A new biography of Formula One’s 1976 world champion makes Brett Favre and Tiger Woods sheepish schoolboys by comparison. It all begins with the 1976 title race—and 33 British Airways flight attendants.
Motor racing is many things to many people. It is about engineering beauty, it is about speed and style and recklessness and precision, and it is also about
hedonism. The latter may be mostly gone from the modern sport, replaced with lines of professional models greeting Grand Prix winners after a race, but a particular brand of wild libertinism was very much a part of the early decades of Formula One.
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McLaren’s 1976 world champion James Hunt was the last great example of the playboy racing driver. Consider this account by biographer Tom Rubython of his two weeks in Tokyo before the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix which was to decide the world title between him and back-from-the-dead Ferrari ace Niki Lauda:
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.
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.
When Hunt arrived back at Heathrow airport, 2,000 fans were waiting to greet him. He staggered down the steps of the aircraft, drunk, into the arms of his mother Sue and his beautiful, long- suffering girlfriend Jane Birbeck.
She had been seeing Hunt for nearly a year, but had no idea he’d bedded 33 British Airways hostesses and countless young Japanese fans during his two-week stay in Tokyo.
If one recalls the early years of flight testing and space travel—as told by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff—it is easy to find parallels with period motor racing. Both were insanely dangerous, glamourous, bleeding-edge activities at the time and both held
attraction for a certain type of young man: focused, brilliant, and rather wild.
Hunt is not an exception, only the last manic representative of the pre-corporate racing driver. There are tales of ‘50s racers as well, racers from a decade when people were killed off with nauseating frequency on race weekend. Hunt himself was afraid of racing all his life: the stress would make him throw up before most Grands Prix.
He is often considered an unworthy world champion, a reckless womanizer who lucked into the ‘76 world title because of Niki Lauda’s infernal Nürburgring accident, and that may very well be true. But it’s important to remember Hunt, who died in 1993 at the tragically young age of 46 from a massive heart attack, for the particular cocktail of escapism that is motor racing would not be complete without his character traits, scrubbed from the modern, TV-friendly sport.
The Selvedge Yard and Mail Online have many more great period photos of Hunt, both in a top hat and without. Tom Rubython’s biography Shunt: The Story of James Hunt was published on October 1.
Photo Credit: Allsport UK/ALLSPORT, Gray Mortimore/Getty Images