June 15, 2013

Memories of a mate

James Hunt was a difficult character as a racing driver and appeared more comfortable after he retired © Sutton Images

Twenty years ago this weekend, we were truly stunned by the news that James Hunt had passed away. There had been no warning. He was only 45.

My emotions remain as confused now as they were then. I knew two James Hunts; one I disliked intensely and other I held with great affection.

The first I met formally when starting out in F1 journalism in 1977. Someone had the foresight to dream up ‘The James Hunt Magazine’, which was arguably the first fanzine of its kind and designed to cash in on Hunt’s status as reigning World Champion. I was given the contract to write a large part of it.

To say the job was purgatory would be an understatement. This was in days before press officers and organised media interviews. I would speak to James at the start of a race weekend and say we needed to have a session with the tape recorder. He would agree, telling me to come to the Marlboro/Texaco trailer after practice.

I lost count of the hours spent waiting outside while, inside, James would hold court with a bunch of friends. When eventually granted admission, I would be instructed to sit in the middle of this lot and attempt to get some sense out of the interviewee; not easy when accompanied by school boy outbursts from giggling sycophants. His comments would be hopelessly inadequate; a situation I found strange, not to mention frustrating, because this was a magazine for him and for which he was receiving a sizeable sum.

To me, this was typical of Hunt’s sometimes belligerent attitude, frequently underscored by the impression that he couldn’t give a toss about anything or anyone. Had I not been a freelance novice, desperate for work and unsure of my ground, I would have walked out. I was not alone among the media in quietly rejoicing when James announced his retirement halfway through 1979.

Hunt’s absence from the F1 scene was scarcely noticed. When he returned, it was a different James Hunt. Now he was a commentator for BBC TV; in effect, he was one of us and no longer a ‘superstar’ – a state of affairs that, as we were to learn, made him entirely comfortable in his own skin, probably for the first time since he had become involved in motor sport. Our relationship rapidly changed for the better. James was wonderful company; a warm mix of cheek and charm, irreverence and respect.

On the 10th anniversary of his championship I went to his house in Wimbledon to record a reflective piece. It was an extraordinary experience. I found James in the aviary, tending to more than 100 budgerigars that, as a serious breeder, he kept for show. He delighted in demonstrating a new-found way of shifting budgie poo.

Inside a mildly chaotic lounge, we settled down to talk, interrupted this time by Humbert, a parrot whose flow of foul language would be punctuated by the startlingly realistic imitation of a ring-pull opening a lager can. In the driveway outside sat a Mercedes on bricks, financial pressures forcing James to drive an Austin A35 van on bald tyres. Which, of course, he loved doing since this was entirely in keeping with his bohemian spirit.

We spent a hilarious afternoon, his beautifully articulated dry humour spliced with moments of serious recall. James agreed he had been a complete arse when out of the cockpit ten years before, but only because this was his way of coping with sudden fame and a pressure and profile he detested.

We reflected on that 1976 season. I had seen several of the races and James did not disagree when I said his drives at Mosport and Watkins Glen (victories which kept his championship alive in the light of disqualification from the British GP) were truly outstanding, typical of Hunt’s relentless competitiveness when his back was against the wall.

I reminded James of the post-race scene at The Glen when he appeared at the Seneca Lodge pub with a girl on each arm and, on his head, a builder’s hat topped with a flashing orange light. He confessed he couldn’t remember much about the happy ending to such a significant day.

Not long before James passed away, there was a memorial service for Denny Hulme at a church in Chelsea. As we waited to go in to pay our respects to the 1967 World Champion, Hunt arrived on a pushbike. When questioned about the suitability of his tee shirt and tracksuit, James triumphantly produced a crumpled suit from a basket on front of the bike. When the service was over, he stood on the pavement once more, changed back to the tracksuit and pedalled off into the London traffic, waving cheerfully as he went. It’s a classic James Hunt image I will always cherish.


Posted by Eric A on 18/06/2013

my dad passed away the same year. same fun spirited character.

Posted by Peter Fowler on 17/06/2013

I also have fond memories of James. I was the lead mechanic on the Ansett Elfin 5000 that he drove at the Winton 10,000 in Australia in 1978.
I along with others met James at Melbourne airport.Scruffy jeans with Tee shirt and bare feet. He had the legendary play time for the first couple of days, then it was full on racing.
Making a seat and accommodating his long feet were the first challenges. 3 sets of new Goodyears for one weekend - wow!
We had a great weekend of racing and long lasting
admiration for James. One of my crew went to the UK for 79 season under the wing of Kojack.

In 1980 at the AGP I had the honour of the same roll for Didier Pironi when he drove an Ansett Elfin 5000. Vastly different people, Didier was easier to work with, once again great experience
and fond memories.

What nostalgia.

Posted by Rodrigo Mina on 16/06/2013

Thank you Mr. Hamilton. James was happy with himself I guess...the people that truly love you and care about you don't care much how you look...they love you just the way you are....no need to impress people that you probably don't even like..... Be yourself. Very inspiring piece, thank you!!!

Posted by Jeff hutchinson on 15/06/2013

Nice comments and exactly right. Cannot believe it has been 20 years already Maurice. As you know ,it wasn't just the fame and pressures of it that made him do the things he did,but that's another story.
Above all he had something that few drivers have today - a real personality and headline making character that is frowned upon today.

Posted by Lucy Church on 15/06/2013

Great article / insight as ever by the author. You can see why Kimi reveres James so much - although you can never see him following James in becoming a commentator...I mean...can you imagine ? "So Kimi, what did you think of the race ?" "It was Ok." "And Kimi how about that for an overtake ?" "Sorry, I missed it...I went for a sh!t" etc etc lol !!

Posted by Alex Cooper on 15/06/2013

A lovely piece of writing, Maurice.

  Post your comment
Email Address:
characters left
A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live 6. Maurice Hamilton