The bygone era when ‘sex was safe and racing was dangerous’ is perhaps epitomised by the flamboyant figure that was 1976 Formula One World Champion, James Hunt. Renowned for his playboy lifestyle, ‘Hunt the Shunt’ won over legions of British fans – not to mention women – with his tenacious, balls to the wall driving style and fun-loving public schoolboy persona that saw him take on the mighty Maranello Ferraris, and come out on top.
Hunt’s remarkable tale was retold in stunning detail to a new generation in Ron Howard’s 2013 box-office hit Rush, although this only served to emphasise how times have moved on since his 70s pomp. And not only in terms of safety ñ the near-life threatening burns suffered by Niki Lauda at the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 1976 prompted Formula One to stop racing on ‘the Green Hell’ – but also the character of the men behind the visors.
It goes without saying that Hunt’s excesses, a 40-a-day cigarette habit and outlandish reputation for partying, sex and booze would be wholly incompatible with modern F1’s ultra-professional, corporate-dominated image. Rarely are the current crop of drivers forthright in voicing their opinions in the press or on social media, and little wonder, when their every move is scrutinised so publicly.
And with the grid getting ever younger – 17-year-old Max Verstappen is due to make his F1 debut with Toro Rosso next year in place of the 20-year-old Daniil Kvyat – the pressure on drivers to appear older than their years and set a good example for their sponsors is paramount. The idea of a Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso emblazoning ‘Sex, breakfast of champions’ across their overalls today is quite simply unthinkable.
However, that’s not to say that Hunt’s off-track antics detracted from his performances on it. Hunt was a steely character who took his racing deadly seriously and extracted far more from the car than his team-mates ever could. After scoring a brilliant underdog victory in a wet Dutch Grand Prix for the privateer Hesketh team in 1975, it fell to the maverick Briton to replace departing double champion Emmerson Fittipaldi at McLaren for the 1976 season. Any lingering doubts about his credentials were soon cast aside as Hunt delivered the goods when it mattered most, taking six wins over the course of the season to seal the title at the final round in Japan by just a single point over Lauda.
One of Formula One’s best-loved characters even after his retirement from racing in 1979, Hunt forged a formidable partnership with national treasure Murray Walker in the BBC commentary booth until his premature death, aged just 45, from a heart attack in 1993. His legacy profoundly influenced Ferrari star Kimi Raikkonen, who donned a tribute helmet at the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix and famously once entered a snowmobile race in his native Finland using James Hunt as a pseudonym. The man himself would surely have approved.
We won’t see many of Hunt’s kind again, which should only make us appreciate all the more what we are missing. Godspeed James.