Junior Wimbledon and 300 pet budgies: James Hunt's hidden side

With Rush now in cinemas, the famously eccentric side of James Hunt’s personality has been opened up to a whole new audience – but we look past the models, and through the cigarette smoke, to show the lesser-known aspects of his character…

James Simon Wallis Hunt had a history of financial bad luck, but he had no-one but himself to blame when he was fined $2,000 for punching an unsuspecting track steward at the 1977 Canadian GP. Following earlier ‘disagreements’ with other drivers, this all but cemented his reputation as a hothead – but fellow racing driver Tony Dron remembers an encounter with Hunt’s more placid side, following a crash between the two that was caused when another driver hit Hunt's car. “We got out of our wrecks and sat down by the side of the track,” says Dron. “He pulled 10 Embassy from the pocket of his overalls and passed one to me, and we sat there watching the race. The accident wasn’t mentioned.”

Harmonious Hunt

It was this peaceful side of Hunt which his two sons – and 300 pet budgies – saw the majority of the time. “He used to take us to the park on Saturdays,” his son Tom said in a recent interview, “and we used to fly model aeroplanes, feed the geese, just normal stuff.” His retirement in 1979 also meant he could spend more time in his beloved budgie aviary. As Tom recalls, “He'd spend hours on end with them each day, and take them to shows around the country in his little Austin van. He even won awards for them. We have the trophies at home, sitting alongside his race-winning ones.”

Of course, Hunt’s passion famously got the better of him quite often – but this didn’t only apply to motor racing. As well as being a keen squash and golf player, he also competed at Junior Wimbledon as a youngster. In a biography written by Gerald Donaldson, it’s noted that 'he entered an under-17s' tennis tournament at the age of 12, and lost to a 16-year-old in the final. Rather than congratulating himself, he cried for hours'. As Tom Hunt points out, “People forget what a serious, passionate and dedicated sportsman he was. Motor racing was so dangerous back then, you couldn't just muck around.”

Feeding the 5,000

If rumours are to be believed, then ‘mucking around’ was Hunt’s speciality – but as his son explains, “It's all been over-hyped. There's no denying that there was that side to him, but there's always been a huge amount of focus and exaggeration about it, because that's interesting for people to hear about. 5,000 women? Come on! Who on earth was counting anyway, and can that really be true? I doubt it.” Another famous ‘conquest’ supposedly involved 37 British Airways stewardesses, to which Tom replies: “That's just ridiculous! I'm sure there were one or two involved, but 37?”

We’ll probably never know for sure, and while James Hunt will always be remembered for being a passionate man who lived his short life to the full, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the high regard in which he was held by his friends and family – those that matter when the reporters retreat. Still, one does wonder how a Hunt-McEnroe Wimbledon final would have played out.

Photos: Rainer Schlegelmilch / Getty Images /Rex Features / Gillfoto