Gerald Donaldson looks at Hunt from all angles: the consummate professional whose attention would nonetheless wander; the man who accrued vast wealth then carelessly squandered it; the party animal and doting father; the womaniser who settled down.
Or, at least, he was about to, before his untimely death.
It’s a shame that people more often think of James Hunt the playboy, or sidekick to Murray Walker, than Hunt the hero of British motor sport in the 1970s. On his day, Hunt could summon terrific speed.
His weakness, besides the distractions of his notorious entourage, was that he struggled to develop and maximise uncompetitive machinery. That and, as this book fascinatingly reveals, he was overtaken by a fear of dying in the car, and would often vomit with nerves prior to a race.
Donaldson dwells more on Hunt’s dogged tenacity and single-minded pursuit of success in motor sport than the turns of good fortune that brought him to the 1976 title: Emerson Fittipaldi’s shock departure from McLaren (where Hunt moved in) and Niki Lauda’s terrible crash at the Nurburgring (that allowed Hunt to come into contention for the title).
It’s a testament to the man’s life that this book is a lot of fun to read. It’s not just the madcap capers, it’s Hunt’s bone dry wit that shines through in every anecdote, the irreverently bonkers Hesketh team that Hunt immortalised with one improbable win, his acerbic insights as a television pundit.
This is a tale of redemption and self-discovery, but one with a genuine tragic and unjust outcome that weighs more and more heavily on the reader’s mind as every page turned brings you closer to the dreaded 1993.
At a push, one could argue that Donaldson shows us not quite enough of the ‘bad boy’ Hunt. He touches upon Hunt’s well-known drug use, but swiftly moves on again. The same can be said of Hunt’s less savoury sexual indiscretions, such as the tale of the foreign journalist who bedded him to rate his technique.
But it’s too easy to be critical and Donaldson does a thorough and even-handed job with an occasionally awkward subject matter. Detailed, revealing, amusing and poignant, this is a first-class biography.