A Candid Interview With James Hunt – by Gerald Donaldson
“When I first came back into the paddock I felt like a spare prick at a wedding!” – James Hunt
During my time racing in Europe I became close friends with Gerry Donaldson, one of Formula One’s premier journalists. Gerry was in F1 during my battles in F3 and F1 and was always a great supporter. He (a fellow Canadian) also wrote a number of bestselling books about F-1 including biographies on Gilles Villenueve, Juan Manuel Fangio and James Hunt.
The following excerpt is from his book Grand Prix People, Revelations From Inside The Formula 1 Circus. It consists of profiles of 110 prominent personalities inside Formula One. Among those interviewed were several world champions, including this one with James Hunt. At the time Gerry was also then working on James’ syndicated newspaper columns and they were planning for Gerry to write his memoirs. Sadly, Gerry had to complete this without James…
Be sure to visit Gerald Donaldson’s website and follow his blog www.f1speedwriter.com
We will post more of his work in future newsletters.
To his role as colour commentator on the BBC Formula 1 telecasts James Hunt brings all the experience of 92 Grands Prix and the authority of a World Champion (1976). But Murray Walker’s sidekick also brings his press-on-regardless style (which intimidated opponents, some of whom thought he was “barking mad – so when they saw my car behind them they moved out of the way!”), which now takes the form of foot-to-the-floor, often caustic, comments about what he sees on the TV monitors. And Hunt’s pithy observations liven up even the dullest race.
Early in his career his penchant for crashing earned him the title of ‘Hunt the Shunt.’ Later, in deference to his public school background, he was ‘Master James’ and, during his tenure as a driver for Lord Alexander Hesketh, ‘Superstar’ Hunt was the ringleader of a riotous Grand Prix team that seemed to consume as much champagne as petrol and where the nubile young ladies occasionally outnumbered the mechanics.
Hunt retired in 1979 (“for reasons of self-preservation”), and his formerly flamboyant lifestlye is now tempered somewhat by the responsiblities of fatherhood – he has two lively young sons, Tom and Freddy – and having to tend a large flock of budgerigars which he breeds in an aviary at his home in Wimbledon. But on race weekends Hunt turns his attention back to the Grand Prix circus.
“If I was driving now it wouldn’t do for me to turn up, as I used to for a Grand Prix, unshaven and not particularly tidy in my civvie clothes. I was really only there to do my job in the cockpit and around the car, which of course one doesn’t have to dress up for. Presentation is all-important now, because it’s all so publicity-oriented, which is of course where all the money has come from, and it has to be respected. The teams are much more professional businesses. As a result, that’s taken a little bit of the character out of it, because everything is so professional and organized. The only reason I ever walked up and down the pit row when I was a driver was to look at the pretty girls. But with the modern pass system there aren’t any in the pits now, so now you have to go outside. Pity, that.
“I was jolly happy with life in the 70’s, really. We certainly had a lot of fun in those days. But I think my way of living when I was driving would be difficult today. I was entirely responsible about my driving, and never misbehaved there, but after that, when the job was done, I led a fairly laidback lifestyle. I think modern sponsors in this day and age would find that a bit of a strain, and it would not be to my advantage in my career. People would hesitate before hiring me. And I would probably have to curb my behaviour and certainly put on a different public face. I don’t think that the way I lived then affected my driving, and I don’t think it would if the whole thing was happening now. But you would just have to go a bit more under cover.
“Funnily enough, when I first retired, and first started commentating, I was very uncomfortable with Grands Prix. I think, having been a driver, two factors contributed to that. One was, when I came back into the paddock I actually felt like a spare prick at a wedding! A lot of standing around with nothing to do. But what really compounded it, and made it particularly unpleasant, was that the general public was still treating me like a driver. And that was one of the reasons I retired. That was specifically one of the things I was trying to get away from. So there I was, walking back into the fire, having just got out of the frying pan.
“But people have very short memories and by five years after I had retired I was able to walk quite happily and freely around the paddock without any aggravation. That’s fine now and I am very comfortable at Grands Prix, and I thoroughly enjoy my TV commentating. I enjoy the racing. It’s a good way to watch the race because I’m actually involved with it, which is much more fun for me than just sitting and watching it, which probably wouldn’t even hold my attention, most of them.
“On the race weekend basically I’m most interested in the final qualifying, and that’s only an hour on Saturday. Then I’ve got a twenty-four hour wait until the race starts. There’s actually nothing to do other than stand around and socialize and try not to start drinking too much, out of boredom. But there’s not a lot else to do!
“Even in my day one had to, as a driver, stay under cover, so you had your hibernation points. My hibernation point ever since I drove for McLaren has always been in the Marlboro hospitality unit in the paddock. They’re particularly good friends of mine anyway. And the atmosphere in there is exactly the same as when I was driving, and I still stay under cover most of the time. I find it varies from race to race, but I like the the paddock atmosphere at Jerez, for instance. It’s got a nice wide open layout, and everybody always seems relaxed and in a good mood. And you can see people coming from a long way off!
“But, basically, all the people here are mad passionate motor racing enthusiasts. Ninety-nine percent of them are would-be racing drivers themselves, expressing their enthusiasm in other ways. They either haven’t had the opportunity to become one, or they’ve tried, or they’ve just preferred in the end to express their love for it that way. Really, for everybody I know in the business, it is primarily an act of love. That’s aside from the fact that nowadays it also happens to be a good job, with good working conditions and decent pay. But even if the conditions hadn’t improved I’m sure the same people would be here.”