With the 2013 Formula One World Championship pre-season testing at Jerez drawing to a close, it’s time to look back at testing in the past. Whilst modern teams pride themselves on efficiency, punctuality and professionalism, James Hunt had other priorities. The following story takes place in 1977.
To distract himself from the boredom of lengthy test sessions James resorted to familiar diversions. Before one test, at the Paul Ricard circuit in the South of France, James spent an evening in Salzberg with Niki Lauda, where, Niki reports, ‘We had a helluva time, drank and smoked far too much, but he outlasted me and I went to bed far earlier than him.’
Niki flew is own plane (and would later found Lauda Air, the second largest airline in Austria) and the next morning he waited impatiently at the salzberg airport for his friend to show up. Ferrari was also due to test at Paul Ricard and Niki prided himself in punctuality. Ten minutes after the scheduled take-off time of seven o’clock James had still not appeared, and Niki prepared to leave without him.
Five minutes later a taxi tore out onto the runway and screeched to a halt in front of Niki’s Cessna. Two passengers fell out, one of them an exhausted-looking but attractive Fräulein in a white dress which was conspicuously covered in grass stains. Her escort, looking equally dishevelled and carrying a giant ‘ghettoblaster’ portable radio, embraced her warmly then staggered aboard the waiting aircraft. James collapsed in the back of Niki’s plane and slept all the way to Paul Ricard.
At the circuit Niki’s Ferrari blew an engine, and while it was being repaired he sat on the pit wall watching James roar around in his McLaren. A few minutes later the circuit fell suddenly silent and Niki exclaimed: “Shit! James is still pissed and he must have crashed.”
An emergency alarm sounded and as an ambulance raced down the pit lane Niki and Teddy Mayer flagged it down and hopped in. Halfway down the long Mistral straight the McLaren was sitting alongside the cement wall and the occupants of the ambulance feared the worst. As the medical men ran over to see what could be done for the driver, Niki noticed there didn’t seem to be any damage to the car, and when he came closer Teddy Mayer was leaning over the slumped figure in the cockpit.
“James,” said Teddy, “I think you’d better go back to the hotel and sleep it off.”
Niki: “James – the silly asshole – he parked the car and fell asleep!”
That story came thanks to Gerald Donaldson’s book “James Hunt: The Biography”. Check out my book review here.