Never meet your heroes, they say, and ‘they’ could have a point. The reminiscing about James Hunt reminded me of the time I met him. A bit of background first. Niki Lauda’s fiery accident and James Hunt’s subsequent last-gasp dash to the 1976 World Championship is what alerted me to Formula One. I was a Hunt fan, briefly, until I was alerted to Carlos Reutemann. But that’s another story.
Anyway, fast forward to 1992 and I was working for Autosport. As such I had to host a table at the Autosport Awards ceremony. On that table along with ex-F1 driver and now the late Innes Ireland, there was ex-Williams technical director Patrick Head, scribe Nigel Roebuck and James Hunt. I can’t remember now what Hunt was wearing but I struggle to imagine he was in Black Tie.
As nominal head of the table, I had to organise the collection for charity. And I remember Hunt had the usual racing driver’s long pockets and short arms. In fact when I suggested he might like to contribute, his rebuttal was pretty firm. But then I was blissfully unaware that he was as skint as he apparently was. Nonetheless, it rather took the sheen off the legend for me.
A few months later, it was a Tuesday afternoon. Autosport was just closing for press, everything had been written, designed, subbed, and proofed when one of the writers said he’d heard Hunt had had a heart attack. All hands to the pumps. I rang Mark Wilkin who was the producer of BBC Sport’s F1 coverage. He answered the phone after a couple of rings and I could tell instantly from the shock in his voice that the rumours of Hunt’s heart attack were true. In fact, they were worse: Hunt had died. We really earned our money that afternoon, putting together an obituary on the fly and getting a news story about his death researched and in the magazine within hours. It somehow seemed wrong that after racing in one of the sport’s most dangerous eras, he should die at home aged just 45.
Did meeting him ruin the myth? No. But it’s fair to say it tarnished it for a while. Twenty years down the line though and Hunt is still up there with the greats in my mind.
One of the stranger evenings I’ve had was spent with Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine and a model at the Dorchester Hotel. First a bit of house keeping. The model was Irvine’s girlfriend of the time (it was 1996). And we weren’t doing the sort of things footballers are famous for doing in hotel rooms. We were in a private part of the Dorchester’s Chinese restaurant.
At the time I knew Eddie pretty well. I was ghost writing a magazine column for him and he was in London for a Ferrari sponsor do. He asked me if I wanted to meet for a drink and after we’d had a couple he casually mentioned Michael was joining us. And that’s how I found myself having dinner with the reigning F1 world champion of the time. I found Schumacher quiet, a bit shy and quite serious but with remarkable humility. He didn’t appear over burdened with charisma but in the company of Irvine that was unsurprising.
The next time I met him was a couple of years later. I’d gone to Monza in Italy where he was testing to interview him. My plane was late departing so I was late arriving at the track. Schumacher however knew I was coming and altered his schedule to fit me in. After we’d done the interview, we carried on talking about life; the pain of delayed planes, sleepless nights as a dad of young kids and road cars, something he’s fascinated with.
For those reasons I’ve always had a soft spot for Schumacher. And unlike the rest of the world I’ve enjoyed his comeback. This year he’s had the better of Nico Rosberg in qualifying and when his car hasn’t broken he’s proved there’s plenty of fight left in him. And at 43 he’s a man.
Without wishing to get all homo erotic about this, when I got into F1 the drivers were all men. James Hunt won his title aged 29. In 1978, the top three in the championship, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson and Carlos Reutemann, were 38, 34 and 36 respectively. Now most drivers still have spots and are generally viewed as past it when they get to 33. For us older geezers, 43-year-old Schumi is driving proof that age doesn’t have to count against you.
In 1986 Frank Williams was given three years to live. It’s now 26 years after the car crash that condemned him to life in a wheelchair and he’s still going strong. He’s just hit 70 and his team has just won its 114th grand prix. That’s more than any team bar Ferrari and McLaren.
I remember the first time I interviewed Williams it was 1995 and I was a bit in awe. Afterall, this was a man who had started his business from a phone booth outside his factory. He’d won world championships and turned himself from ‘Wanker Williams’ into boss of a multi-million pound empire. We sat in the Williams team’s awning at Silverstone. His cars had qualified first and third for the following day’s grand prix and Frank sat at a table with a fruit drink. “Have you always wanted to do this?” I asked, meaning be boss of a mega successful grand prix team. “What drink from a straw?” he answered quick as a flash.
The following day his nurse told me a story about how he’d lifted Frank from his wheel chair into the passenger seat of his Renault Safrane (they had to get rid of them somehow). He went round to the driver’s seat, climbed in and Frank was leaning head first against the dashboard. “Why are you doing that?” the nurse asked. “I haven’t got any bloody choice, have I? You didn’t strap me in did you?” Frank retorted smartly. It says much about a man who can deal with crippling adversity with humour.
I’m not surprised Williams has won another grand prix.If this is the beginning of a resurgence just don’t expect too much too soon. Formula One needs time. No one knows that better than Frank Williams. But I for one wouldn’t bet against his team winning more races with Frank at the helm.