James Simon Wallis Hunt born August 29, 1947, Belmont, Sutton, Surrey, England, UK —died June 15, 1993, Wimbledon, London, England, UK.
James Hunt was not known for behaving appropriately. But never was he more outrageous than in the last two weeks of October 1976, when he was in Tokyo battling Niki Lauda for the title of Formula One world motor racing champion. His preparations were unconventional, to say the least. He had spent the two weeks leading up to the race on a round-the-clock alcohol, cannabis and cocaine binge with his friend Barry Sheene, who was world motorcycle champion that year. While Jackie Stewart famously abstained from sex a week before a motor race, Hunt would often have sex minutes before climbing into the cockpit.
He had a gigantic appetite for sex. Physically, he was unequalled even if, emotionally, he was, perhaps, an amateur. In Japan, his playground of choice was the Tokyo Hilton, where every morning British Airways stewardesses were dropped off at reception for a 24-hour stopover. Hunt unfailingly met them as they checked in and invited them to his suite for a party — they always said yes. It wasn’t unusual for him and Sheene to have sex with all of the women, often together. But, as Stirling Moss, who used to carouse with Hunt in Monte Carlo before he was married, said: ‘If you looked like James Hunt, what would you have done?’
Drifting apart: Hunt expressed his regret at proposing to Miller, a year younger than Hunt, she had spent much of her childhood in southern Rhodesia with her expat parents, her twin sister, Vivienne, and brother, John. Hunt and Miller fell into easy conversation and, a few extraordinary weeks later, he proposed. He wanted Miller as his girlfriend, but was sexually attracted to other women. Miller, however, was perfect for parading as his partner. She added a great deal of value to him — and he knew it. So he resolved to try to make the relationship work. The engagement party was held at his brother Peter’s apartment in London and many of the guests were surprised James Hunt was getting married. His ex-girlfriend, Taormina Rieck, had married in the intervening years since their break up and was also there. Hunt was still close to Rieck and had attended her wedding the year before. Now, Hunt stood before her confessing that he didn’t want to marry Suzy. He said: ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this.’ To which she retorted: ‘Well, why the hell are you, you silly clot?’
He allegedly told her it had gone too far and he couldn’t get out of it. She remembers him appearing weak and confused, at odds with the confident Hunt everyone knew. There was also the problem of being faithful. Hunt loved having sex with his new fiancee, but it was over too quickly for his tastes. He was a sex addict before the term came into common usage and unfaithful to her almost from the start. Yet, for a time, he enjoyed home life and was in love with her, or so he thought, and undeniably proud of having landed her. As his friend, the journalist Gerald Donaldson, astutely observed: ‘The emotional component of a relationship for James was still virgin territory.’ ‘I couldn’t handle the wedding, so I got roaring drunk’ The prospect of marriage had been haunting Hunt but, seeing no way out, he turned to drinking. For the full four days leading up to the wedding, held at the Brompton Oratory in Kensington and undoubtedly the society wedding of the year, he was never once sober. The day of the wedding was a farce. At six o’clock that morning, Hunt poured himself the first of many beers. Before leaving for the church, he knocked back a couple of Bloody Marys. By the time he walked up the aisle, he was hopelessly intoxicated. Suzy smiled her way through it all, convinced it would be different now he was a married man — even though the portents were not auspicious.
Relaxing: The Formula One driver was more than happy to embrace the glamorous temptations of the sport
Hunt soon began planning how to ditch her. He tried to explain what had gone wrong: ‘I thought that marriage was what I wanted and needed to give me a nice, stable and quiet home life, but, in fact, it wasn’t. And the mistake was mine.’ Facing up to the possibility that she, too, had made a mistake, Suzy also wanted out. Yet she remained supportive and sympathetic to Hunt, which only heightened his sense of responsibility towards her. He said: ‘I was very anxious not to hurt her. There are nice and nasty ways to do things and I hope I can never be a hurtful person.’ The marriage dragged on for another eight months as Suzy looked for a new partner. Hunt knew he had to get out and prayed for a miracle. That miracle arrived in the shape of Richard Burton, who was then Britain’s most famous actor. At the end of December 1975, with their 14-month marriage in pieces, Hunt and Suzy Miller went to Gstaad in Switzerland for Christmas with friends. Gstaad was the place to be that year, a festive playground for the rich and famous. Coincidentally, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were also staying there, at a villa called Chalet Arial. Burton and Taylor had married in 1964. They divorced in 1974, but almost immediately got back together and, a year later in October 1975, they remarried. Just as Hunt and Suzy Miller’s marriage had been a fiasco, so, too, was Burton and Taylor’s — both couples found themselves looking for an exit almost immediately. In Gstaad, Burton first set eyes on Suzy Miller as they were travelling in opposite directions on a ski lift. Burton turned to his assistant, Brook Williams, and asked who was the ‘vision that had just passed by’.
He was struck down by Suzy’s sheer presence, as he would say later: ‘I turned around and there was this gorgeous creature, about nine feet tall. She could stop a stampede.’ By then, Hunt had flown to São Paulo to compete in the Brazilian Grand Prix in the opening race of the 1976 season. Williams sought out Suzy and invited her to a party in Gstaad a few days later and there Burton was captivated. Williams invited her to come to the house the following day and, after that, Suzy started visiting Chalet Arial regularly. The affair, which began almost immediately, was Suzy’s first dalliance since her marriage to Hunt. He was 50 and she was 26 but, as Burton said: ‘She was mature far beyond her years.’ At the end of January, Burton told Elizabeth Taylor that their marriage was over. He (Hunt) was a sex addict before the term came into common usage and unfaithful to his wife almost from the start, Suzy had kept Hunt fully informed by telephone of the developing affair and to say that he was delighted would have been an understatement. In fact, when she told him Burton had invited her to join him in New York, he replied: ‘Fine, off you go.’ After he told Taylor it was over, Burton summoned Suzy to New York and their relationship developed so quickly into a proposal of marriage that a request for a quickie divorce was made to Hunt, while he was in South Africa. Hunt was delighted his wife had found Richard Burton. The two men immediately spoke on the telephone to arrange what they called the ‘transfer’ of Suzy. Burton offered to pay Hunt’s divorce settlement to Suzy: $1 million. Burton couldn’t believe that Hunt was so casual about letting go of his beautiful wife. Hunt simply said: ‘Relax, Richard. You’ve done me a wonderful turn by taking on the most alarming expense account in the country.’
Miller, effectively, had been sold to Burton by Hunt for $1 million and both were satisfied with the transaction. For Hunt, it couldn’t have worked out better; he had got rid of the wife he never wanted and saved himself the divorce costs. In June 1976, the divorces of Taylor and Burton and Hunt and Miller were formalised in Port Au Prince, the capital of Haiti, in the Caribbean. There, foreigners could get divorced in a day. On August 21, Suzy and Burton were married in Virginia. Meanwhile, Hunt’s mother, Sue, told journalists: ‘I’m quite convinced that whomever my son had married, the same situation would have arisen. ‘Suzy was a delight, but James is just not the marrying kind.’
Comments from Murray Walker:
The film (Rush) features the legendary 1976 duel between Austria’s then reigning world champion Niki Lauda and Britain’s playboy challenger, James Hunt. “I can’t tell you when I’ll see it, but I will,” says the man who shared a commentary box with Hunt for 13 years after the world champion retired from racing. “What I can say from talking to people who have seen Rush is that the way the film portrays the two men as enemies is not true – they were great friends. “But they’ve taken liberties to make the film more entertaining for people who are not, on the whole, petrol heads like me.” Although he will be 90 next month, Murray still writes for F1 Racing magazine and works for BBC Radio Five Live, too. “James was a very complex character,” he says. “And I was old enough to be his father. We came from such very different backgrounds and he was interested in very different things to me.” Murray, who has been married to wife Elizabeth for 53 years, adds: “I thought James drank too much, smoked too much and womanised too much. “But I wouldn’t be saying these rather unpleasant things if he had not been a decent, friendly character inside beyond the enormous success and adulation that he had. “Women threw themselves at him and it went to his head. When he retired he was a Lloyd’s Name and when that collapsed he lost most of his money at a time he was going through a vexatious and expensive divorce. He then became a much more likeable human being.” Murray says he worked with James for 13 years, 16 meetings per year, four days at a time.
“When you add that up, that’s quite a big number,” says Murray. “James was very outspoken with very strong views on nearly everything.” By a strange coincidence, he first met the Surrey-born strockbroker’s son on a day that has made the film. Murray was at a Formula 3 meeting Crystal Palace on October 3, 1970 when the blond star was in a rage after being forced to crash. “James came up to Dave Morgan on the track and knocked him down in my line of vision,” says Murray. News of Hunt’s death in Wimbledon at the age of 45 on June 15, 1993 was just as unexpected – as the pair had been working together only the day before. “We commentated on a lot of the long haul races from a studio at Shepherd’s Bush trying to give the impression that we were there. The last race we covered together was the Canadian Grand Prix. Because he had lost his money, James used to cycle everywhere because he couldn’t afford to drive. He had then gone to London to play snooker with Gerard Donaldson who had ghost written his book, but said he felt unwell.” “My wife phoned me at a function somewhere and said ‘Brace yourself, I thought she was going to say something had happened to my mother, Elsie, who was then 96. But she said ‘James has died’.
“And I said: ‘James who?’ because I was with him only that last night and I thought James Hunt can’t have died. “He’d had a heart attack and was allegedly on his bed with his phone in his hand, presumably phoning for help. “Climbing the stairs had finally done for him.” Back in 1976, the BBC only used to cover the British Grand Prix. It was as a result of the interest caused by Lauda’s near-fatal Nürburgring crash on August 1, 1976 and his subsequent return to challenge Hunt all the way to the final race of the season – that led the BBC to start broadcasting every race from 1978 onwards. Murray was in the right place at the right time. “I got the job of commentating because of Raymond Baxter’s commitment to Tomorrow’s World and a commercial interest which clashed,” says Murray, whose main career was in advertising. “James was a bloody good driver. You had to brilliant to get into Formula 1 and mega brilliant to be world champion. He wasn’t in my opinion in the Mika Hakkinen, Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher bracket, but he had more personality than the rest of them put together.”
An interview with Nikki Lauda:
What was it like for him when he first saw the scarring? “My then wife fainted when she first saw me, so I knew it could not have been good. As I get older the scars get lost in the lines, and, well,” he shrugs, “you just get used to it.”
It’s interesting that in the age of cosmetic microsurgery, when transformations are commonplace, that Lauda refused to have any more work done after the initial surgery to keep him alive. “I only had to do surgery to improve my eyesight. Cosmetic surgery, it’s boring and expensive and the only thing it could do is give me another face. I had the eye surgery so that my eyes could function, and as long as everything functions I don’t care about it.” Lauda has few insecurities. Born to a wealthy Austrian family in Vienna, his parents had expected him to follow into a comfortable life. He wanted none of it. “I was always being offered cosmetic procedures. See this little thing here,” he gestures to the side of his face, “this was done by Ivo Pitanguy in Brazil. He was the most famous plastic surgeon in the world at the time. He wanted to do everything. “What do you think of the stupid women who get work done all the time?” “I think it’s bad. If you have something done, people can see right away that you’ve had surgery.” The point of good surgery is that you don’t notice it. “I see it straight away,” he says.
Does he automatically find a woman unattractive if she’s had work done? “I would hate it. It means they can’t stand whoever they are. I’ve had a lot of incidents in the past where people were wondering how I looked. At least I can say I had an accident. The idea that people would work on themselves, who hadn’t had an accident – I can’t stand plastic surgery. You have to have enough personality to overcome this beauty bull and find the strength to love yourself the way you are.” But Lauda’s strength strangely makes him look really good. His eyes seem to glint even bluer when I tell him this. He says, “I’ve learnt from my life experience. I think I was much less charismatic before.” Rush portrays the young Lauda as very determined, practical and pragmatic. His personality was the opposite of the flamboyant catnip to all women, James Hunt. Actor Daniel Brühl, who played Lauda, had to have prosthetic teeth. He was known as “The Rat” for his protruding teeth, which you don’t notice now. “Marlboro was the sponsor. They put ‘The Rat’ on my visor. A marketing guy thought of it because of my teeth.” He wasn’t vain before the accident or diminished by being called The Rat, and he wasn’t diminished afterwards. He’s never counted on his looks. His psychological battle to overcome his brush with death and the subsequent injuries was one that he treated with his usual sportsmanship. He didn’t falter. Was he ever afraid? “I’ve had lots of positive and negative experiences. I don’t really have any fear.” Hunt won the 1976 championship on the last race of the season. Lauda retired from Formula One three years later but made a comeback in 1982 with McLaren, hanging up his helmet for the final time in 1985. Still fascinated with fast and powerful travel, he started airline Lauda Air, having gained his own commercial pilot’s licence. It did well for a while. But then, as he explains, “Another terrible thing was the airplane that crashed, the Boeing 767.” The Lauda Air flight crashed in Thailand in 1991, killing all 223 people on board. “I’ve been through a lot and I realise the future can’t be controlled,” he says. “I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties. That said, I’ve always been a stable person.” Is that why he was attracted to Formula One? He wanted to test that stability? “No. Formula One is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits. This is why people race, to feel the speed, the car and the control. If in my time you pushed too far, you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive.” Much is made of the physical scars that remain from his 1976 crash at Germany’s Nürburgring, but it also left his lungs weakened and breathing difficult. Was there never a moment where he felt simply grateful to be alive and not need to get back in the car? “No, not one moment, because I knew how things go, I knew about the risks,” he says evenly. “They questioned me, did I want to continue? But I always thought, yes, I do. I wanted to see if I could make a comeback. I was not surprised to have an accident. All these years I saw people getting killed right in front of me.’
Lauda was married at the time to Marlene, and they had two sons together. Did having children change his desire to race, to take those risks? “No, I was very focused and continued racing, and now I am married again and have twins, a little girl and a little boy.” He talks of his Max and Mia, born in September 2009, with great pride, telling me that his wife is away, that he’s been looking after them on his own. His wife, Birgit, 34, used to work for his low-cost airline company FlyNiki, also now sold. She was a stewardess. Did he meet her on a plane? “I met her at a party and I fell in love with her. It was one of those things where you see someone and you just know. I connected with her right away because of her boots. They were a hippy type, flat boots. The opposite of the high heels that everyone else was wearing at the party. That was my first interest.” He fell in love with her because of her boots? “Yes. Then I found out she was working for me.” Is he still in touch with his first wife, whom he divorced in 1991? “Yes, very much so. She is part of our life. We have a house in Ibiza. She lives there. My old family and new family often get together. We went to a restaurant the other day, Marlene, Birgit and myself. She is an outstanding woman. When everyone is happy she is happy. We got divorced but we are still friends. Nothing has changed. What is more, Birgit is her friend too.”
Nowadays, Lauda lives a little outside Vienna. “Nothing fancy,” he says, shrugging. Does he ever get tempted to speed through suburbia? “No, but when I am stopped by the police if I go a little fast I always tell them I cannot help it, it’s in my blood. They either laugh or give me a hard time.” He laughs now; an easy, throaty chuckle.
Daniel Brühl, playing Lauda, with Ron Howard on the set of Rush
In Rush, Lauda and Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) are portrayed as extreme rivals who eventually come together out of mutual respect. “Yes, we were friends. I knew him before we met at Formula One [at Formula Three]. We always crossed each other’s lines. He was a very competitive guy and he was very quick. In many ways we were the same. I had a lot of respect for him on the circuit. You could drive two centimetres from his wheels and he never made a stupid move. He was a very solid driver.” The film depicts Lauda as serious, Hunt as loving to party, womanise and drink. Is that accurate? “I liked his way of living. I did a little bit of what he did. I was not as strict as I appeared in the movie, but I was more disciplined than he was. I would never drink before a race. Certainly after it; I had to. Every race could have been my last. It’s different today, but then it was a tougher time. Every race we went out and survived, we celebrated, had a party. It was a different time. With the others we would have a beer after the race and then say goodbye. That was not friendship. With James it was different. James was different.” Does he think that Britain could ever produce another driver like Hunt? “No. Today, life is different for the racers. Everything is as safe as possible. The last driver to be killed was Ayrton Senna, 19 years ago, and the improvements were so big since that. Now nothing ever happens. It’s just not the same.” And that makes it less exciting? “Maybe. But Lewis Hamilton did well in the race the other day. A little into the race his tyre exploded. He is a very good guy. A great personality.’”
What quality does he think he shared with Hunt to make them both extraordinary drivers? “In many ways he was my opposite. We both tried to win. It’s sad that he’s not here now sitting with me. He had a rough time.“He was sober and clean for four years and then had a heart attack. He died too early, too young. I wish he’d been here to see the movie. It would have been the best.” It’s been said that Lauda is not a very emotional person.