• Rewind - Canadian GP 1977

'Hunt the punch'

Martin Williamson June 11, 2010
James Hunt had a difficult season trying too defend his title in 1977 © Sutton Images
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When James Hunt won the 1976 drivers' championship the general response was welcoming. He was seen as a throwback, a cavalier character who drank, played hard, had women chasing him across the world, and whose devil-may-care approach on the track won him admirers.

But as defending champion the following season things went badly from the off. Results failed to materialise and rows with fellow drivers and officialdom grew commonplace. "He's world champion, right," said Mario Andretti, "the problem is he thinks he's king of the god-damn world as well." The Formula One journalists awarded Hunt the Prix Citron for the least co-operative driver.

Halfway through the season he was ninth in the championship with one podium, a second in Brazil that should have been a win but for a missed gear change while leading. His McLaren was mechanically suspect but Hunt's well-known reluctance to test hardly helped.

He did turn things round in the second half of the season, winning all three of the grands prix he managed to finish from eight starts. A brilliant drive in the wet in the USA Grand Prix was still undermined by accidents and the continuing unreliability of his McLaren.

The penultimate race of the season was at Mosport in Canada. Niki Lauda had secured the drivers' title and, rowing with Ferrari over his contract, decided to sit out the rest of the season, angering sponsors and the public but not Hunt who said: "More power to him … you can only put up with so much aggro."

A fortnight after his triumph at Watkins Glen, Hunt qualified second on the grid for the Canadian Grand Prix behind Andretti's Lotus.

Soon after the race started it was clear the two of them were considerably quicker than the rest of the 25-car field. By the 58th lap they had lapped everyone with the exception of Hunt's team-mate Jochen Mass, who already knew he was on the way out at McLaren.

James Hunt's McLaren at Mosport before the crash © Sutton Images
On the next lap Andretti put two wheels on the grass as he attempted to pass Mass and that allowed Hunt past. Shortly after, Hunt came up behind Mass and attempted to pass him on the inside; Mass claimed he raised his hand to signal he could take him on the outside.

"I was right up his chuff," Hunt explained in his typically blunt way. "I was forced to go left … then he suddenly moved across to the left, hit the brakes and waved me through on the right. But I was committed and couldn't avoid him … I hit him right up the arse."

"He hit the back of my car," Mass said. "I don't know exactly why he misjudged. I don't do these things on purpose. I've never done them before." At the Dutch Grand Prix six weeks before, Hunt had collided with Andretti while attempting to pass on the inside. "Hunt says you don't pass on the outside in grand prix racing," fumed Andretti. "Silly jerk."

While on that occasion both cars had been put out of the race, this time although the two McLarens left the track, Mass was able to resume, although Hunt's car was an undriveable mess after ploughing into catch netting at 100mph.

Hunt, who described the incident as the worst of his F1 career, was briefly trapped but he managed to free himself by removing the steering wheel. As he clambered out of the car, rather than head towards safety behind the barriers, he angrily walked towards the track. A marshal tried to gently restrain him but Hunt turned and felled him with a crisp right hook. Realising what he had done, Hunt was immediately remorseful but, wisely, the marshal swiftly sought safety himself.

Hunt then stormed back to the pits along the side of the circuit, shaking his fist at Mass's McLaren every time he drove past. Mass went on to finish third while Jody Scheckter scored an unlikely victory when Andretti's Lotus suffered engine failure two laps from the end.

There was no immediate rapprochement. Hunt fumed and let rip, Mass simply said: "Sometimes James opens his mouth very quickly, which is unfortunate."

James Hunt with his girlfriend Jane Birbeck © Sutton Images
Meanwhile, the race stewards met and hit Hunt with a fine of $2000 for punching the marshal and another $750 for walking back to the pits in "an unsafe manner".

The British newspapers went to town with headlines such as "Hunt the Punch" and "Prima Donna's Punch-up". Hunt's mother when asked said: "He doesn't usually go round punching people. But he is very quick tempered, especially when he's been driving."

His tendency to boil over was well known. Early in his career he had thumped a driver after a collision in a Formula Three race. In 1976 he had engaged in a public yelling match with Patrick Depailler after another crash, and then had a run-in with Tom Pryce after he believed he had blocked him.

Although Hunt won the final grand prix of the season in Japan, the following year he was completely off the pace and increasingly unhappy with the sport and his life. His enthusiasm was, by his own admission, fading fast. After seven wretched grands prix in 1979 he retired at the age of 31.

Formula One was a much duller place for his going, but a few other drivers probably slept easier without the prospect of a punch-up in addition to the usual risks of the sport.