James Hunt: enjoy life while you can

Twice in the last week, I have watched Rush the new film about Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

James was the first ‘celebrity’ I ever met. As a schoolboy in the 1970s, not only did I meet him – but he drove me in his car!

Well, not his car but, thankfully, a hire car.

In the passenger seat was another Grand Prix driver called Jody Scheckter. In the back were me and one of James’s younger brothers, a close friend of mine at school.

This was after a Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in Germany when, after the race, we needed to get to a train station. James said he was going our way and would give us a lift.

And, boy, what a lift it was.

Let’s just say that James became a little bored with the spectator traffic leaving the circuit and decided to take what we might call – er – an alternative route.

I won’t say any more. All I can do is urge you to go and see ‘Rush’. Albeit with Niki driving, the guys in the back of the car after the brilliantly observed hitch hiking scene could have been me!

My other memory of that exhilarating journey was a conversation I had had with the late Harvey Postlethwaite, the designer of James’s Hesketh Formula One car. It went something like this:

‘Hi Hugh. I hear James and Jody are giving you a lift to the station.’

‘Yes Doc.’

‘Do you realise what Jody has done today?’

‘No Doc.’

‘He crashed head on into a barrier at 180mph. Do you have any appreciation how fast that is?’

‘No Doc.’

‘It’s the same as two trains each travelling at 90mph, crashing – smack! – head on and you are one of the drivers two feet from the point of impact. That’s what happened to Jody three hours ago. And now he is walking about as if nothing had happened. These guys are something else.’

And he was right.

As a story, if there is one thing ‘Rush’ gets right it is the proximity to death that Formula One drivers faced at the time. In the opening scene of the film, Niki Lauda voices over that, by the end of any given season, two of the twenty or so drivers would be dead.

These days, it is hard to comprehend how unsafe Formula One motor racing was thirty years ago:

The man who waved the chequered flag stood in the middle of the track as the cars sped past, petrol tanks were refilled by jugs splashing into a funnel, photographers lay on the grass verge of the circuit and nonentities like me – me for goodness sake! – wandered around the pits with lightweight T-shirts down to our navels, ridiculous flared jeans and flip-flops.

For the drivers, death was a constant reality. In checking out some facts for this post (i.e. getting my years right) here are some lines that emerge from just two races at the Nürburgring:

‘Howden Ganley suffered a serious accident … his legs were dangling out the front of the car. He managed to get out by himself but he collapsed, his ankles seriously injured. This led to Ganley’s retirement from Formula 1.’ (1974)

‘Mike Hailwood was another to crash, having a large accident at Pflanzgarten in his McLaren M23. He received a badly broken leg which became a career-ending injury.’ (1974)

‘Ian Ashley had an accident at Pflanzgarten and suffered serious ankle injuries.’ (1975)

‘Lauda passed Tom Pryce, who had fuel leaking into his cockpit (!) and could not drive at race pace.’ (1975)

Two weeks after the 1975 race at Nürburgring, I found myself at the Österreichring near Salzburg for the Austrian Grand Prix.

This was the scene of the comic incident when Italian driver Vittorio Brambilla, so overjoyed at his first and only Grand Prix win, shot past us on the finishing straight waving both his hands in the air in celebration.

So exuberant was the Gorilla that he forgot to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel in order to turn the corner at the end of the straight. His car smashed head on into the barrier, condemning the joyful Brambilla to the ignominy of completing the only lap of honour in his F1 career with a big ego but a broken nose.

Oh sorry, did I say this was a ‘comic incident’?

I haven’t told you the American driver Mark Donohue crashed at the same corner the day before. And died.

‘Rush’ brilliantly conveys what have now been shown to be these completely unnecessary dangers that were prevalent in motor racing at the time, particularly Niki Lauda’s near fatal accident at the Nürburgring in 1976 – the year after I was there.

Faced, every season, with a high chance of dying, these drivers reacted in different ways. As history, and ‘Rush’, portray it:

– Niki Lauda was the clinical Austrian who worked hard to minimise the risks he was taking.

– James Hunt was the glamorous playboy who indulged himself in wine, women and smokes.

The truth is that neither of these human characteristics are as clear cut as you might expect:

– Niki Lauda knew how to enjoy himself.

– James, as I can testify, was a perfectly sensible and intelligent person who was absolutely dedicated to, and totally serious about, his motor racing career.

And they were both great drivers. World Champions. Quick.

In advertising, we have a thing called ‘tone of voice’ by which creative teams are briefed to convey the personality of the brands we promote.

Well, let me tell you, when James Hunt walked into a room, everyone knew it. The mood lifted. Everyone smiled. People laughed. The tone of voice, as we would have it, became ‘fun, enthusiastic, joyful, positive, inclusive, sharing, social with a hint of jealousy and expectation. Vibrant. Irresistible.’

James was the most charismatic person I have ever met. As a world champion in a dangerous, murderous sport he was as alive as anyone could be.

In this sense, he changed my life.

In 1993, after his sudden death of a heart attack aged 45, I sat at his memorial service, feeling desperately sorry for his young sons, and realised James had a left me a lesson in life.

I have not had the talent, the opportunities or, frankly, the money he enjoyed.

But, if I had not known James Hunt, I may not have taken my stand against financial corruption at Interpublic, or been to The Bahamas so often, or started my own business, or stood for Parliament, or founded a successful rugby club, or become Trustee of a charity, or published a children’s book, or taken my family to New Zealand to experience the Millenium before you did, or flown to Sydney for the World Spoofing Championship, or co-founded Lovereading.co.uk, or written a film script, or worked with so many clients on such a variety of projects, or seen so much of my children, or churned out so many of these infernal blog posts!

In short, I may have had a more successful career – but would I have enjoyed such a full life?

I think you know the answer.

Thank you James.

You’re a star.


About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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