World champion racing driver, BBC commentator, and playboy James Hunt (1947-1993) died of a sudden heart attack at his Wimbledon home 20 years ago tomorrow on 15 June 1993 within hours of proposing to his girlfriend by phone. He was just 45.
Originally from Belmont, Sutton, Hunt had lived at the Arts and Crafts-style house, No 4 Bathgate Road, since 1982 after moving there from a property in Barons Court. For some years it was a family home, following his second wedding in 1983. He had met his second wife while on holiday in Spain soon after moving to Wimbledon. The couple had two children but were divorced in 1989.
Hunt loved Wimbledon, breeding budgerigars at the house and walking his Alsatian dogs on the Common. He would cycle to work at BBC TV Centre, White City, and had done so to commentate on the Canadian Grand Prix just two days before his death. The girl who would have become his third wife had been a waitress at a local restaurant when they met around the time of his divorce.
He had become a successful BBC commentator after retiring from the motor racing circuit in 1979. On screen he showed considerable insight and had a dry sense of humour. But it was his triumph in the Formula One World Championship of 1976 that marked the pinnacle of his career.
Originally inspired by watching motor racing at Silverstone at the age of 17, he had started in touring car racing and progressed via Formula Three to Formula One by 1973, driving a March 731 for the Hesketh Racing team. His greatest triumph with Hesketh was winning the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort.
He joined McLaren in 1976, achieving six Grand Prix wins in his first year with them, driving the McLaren M23. He was dogged by controversy in several cases but in the final Japanese Grand Prix he took third place, enough to win the World Championship by a point and becoming the last British Formula One champion for the next 16 years until Nigel Mansell’s success for Williams in 1992.
After that his career began a slow decline with many more controversies both on and off the track. He failed to win a second world championship as hoped in 1978 and was deeply affected by a crash at the Italian Grand Prix that year in which Lotus driver Ronnie Peterson was killed despite being rescued from his burning car by Hunt and others. He won the Japanese race but was fined for not attending the podium ceremony.
Early in 1979 he switched to the Wolf team but proved much less successful and threw in the towel half way through the season after failing to finish the Monaco Grand Prix. He was soon approached by the BBC to become a commentator and spent the next 13 years teamed with Murray Walker on TV, commenting on other drivers’ Formula One performances. Various comeback proposals came to nothing, including an offer from Bernie Ecclestone on behalf of the Brabham team in 1982.
James Hunt’s lifestyle was no less controversial than his racing career. Linked with countless women, he was known for heavy involvement with drink and drugs, usually dressed unconventionally and was a constant party-goer. Settled in Wimbledon, he suffered major financial problems and gave up driving fast cars to ride a bike while driving his budgerigars to shows in an Austin A35 van.
His funeral was held locally and he was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium, beside Wimbledon Common. His eight-bedroom house in Bathgate Road went on sale recently for £6.45 million.
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