McLaren ’50 in 50′: James Hunt

After Emerson Fittipaldi’s world championship in 1974, McLaren didn’t have to wait long until the the next one. It was courtesy of British driver James Hunt in 1976, and came after a season full of drama. Hunt’s rivalry with Niki Lauda was a key aspect of the 1976 film, and is a rivalry that has become part of a film. Rush is released today, Friday 13th September.

Born in 1947, Hunt progressed through the ranks on his way to Formula One. Driving Minis, Formula Ford and Formula 3, Hunt was offered a drive in Formula 2 by Lord Hesketh which led to his Formula 1 drive in 1973. The Hesketh team folded in 1975 leaving Hunt without a seat. It just so happened that Fittipaldi had decided to leave McLaren, leaving a vacancy and one that Hunt soon took up.

He had a mixed start at McLaren in 1976 – four retirements from the first six races. His two finishes, however, were second place in South Africa and a dubious first in Spain. His McLaren M23 was too wide and he was subsequently disqualified from the results. This meant that his victory was awarded to Lauda, his championship rival. After an appeal Hunt was reinstated as the winner of the race. After a fifth place in the Swedish Grand Prix, Hunt’s season started to stabilise and he consistently scored points. He once again found himself disqualified from results at the British Grand Prix, this time due to an illegal restart.

Going into the last three races of the year, Hunt had to overcome a 17 point deficit to his rival Lauda, who had come back after a horrific crash at the German Grand Prix. He won the Candian and US GP while Lauda failed to score in one and came home third in the other. This set up a potential thriller at the Japanese Grand Prix with Hunt just three points behind Lauda. Hunt qualified in second and Lauda in third. Conditions for the race were treacherous and Lauda was one of a handful of drivers who chose to withdraw. Hunt raced on and finished third, making him world champion by just one point. After two mediocre seasons with McLaren after that, Hunt chose to leave for the 1979 season and eventually retired mid-way through it.

Following his retirement from Formula One, Hunt formed an unlikely partnership with Murray Walker as he took up commentating, which he continued until his death in 1993. During his racing career he picked up the reputation of being a bit of a playboy. Certainly, he had an interesting patch embroidered on his overalls which McLaren’s Tooned changed to “eggs: breakfast of champions”. The real patch had a much more adult theme. He is a firm favourite of Kimi Raikkonen, who at this year’s Monaco Grand Prix wore a tribute helmet (as he has done in the past). In 2007 Raikkonen entered a snowmobile race under the name James Hunt.

Tomorrow’s post will look at McLaren’s Tooned series – their cartoon featuring their drivers and Alexander Armstrong.

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