Famed for smoking, drinking and a charming personality, James Hunt first came to Formula One in 1973 and by 1976 was crowned world champion. However, despite winning seven races up until the end of his glorious ’76 season, Hunt hadn’t managed to capture the British fan’s hearts at home by winning the UK race. In fact, prior to his victory at Silverstone in 1977, Hunt’s best result on home soil was fourth, claimed first in his maiden season and again two years later.
Hunt’s 1976 year was actually quite controversial as far as Formula One seasons go, and the Brands Hatch stewards were faced with disqualifying Hunt from the British Grand Prix. At the start of the race Hunt was involved in a dramatic accident with Clay Regazzoni and Jacques Lafitte. Regazzoni got past Hunt through the first corner and was challenging for Niki Lauda’s lead by Paddock Hill Bend. However, Lauda and Regazzoni made contact causing the Italian to spin. Hunt was right behind and had nowhere to go, his McLaren was sent through the air and landing with suspension damage. Lafitte in the Ligier also hit the stranded Ferrari and was sent into the barrier. The race was stopped to allow time for marshals to clear up the debris.
While the race was on pause, an arguement ensued as to whether Ferrari could use their spare cars and take the restart. All the while McLaren were busy away in the garage rebuilding Hunt’s M23. At the restart, Ferrari and Ligier took their cars to the grid, as did McLaren with the rebuilt Number 11. Lauda once again retained the lead and this time he was more comfortable at the front of the pack. However, partway through the race he suffered gear selection problems and by lap 45, Hunt had taken the lead and continued on to take the victory.
After the race had ended though, a protest about Hunt’s inclusion had been lodged, and after the stewards rejected the protest Ferrari appealed. It wasn’t until September that a verdict was decided, and it wasn’t to McLaren’s favour. Hunt had the 9 points taken away from him and was disqualified. Lauda was deemed the winner of the British Grand Prix, but James still got the title.
Despite all this though, Hunt would win his home grand prix in 1977, and this time it was a little less controversial. From pole position Hunt lost out to John Watson, Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter on the first lap. By lap 23 though, Hunt was back up to second having dispensed with Scheckter earlier and managing to outbrake Lauda. Five laps later James would find himself in the lead as Watson suffered a fuel system failure and was forced to pit. The victory was Hunt’s for the taking and this time, it was clear-cut and straight-forward.
Hunt wasn’t able to take the title that season though, his McLaren M26 proved to be unreliable and of the 12 races competed in the new car, James retired from 6. Wins in America and Japan would lift Hunt’s spirits, but it wasn’t enough to overhaul the point deficit and by the end of the year the McLaren driver was fifth in the title standings. Hunt would not win any more races and after failing to finish the Monaco Grand Prix on the six-year anniversary of his debut, he retired with immediate effect and walked away from the sport.
In 1993, after cleaning up his turbulent lifestyle and just hours after proposing to his girlfriend, Hunt suffered a heart attack in his home and died. The rock star of Formula One may have left us, but his natural gift of driving is still admired to this day. As is his British Grand Prix victory. Or victories, if you wish.
To read more in this series of articles, click the tag ‘British Winners’.