James Hunt: The Worst World Champion?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

James Hunt, McLaren-Ford, 1976A feature in Arena magazine listing “The 10 Worst Sporting Champions of All Time” caught my eye, because it included James Hunt’s 1976 championship victory among them.

“The annus mirabilis of Hunt’s career was really a bit of a farce,” writes Scott Murray. But was his really the least impressive championship ever won?

I wouldn’t put Hunt’s victory top of a list of ‘worst F1 champions’. For starters, many of the statements in Arena are more than a little liberal with the truth:

James Hunt, McLaren-Cosworth, 1976“In that year’s British Grand Prix, Hunt was disqualified for the sort of dubious advantageous ‘accident’ that would put Michael Schumacher to shame.”

Not really true. The accident was a collision between the leading Ferraris which Hunt blamelessly became involved in. He was disqualified for using a short-cut to return to the pits.

“In Italy, he was forced to start from the back of the grid for using illegal fuel in qualifying.”

Again not true. To quote from Gerald Donaldson’s excellent biography of Hunt: “It was later proven that the fuel reading had been wrongly (purposely, James felt) interpreted, but the damage was done and James would have to start the Italian Grand Prix from the second-last row of the grid.”

There is no escaping the fact that Hunt’s bid for the championship was helped enormously by Lauda’s near-fatal crash at the Nurburgring (not the Hockenheimring, as Arena claim.) But was he really the ‘worst ever champion’?

Another World Champion to have benefitted from the misfortune of others is Phil Hill, whose team mate and rival Wolfgang von Trips was killed at Monza in 1961.

Mike Hawthorn won the 1958 championship with just a single victory to his credit while fellow Briton Stirling Moss had four. Besides which, he wouldn’t even have been champion had the gentlemanly Moss not given evidence to help Hawthorn escape disqualification in the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Keke Rosberg, Williams-Cosworth, Zandvoort, 1982Keke Rosberg also won the World Championship with only one race win to his name, in 1981. Indeed, late in the season it looked as though he might win the championship without ever having won a race, until he triumphed in the Swiss Grand Prix held at Dijon in France.

In recent memory Mika Hakkinen’s 1999 title was not one of the greatest. Lacking any opposition from an injured Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen threw points away and, incredibly, nearly lost to Schumacher’s team mate Eddie Irvine.

I would place these among the lesser World Championships. But do any of them deserve to be ranked alongside the likes of a darts or snooker champion of any caliber? I think not.

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