James Hunt was educated in Cheam and at Wellington College, where he excelled at a variety of sports, and represented the college at cross-country running and squash. He was also an accomplished tennis player, and progressed eventually to junior Wimbledon. He was intended by his parents for a career in medicine but opted instead for motor racing, a passion which developed after a friend took him to a meeting at Silverstone as an eighteenth-birthday treat.
Hunt’s career in motor sport began modestly in club racing, where he drove a stripped-down Mini before progressing to formula Ford with an Alexis, which he acquired on hire purchase, and then to formula 3. Money was tight in his period as an amateur driver so Hunt took a variety of jobs, including as a hospital porter and as an ice-cream salesman, to fund his tuition in motor racing at Brands Hatch. However, his success in formula 3 was such that for 1970 he acquired sponsorship to race a Lotus 59. Yet it was not until some two years later that Hunt moved up to formula 2, partly, perhaps, because of a number of accidents, most notably at Zandvoort, which led to his acquiring a reputation as Hunt-the-Shunt. Thereafter, progress into the highest level of motor sport was rapid, thanks principally to the patronage of Lord Hesketh, beneficiary of a grocery fortune, motor-racing enthusiast, and a man of similar temperament to Hunt. With Hesketh’s support, Hunt soon consolidated his reputation as a skilful and highly competitive driver and, more importantly, began to accumulate points. He was given his first non-championship formula 1 race by Hesketh at Brands Hatch early in 1973, when he finished a highly creditable third in a secondhand Surtees TS9B. During his career in formula 1 motor sport, Hunt took part in 92 grand prix races, had 10 wins, took pole position 14 times, and accumulated a total of 179 points.
Hunt’s first victory in grand prix racing was achieved driving a Hesketh Ford at Zandvoort in 1975. However, Hesketh was unable to continue to meet the increasing financial outlay associated with formula 1 racing and so withdrew from the sport at the end of the 1975 season. As a driver of growing reputation—he finished fourth in the 1975 championship—Hunt was quickly taken up by McLaren, with sponsorship provided by Marlboro. The 1976 season began relatively well for Hunt. He achieved the fastest practice lap for the first race, the Brazilian grand prix, and in the actual event appeared to have secured at least second place to Niki Lauda until thwarted by a jammed throttle. After five races, however, Hunt had secured only 8 points to Lauda’s 55. The next grand prix, which was in France, saw a change of fortune as Lauda’s Ferrari failed to complete the circuit and Hunt drove to victory. This was quickly followed by his reinstatement as winner of the Spanish grand prix as an earlier technical infringement involving the car was overturned. Lauda’s near-fatal accident in the German grand prix, which kept him off the circuit for the next two championship races, allowed Hunt the opportunity to retrieve his championship hopes, which he did with style by coming fourth in Austria and winning in the Netherlands. Lauda returned for the Italian grand prix at Monza, where Hunt came off the track. Hunt then won in Canada and the United States. The dash for the championship became so intense that by the final race of the season only three points separated Lauda from Hunt in second place. The race was held in Japan in very poor weather conditions, which led Lauda to withdraw from the race, but, despite two punctured tyres, Hunt managed to secure third place and enough points to become world champion. He was the sixth Briton to achieve this honour. This was the pinnacle of his racing career. Despite two further years with McLaren, Hunt was unable to repeat his earlier success and, following a short period with the Wolf team, he retired from active participation in motor sport in 1979. During his formula 1 career he was frequently in the public eye, as much for his high living as for his fast driving. He was associated with a series of beautiful women, one of whom, Susan Janet (Suzy) Miller (b. 1947/8), model, and daughter of Frederick Henry Miller, barrister, he married, on 19 October 1974. They were divorced in 1976. She then married the actor Richard Burton. There were no children of her marriage to Hunt.[caption id="attachment_37" align="alignright" width="300" caption="James Hunt Driving A McLaren"][/caption]
The reasons for Hunt’s retirement from formula 1 racing remain unclear, though it has been speculated that his flamboyant lifestyle was incompatible with the demands of the sport. He also appears to have concluded that the technical aspects of motor vehicle design were degrading the importance of the driver’s skills. From 1980 he found a new role as a commentator on motor sport, and developed a rapport with Murray Walker on the BBC grand prix programme, which proved highly popular with the viewing public. This also gave him a platform from which to articulate his often individual and entertaining perceptions of formula 1 racing, as did his magazine articles and newspaper columns. On 17 December 1983 he married, second, Saria Marian (Sarah) Lomax (b. 1957/8), interior decorator, the daughter of Ian Raymond Lomax, insurance broker. There were two sons of the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1990.
Hunt was a brave and naturally gifted racing driver who was motivated by an overwhelming determination to succeed. Although less interested in the technical aspects of motor sport, his exploits and his encouragement of younger drivers, such as Damon Hill, helped to popularize and develop formula 1 racing in Britain. He was said to be a kind man with a social conscience, who returned the money he earned from sales of commentaries to the South African Broadcasting Commission to black-run development projects. Handsome, charismatic, and gregarious, he was remembered as an enfant terrible of the motor racing world in his formula 1 days, but he ‘matured into a great champion for the sport and a thoroughly likeable fellow’ (The Independent, 16 June 1993). Motor racing and journalism enabled him to accumulate considerable personal wealth, although much of it was dissipated in failed business ventures, such as the James Hunt Racing Centre at Milton Keynes, which collapsed with debts of £2 million. He died of a heart attack at his home on 15 June 1993.