October 04, 1976 12:00 PM

For a while, daredevil British racing driver James Hunt looked like the year’s most consistent also-ran. Not only had his handsome blond wife, Susy, 28, dumped him in favor of a May-September marriage with Richard Burton, 50, but Hunt was struggling along in second place in the international Grand Prix standings, sucking up the exhaust of leader Niki Lauda. Then Hunt, 29, roared home first in the German Grand Prix, while Austria’s Lauda crashed in flames, hovering near death for days before returning to the circuit last month. Now trailing Lauda by a scant five points with three races to go (including this week’s Canadian Grand Prix and next week’s U.S. competition at Watkins Glen, N.Y.), Hunt is hungrily eyeing the championship. “It’s sad that Niki got hurt,” he observes, “but this is a tough business. Anybody who can win, by whatever means, bloody well deserves it.”

Such single-mindedness and unrelenting sangfroid have always been Hunt’s personal trademarks. Son of a well-to-do London stockbroker, who envisioned a medical career for his boy, James has been afflicted since childhood with a passion for racing. At 11, while vacationing in Wales, he careened down private lanes in a minivan. “I knew if I was seen cornering it on two wheels, that would be the end,” he says, “so I raised hell only when out of sight.” At 15, a champion schoolboy athlete at exclusive Wellington College, he coaxed a borrowed Morris Minor up to 80 miles an hour. And at 17, finally the possessor of a driver’s license, he ran his mother’s car off the road. The accident left him bruised but unchastened, and he took up again with Mrs. Hunt’s spanking new Fiat 500.

“For two years,” recalls Hunt, “I never drove except flat-out. I liked to inveigle my friends to swipe their parents’ cars to race me, and we’d charge around playing a kind of tag. I had a good feel for the road, but I was very raw and driving with no margin for error. It was incredible luck that I wasn’t killed.” Eventually Hunt was grounded after spinning the Fiat into a lamppost.

Nowadays he feels safer in airplanes than on a public highway. “When you look at any accident,” he maintains, “there are a million ways you could have avoided it, even if the other party is primarily to blame. A good principle to start with is that everyone else is an idiot.”

Playing it safe, however, was the last thing Hunt had in mind when, at 18, he suggested that his father put up $6,000 to start him in racing instead of $12,000 for medical school. “Get stuffed,” replied the elder Hunt succinctly, but James was not to be deterred. Quitting premedicine—”My heart was never in it,” he confesses—he became an apprentice at a London auto repair shop. He went through a variety of odd jobs to earn money while building his own small racing car out of parts scrounged from junkyards. An impatient mechanic—”I hated every moment in the garage”—Hunt showed up for his first race without a windshield or windows, since there was nothing in the rules requiring them. He was infuriated when officials would not allow him to start. “I burst into tears,” Hunt, then 19, remembers. “My whole world collapsed around me. Two years of devotion, and all for nothing!”

After that his life was a constant struggle to attract sponsors. Finally, in 1972, he reached the big leagues of professional racing, signing on as a Formula One driver with Britain’s Hesketh Association. Though Lord Hesketh ran out of cash before he could finance a consistent winner, Hunt came through to take the Dutch Grand Prix for him in 1975, after crack-ups in Spain and Argentina had robbed him of earlier victories.

Supremely aggressive, Hunt is nicknamed “The Shunt,” a British colloquialism for an auto collision. He has scraped through spectacular smash-ups. At 21, he catapulted his car end-over-end into a lake at England’s Oulton Park. “Fortunately I was driving without a seat belt,” he says. “If I had been using one I would have drowned, because the car wound up upside down at the bottom of the lake.” Five years ago, at Zandvoort in Holland, Hunt flipped his car again and was trapped underneath. His back muscles were torn and his knuckles scraped to the bone, but he was back in action three weeks later.

“At first,” explains Hunt, “I was hampered by bad luck and equipment as well as my own mistakes. Being a quick learner helped, but others had better equipment and kept winning, and results are what count. In the two races I blew in Spain and Argentina, I was too busy talking to myself, telling myself to cool it instead of looking where I was going. I didn’t have the habit of winning, and I freaked out under the pressure.” This year, however, driving for the British-based McLaren Racing, Hunt has kept a steely grip on his concentration and has won five Grand Prix events.

Hunt concedes that his obsession with racing sabotaged his brief marriage to model Susy Miller. They met in April 1974 on Spain’s Costa del Sol, not far from Hunt’s rented tax-haven villa at San Pedro. They were married in London the following October, but within a year had drifted apart. “It was a mistake for me to have got married at all,” admits Hunt. “Susy is a very stable, super person, but I was too busy charging around doing my own thing either to give a lot or to receive. Richard’s coming along was highly convenient, and it’s all worked out jolly well.”

Though Hunt maintains he is “not mentally in the right gear” for another serious relationship, he is open-minded about eventual remarriage. His current girlfriend is Jane Birbeck, a 23-year-old London secretary affectionately known as “Hot-Loins.” For the moment, Hunt shares his three-bedroom Spanish villa with a German shepherd puppy and a 25-year-old Girl Friday, Anita Todd, who is separated from her husband. To wind down, Hunt plays tennis, golf (betting up to $100 a round) and a cold-blooded game of backgammon, where the stakes may rise to $70 a point. “My rule is to play for higher stakes with someone I know I’m going to beat, and for lower stakes when I know I’m going to lose,” he says. “That way I get my lessons cheap.” He is $3,000 ahead for the year.

Fun and games aside, Hunt allows nothing to distract him from pursuit of the Grand Prix world championship. Prize money and sponsors’ fees will bring him about $400,000 this year, and the championship could double his income. “To win it would be a weight off my mind,” he says. “It would release me to retire when I please. In three years I will be peaking out, and not to have won it by then could keep me racing after I should have stopped.” As for the fatal chances he must take in the meantime, he observes calmly, “The prime risk is mechanical. Grand Prix drivers make few mistakes. I have confidence in myself. My ambition is to get out voluntarily—and alive.”

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