James Hunt’s top 10 drives

On what would have been the racing legend’s 71st birthday, we've looked back at the highlights of his career from touring cars to F1. Here’s to you, James...

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Happy birthday James Hunt

To celebrate the late James Hunt’s 71st birthday, AutoClassics has compiled a list of the 1976 Formula 1 world champion’s best drives. We’ve looked through his whole racing career, from touring cars and Formula Ford in the late 1960s all the way up to his last year in F1 in 1979.

Hunt won infrequently in junior single-seaters, but after making it to F1 he grew to become one of the fastest and most formidable drivers on the grid. He won ten world championship grands prix, as well as four non-championship races, and has had his legendary rivalry with Niki Lauda for the 1976 title turned into a feature film, Rush.

He spent most of his career at McLaren, where he took all of his wins, but also drove for two smaller teams, bookending his career with stints at the playboy-like Hesketh and the small but efficient Walter Wolf Racing.

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1973 United States Grand Prix

It was just three Formula 1 races before Hunt took his first fastest lap – a feat bettered by just six drivers – four races before he was stood on the podium, and a further three for him to achieve both of those accolades again.

Not only that, but it looked like he would become only the seventh driver up to that point to win a grand prix in their rookie season, in the closing stages of the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

Hunt qualified fourth in his Hesketh-run March 731, but was third by the end of the first lap after overtaking reigning champion Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72E. Three laps later he passed Carlos Reutemann’s Brabham BT42 for second, leaving only Fittipaldi’s team-mate Ronnie Peterson in front of him.

Remarkably Hunt clung on to the rear of the Swede for the remainder of the race, partly down to his superior straight-line speed, and looked better placed in the closing stages of the event. Unfortunately for him the March chassis was difficult to handle on light-fuel modes, compromising his run on to the pit straight and his main overtaking opportunity.

He was still the quicker driver, though, setting fastest lap with one to go, and finished a mere 0.668 seconds behind Peterson.

Hunt finished eighth in the standings despite entering only half of the races, and decided to remain with Hesketh for the 1974 season.

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1974 BRDC International Trophy

The non-championship BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone was the location of Hunt’s first F1 win, and had a distinct homely feel thanks to the Hesketh team being based less than ten miles away.

Hunt topped free practice convincingly, then did the same in qualifying by 1.7 seconds, much to the delight of the British crowd. That advantage was thrown away at the start, though, when his clutch slipped, and only when he reached Becketts was he able to put the power down properly, now at the back of the field.

Hunt cleared the Formula 5000 cars populating the rear end of the grid, and started to pick off the F1 contingent one by one as the laps went by. By lap eight of 40 he was up to third place. It took a bit longer to clear Surtees driver Jochen Mass for second, and he started to close in on leader Peterson as the race approached mid-distance.

The tyres on Peterson’s Lotus were blistering, and Hunt took the lead to applause on the 28th lap. Two laps later Peterson’s engine failed, leaving Hunt with nothing but clear track ahead and behind him. He broke the average speed record for the International Trophy with victory, and came just 0.1s short of the lap record.

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1975 Dutch Grand Prix

After coming close in the first race of the season at Buenos Aires, Hunt finally took a grand prix victory at Zandvoort, the eighth date on the 1975 calendar.

As he had in Argentina, and as he would on several occasions a year later, Hunt had to fend off Ferrari’s Niki Lauda. The Austrian had won the previous three races in his new 312T, and was fastest in practice and qualifying at Zandvoort.

A metering unit had broken for Hunt during practice, when most drivers were staying in the garage due to bad weather, and the part was replaced in time for the grand prix. Had Hunt not taken to the track, the failure would’ve occurred in the race – and Hunt’s career from that point onwards may have looked very different.

Thunderstorms and a team-led petition to allow the drivers to start on wet tyres delayed the race, but it was actually Hunt’s decision to then switch to the dry compound that brought him into victory contention.

He took the lead from Lauda a fifth of the way through the race, and pulled away as those behind floundered or struggle to overtake on the patches of the circuit that remained wet. Lauda eventually switched tyres, and hunted down Hunt in the last third of the race.

The Hesketh 308B retained the straight-line speed advantage the March chassis had, and Hunt drove expertly to ensure Lauda wasn’t in a place to attack at the end of the long pit straight. They finished just over a second apart, with Hunt becoming the first Englishman to win a grand prix since Peter Gethin’s famous Italian Grand Prix triumph in 1971.

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1976 Spanish Grand Prix

After Emerson Fittipaldi left McLaren for his brother’s Fittipaldi Automotive team at the end of 1975, Hunt got a call up to replace the Brazilian for 1976. His season didn’t start well, though; after only the first three races he sat the equivalent of two race wins behind Lauda in the points, having crashed out on two occasions.

He had been on pole twice, however, and he took a third at Jarama for the Spanish Grand Prix. This was the start of a turnaround, although in typically dramatic style Hunt only received his nine points for victory two months later.

Lauda beat Hunt off the line at the start of the race – an advantage the Austrian’s upgraded 312T2 often had over Hunt’s McLaren M23. The Ferrari started to tire halfway through the race, allowing Hunt and McLaren team-mate Jochen Mass to take control up front.

Mass then retired with an engine failure, promoting Lauda back up to second. The gap between the top two came to 30 seconds at the end of the race, and pulled Hunt up to second in the standings.

In post-race scrutineering Hunt’s car was found to be 1.8cm too wide across the rear wheels, and he was disqualified from the results. McLaren appealed the decision, stating that the tyres had expanded due to the heat, and Hunt was eventually reinstated as the winner.

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1976 German Grand Prix

Famous for Lauda’s crash and for it being the last F1 race ever held around the Nordschleife, the 1976 German GP was also an example of Hunt demonstrating once more how talented he was in an F1 car.

Hunt started his exceptional weekend by topping Friday’s qualifying session, which ended up putting him on pole after the Saturday session was rained off. Rain also struck the beginning of the race, with all but Jochen Mass starting on wet tyres.

Such is the size of ‘The Green Hell’, the track was mostly dry by the end of the first lap, and the majority of the field pitted for dry tyres.

Mass led thanks to his starting tyre gamble, with Hunt the highest-placed driver with a pitstop to their name in third. Lauda was further back, and had his life-changing crash while trying to bring himself back into contention.

The race was stopped, and in the restarted encounter Hunt was nigh on untouchable, unfazed by the dangers of the track. He put almost half a minute between himself and Tyrell’s Jody Scheckter, driving the six-wheeled P34. Mass finished a further half minute behind in the same car as Hunt, with only one other car getting within a minute of the winner.

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1976 Dutch Grand Prix

Hunt had only two races to capitalise on Lauda’s post-crash absence, one of which would be effectively nulled anyway due to dropped score, and after finishing fourth in the Austrian GP he needed to repeat his previous heroics at Zandvoort to put pressure on Lauda in the title race.

Second place in qualifying was less than he desired, but the fact that Hesketh were on the back row of the grid showed how well Hunt had driven the year before.

A three-way battle for the lead took place at first, with Hunt being cautious in third, not risking losing important points. A failed move ahead of him put Hunt in second, and mechanical problems for leader Peterson meant Hunt was in front after 12 laps, but with another 63 to go.

Penske’s John Watson mounted a resurgence to try and take the lead from Hunt, who did not pull away so as not to put any undue stress on the car, and he held off numerous attacks going into the 180° Tarzan corner with faultless judgement. Their battle lasted for over 30 laps until Watson’s gearbox failed, and Hunt was left to relax and look after his car once again.

This obviously resulted in a slower pace, and Lauda’s team-mate Clay Regazzoni was the next to attach himself to the leader’s tail. Regazzoni provided as much a challenge as Watson did, and the Swiss driver finished less than a second behind.

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1976 Canadian Grand Prix

Earlier in the year Hunt had won his home grand prix, but found out just before the Canadian race at Mosport that he had been disqualified from it after an appeal by rival teams. This meant he was 17 points behind Lauda, meaning the Austrian would’ve won the title had he outscored Hunt in Canada.

This proved not to be the case, as Hunt put in a faultless performance to close the lead gap down to eight points.

Hunt comfortably broke the lap record in qualifying, but he predictably lost the lead at the start despite a strong getaway. It took nine laps for him to retake top spot, a matter of the difficulty of overtaking rather than a lack of pace.

With pace disparity in F1 even greater than it is now, one of Hunt’s talents was clearing backmarkers without losing time to his rivals, who often got frustrated at Hunt’s ability to pull away through traffic. Hunt’s job was made even easier when second-placed man Patrick Depailler’s Tyrell P34 started leaking fuel into the cockpit.

Depailler still managed to finish second, while caution on Lauda’s part left him in a pointless eighth place.

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1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Hunt came into the final round of the season better prepared than anyone, and only three points behind Lauda in the standings after winning the US Grand Prix, after choosing to break a team agreement and test at Fuji Speedway, a track new to F1.

The two title rivals were closely matched during qualifying, with Hunt putting himself on place further forward than Lauda on the grid. In the Sunday warm-up session they were both unwilling to go flat-out, seeing as a large rain cloud had appeared over the circuit and had made the track treacherously difficult to drive.

Their approaches changed in the race, with the rain still very much present, with Hunt grabbing the lead into Turn 1. Lauda slipped down to tenth on the first lap, finding visible exceptionally difficult as a result of the spray produced by the cars in front, his fire-damaged tear ducts watering excessively and unable to blink as a result of his German GP crash.

One lap later Lauda called it a day, considering the track conditions to be too hazardous to continue racing. Hunt still had to finish fourth though, if he wanted to win the title, and blistering tyres on the drying track was making his job ever harder.

He was almost taken out of the race when Vittorio Brambilla made an ill-judged move for the lead, and after that the Briton just counted down the laps until he would be crowned world champion.

Overworking the tyres came at a cost, however, and with ten laps to go Hunt ceded the lead of the race to Lotus’s Mario Andretti. With five laps to go Hunt’s left front tyre deflated, luckily within distance of the pitlane, but the deflation made the tyre change tricky and Hunt returned to track in fifth place, and with one less lap to regain places after Andretti lapped him.

On the penultimate lap he took fourth and then third, securing the 1976 Formula 1 world championship title by a singular point.

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1977 British Grand Prix

Having been denied a home victory the year before, and having also failed to win in the first nine races of his title defence, Hunt turned up to Silverstone in July 1977 with a point to prove. Many wrote off Hunt’s chances before the weekend, but his new McLaren M26 was fine-tuned to perfection and he put it on pole in front of his adoring fans.

Hunt predictably lost the lead at the start, and found himself stuck in fourth for the opening part of the race. The McLaren was the fastest car on track in the hands of the reigning champion, though, and after taking third place he set fastest lap after fastest lap in pursuit of the top two.

Lauda was his next target, who he disposed of on lap 23 of 68, leaving just the leading Brabham BT45 piloted by John Watson.

Watson had proven on numerous occasions over the previous two seasons that he was one of the best drivers on the grid, and the pair engaged in an intense battle for the lead of the grand prix. Hunt did not try anything rash, and his chance came when the fuel pressure in the Watson’s Alfa Romeo engine dropped, sending Watson into the pits shortly after he was overtaken for the lead.

The lead remained in Hunt’s hands for the rest of the race, with a decisive 18.31-second gap splitting himself and runner-up Niki Lauda – only the second time the pair had shared a podium all season.

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1977 United States Grand Prix

Hunt finished only two more races in 1977, both of which were victories. The first of these was the US GP, once more held at Watkins Glen, and in wet conditions.

Having spun the car into the barriers earlier in the weekend, Hunt was cautious in the race and lost the lead instantly. He was patient, though, and eventually Brabham driver Hans-Joachim Stuck crashed out of first place, leaving Hunt back out in front.

Despite doing little bar keeping his car on track to ensure a much-desired finish, Hunt pulled out over 12 seconds on the rest of the field. The track dried towards the end of the race, and not wishing to pit, Hunt backed off on his wet-weather tyres to prevent them from overheating. Extra caution was required when his McLaren’s water temperature started to rise, and his margin of victory was cut down to just two seconds.

Nursing the car home had been Hunt’s primary intention, but the rapidly approaching Mario Andretti meant he did have to up his pace on the last lap to ensure victory. Hunt would retire again in the next race in Canada due to an embarrassing collision with team-mates Mass, that ended with him punching a marshal and being fined.

If anything, the two races showed both sides of Hunt, who would go on to win only one more grand prix before leaving McLaren.

Photos courtesy of motorsportimages.com

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