Born in the London borough of Sutton in 1947, James Hunt decided at age 18 to become a race car driver, and he threw himself into that goal. After time on the Formula Two and Three circuits, in his early 20s Hunt hit Formula One and, with his good looks, bad-boy image and winning ways, became a fan favorite. His off-track exploits became perhaps better known than his racing successes, and his personality always seemed to overshadow his racing. Hunt finally overtook longtime rival Niki Lauda in points in 1976 and became the champion of his sport. Reaching the summit may have taken the challenge out of the sport for him, though, and Hunt retired just two years later. He turned to broadcasting for a time but died at age 45 of a heart attack.
James Hunt was born in the Sutton borough of London, on August 29, 1947. By all accounts, he was a rambunctious child, at once hyperactive and rebellious. He attended prep school and Wellington College, but his fate was sealed around his 18th birthday, when he saw his first auto race and decided that that would be the career for him. With little support for his dream from his parents, Hunt worked odd jobs, saving until he bought a half-wrecked car and spent two years preparing it for his first race. (It was disqualified before the race because the driver's seat was an old lawn chair.)
By 1969, Hunt was racing regularly, but his races of the period often ended in hellacious crashes. (One of them ended with his car at the bottom of a lake.) He developed a reputation as a loose cannon and partier, and his career proceeded only with some help from a young British aristocrat named Lord Alexander Hesketh. Lord Hesketh had a lot of money and liked to spend it, and luckily for Hunt, Hesketh wanted to start a racing team.
The Professional Driver
Par for the Hunt course, the Hesketh Racing team became as well known (if not better known) in the Formula Two and Three worlds for its hard-partying ways as for its racing. (Hunt became known for his pre-race sex and vomiting habits.) Soon, though, Hesketh Racing would hit Formula One (1974), and Hunt's reputation on the track began to rival his notoriety off the track. The first step toward respect for Hunt came when he beat Niki Lauda to win the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, a victory that would lead to a lifelong rivalry. What wouldn't last a lifetime was Hesketh Racing, which folded at the end of the 1975 season, leaving Hunt out in the cold.
Hunt soon landed a spot on the McLaren team, and once he was able to cool his hot temper and emotional driving, he started winning races, taking the first two races of the year and six out of 16 Grand Prix races. With his good looks, bad-boy image and winning ways, Hunt became a fan favorite, and he smoked, drank and womanized his way into the racing consciousness.
In 1976, Hunt realized his dream of taking the championship as he overcame Lauda in points. He raced for McLaren for two more seasons, but it seemed his better days were behind him, and the victory he found ultimately lessened his interest in the sport. He retired midseason in 1979 and the following year took to the broadcasting booth for BBC's Formula One coverage.
His first marriage (to model Suzy Miller) behind him, Hunt got married again and had two sons, but this marriage came to an end as well in 1989. By 1993, Hunt was ready to walk down the aisle again, and on June 15, 1993, Helen Dyson, a woman half his age, accepted his marriage proposal. Only a few hours later, however, Hunt died of a massive heart attack, at age 45.
In 2013, director Ron Howard brought Hunt's story to the big screen in Rush, in which actor Chris Hemsworth portrays the famous racecar driver.
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