austrian decided to give up in the final race at the washed-out Japanese Grand Prix, experiencing fresh memories of his accident as the track was not only surrounded by heavy rain, but also thick fog. But there was not only the psychological effects at play – as if that’s not enough – but to make matters worse, in his accident his tear ducts and eyelids were damaged by the fire. This caused his eyes to tear and rendered Lauda unable to blink his eyes and rectify the issue – elements that Lauda would eventually come to get used to.
Keep in mind, Lauda missed a couple of races which gave Hunt a big advantage in the championship fight; and yet Lauda remained three points ahead when they started the last round! Djesus Kraist! Furthermore, in Japan Lauda qualified third with Hunt only one place in front of him. Granted, after the race start Hunt got up to P1, and a lap later Lauda decided to throw in the towel stating that his life was more worth than another title, thus giving Hunt his only world title.
But the point was proven… to Ferrari; to Hunt; to the fans and, perhaps as importantly, to himself. He was not beaten by the accident, but rather he fought back and walked away on his terms, given the circumstances. A tougher and more resilient sports-person I do not know. I will always have time to listen to whatever Lauda says which, in my opinion, is often sharp and correct – just not sugar-coated, which I don’t really care about.
I don’t think anyone can give me one valid reason why Niki Lauda was not right to stop in the pit and get out of his vehicle - even if, at the time, Ferrari did not agree. But as a matter of fact, there were more drivers arguing against the race; one of them being James Hunt. However, McLaren demanded he race lest he never becomes champion. But remember, in the end Hunt only won from Lauda with a one-point difference.
Both men are examples of how pure talent alone does not throw the world at your feet. But unlike Hunt, Lauda did whatever he could to be better and made it to the ‘all-time greatest racing drivers’ list. Whereas Hunt will forever be remembered as a party animal and not as a great racer. “Live life to the fullest” is a sentence that springs to my mind, but is it really lived to its fullest potential if a three-time world champion considers you as one of the best drivers ever to drive against him? Apart from Lauda himself – perhaps now a bit sentimental – none hold Hunt is such high esteem.
Lauda once stated that Hunt was the only driver he’d trust to drive a race distance, side-by-side with just two centimetres between their wheels at 300kph. So I ask: is it lived to the fullest if you wasted your talent? There comes a time in a young man’s life when he has to choose between parties and results.
A good example might be Lewis Hamilton failing to maximise the end of the ’15 season and the beginning of the ’16 season. Suddenly news emerges from the mouth of the same Lauda that Lewis stopped partying and went down to business… and since that Lewis has been on top in qualifying and in racing.
And don’t give me the popular bullshit of, “but he had the title already in ’15. What does that matter?” Well, it matters a great deal. You’d never see Senna, Schumacher, Fangio or Lauda taking the pressure off. All of them are known to work hard only to maximise their naturally-gifted talents. And the next response usually is, “but, but, but he had a lot of mechanical failures.” To that I’d say yes, he had a lot of failures. But the races and qualifying sessions where he did not have troubles still did not show Lewis coming out on top. And yes, I think that that is down to the partying. I am entitled to that opinion, just like I’m entitled to the same opinion about Hunt.
As someone who’s been down the same road, I know what I’m talking about. I have wasted an enormous amount of my life to drinking, drugging and partying. If I look back, I can say I have only been sober for half of my life. I too wasted a lot of my talents. But like Lewis, I did see the light. Something we can’t say about Hunt. Lewis has, for now, picked up where he was at the moment he became champion in ’15 – perhaps now likely to become a quadruple world drivers’ champion. In contrast, Hunt the shunt never even came close to getting a second.
I’m not saying it is always forbidden to go partying, or to have a drink. I like to drink a good whiskey from time-to-time, and I’m just a mere mortal. I’d imagine a Formula One champion (a near quadruple champion) would be a well-liked guest at many parties. But it’s still about choosing your moments, is it not? If you’re trailing in a championship – something you worked your whole life to fight for - then I’d say that is not the right time.
Back to James Hunt… He did get a second career after his racing days where he completed a team with Murray Walker, perhaps even becoming the best commentary team ever – despite Hunt’s personality being something that Walker, at first, was not too keen about. But to begin with, who is more iconic in the commentary box than Murray Walker? To partner him up with someone who always speaks his mind and is very outgoing was a brilliant move by the BBC. Secondly, they say opposites attract. And he brought a technical knowledge that Walker did not have. I think this second career made Hunt’s legacy only bigger, unfortunately said legacy could have and should have been so much bigger if you ask me.