This article appeared as part of a year-long weekly series by the author in the Sunday Herald
James Hunt, the bad-tempered public shoolboy who had a penchant for blonde totty, smoked 40 a day and was prone to spectacular accidents, was never taken seriously by Formula One – until he started winning races. With his unkempt hair and shambolic demeanour, he always looked like he had just stumbled out of a nightclub.
That very scattiness was what endeared him to the British public, however.
Hunt entered F1 in 1973 with Hesketh Racing, a romantic concern bankrolled by the eccentric Lord Hesketh and by then managed by the excellently-named Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley.
Hesketh initially entered F2 with little success but decided he might as well fail in F1 as it wasn’t significantly more expensive and would allow him to show off his yacht, helicopter, Porsche and Rolls to better effect.
Hunt won World Championship and non- Championship races before joining McLaren at the end of 1975 when Hesketh ran out of funds.
That was the year of Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident in Germany, and though the Austrian recovered well enough to be able to finish the campaign, Hunt beat him to the Drivers’ Championship by a single point. He remained with McLaren for a further two years before moving to the Wolf team, but then retired midway through the 1979 season, declaring that he’d never really enjoyed driving anyway.
Back in those days F1 regularly left its participants dead or dying and the fear of crashing regularly made Hunt physically sick. Missing the immediacy of that danger, perhaps, he was prone to depression in the early 80s and for a while drank heavily – it is said he polished off two bottles of wine during his first broadcast as an F1 commentator for the BBC, in which role he distinguished himself with comments like “the trouble with [Jean-Pierre] Jarier is that he’s a French wally.” Latterly, Hunt did manage to cut out the booze – and the smokes – and channelled his energies into becoming a champion breeder of budgies and parrots, but he died, sadly, of a heart attack in 1993, aged just 45.