Thursday, 3 November 2011


These two eccentric English drivers had quite a bit in common. Both entered F1 in
their mid-twenties, each won a World Drivers Championship and retired voluntarily after seven seasons at age 30. Mike Hawthorn and James Hunt both enjoyed parties, socialising and were larger than life characters. Hunt was very extrovert and often bizarre in his behaviour, wandering the pit-lane in just his skimpy underpants and appearing at some formal occasions barefoot, in tee-shirt and denims. Hawthorn was far more conservative, but eccentric: he raced in a bow tie! Both died surprisingly early, Mike Hawthorn within months of his title in a road car crash in 1959, James Hunt at age 46 in 1992 of heart failure.

Mike Hawthorn career 1952-1958
Hawthorn had a far better start in F1 than his famous compatriots Moss and Collins. His father and a family friend sponsored and expertly prepared a brand new Cooper-Bristol for Mike alone in 1952 at their family-owned Farnham Garage. The private team was well-organised but financially unable to compete in all races. Against the dominant three- and four-car Ferrari Team, Mike nevertheless drove so well in his five of seven races to score a third and two fourths. Enzo Ferrari noticed!

For 1953 Mike was invited to join Maranello, alongside Ascari, Farina and Villoresi. This still-dominant team enabled Hawthorn to win the French GP at Reims after a race-long dice with Fangio’s Maserati. He finished every race, scoring two thirds, three fourths, a fifth and a sixth. For 1954 Ascari having left, Mike managed another win and several good places. Although being shaded by team-mate Gonzalez, it was another good year.

1955 was not good. Hawthorn drove for the new Vanwall Team in two early races before walking out after a disagreement with patron Vandervell. He sat out the mid-season and then returned to Ferrari for the last three races. But Mike had personal problems and a kidney illness. He was out of practice and way off-pace. 1956 was a better season for Mike’s rating, although he only drove twice: Moss’ old Maserati to a good third in Buenos Aires and a Vanwall to tenth at Reims.

For 1957 Hawthorn was back with Ferrari fulltime. His friend Collins joined as one of several team-mates. He had a reasonable year with a second and one third place, but could not match Fangio’s Maserati or the Moss and Brooks Vanwalls. Enjoying himself now with Collins, Mike was very determined for 1958, and the compact new V6 Dino Ferrari was competitive and very reliable. Despite only one win to Moss’ four, Mike won the Championship, thanks to the skewed points system, scoring well with four seconds places.

James Hunt career 1973-1979
James Hunt started with a privately-entered March-Cosworth in 1973, as sole driver for Lord Alexander Hesketh’s new team. Some good placings and three fastest laps testified to his speed. For 1974 James drove the new Hesketh-Cosworth and again scored some good placings. Driving for Hesketh again in 1975 he scored his first win after a close battle with Lauda’s dominant Ferrari. But Hesketh was out of funds.

Hunt’s break came for 1976 when Emerson Fittipaldi suddenly left McLaren and James was called up. He was fortunate that the McLaren-Cosworth M23 was the fastest car of the year, and that Lauda crashed at the Nurburgring. This enabled James to close up and win the title by a narrow margin in the season finale in rainy Fuji. Lauda always admired his friend James’ fierce competiveness. In 1977 Hunt managed three wins and again drove so well, but could not quite match the Lauda/Ferrari and Andretti/Lotus-Cosworth packages.

Hunt was no technical driver in the sense that Lauda or Andretti were: able to set up their cars and prepared to work hard off-track to get things right. For 1978 he struggled with the off-pace McLaren-Cosworth and lost his edge as a driver. In 1979 it was worse; James went to the Wolf Team, for whom Jody Scheckter had nearly won the championship in 1977. But the new Wolf-Cosworth model was way-off pace and James just gave up halfway through the season, not having driven well.

How the two drivers compare is shown in the Driver Rating table below. The best or ultimate pace is 100.0, increments of 0.1 being slower. That is by one-hundredth of a second. All my rating s are based solely on official Championship events.

Season One
Season Two
Season Three
Season Four
Season Five
Season Six
Season Seven

Hawthorn started very well, rating at the same gap from the fastest drivers as did Senna in his debut season. Hunt was not far off and matched Mike in the second year. Hunt, secure and in practice with continuous, professionally-sponsored racing went on to his best rating of 100.3 for his Championship year in 1976, and again the following year when he was a strong contender. Hawthorn by contrast suffered ill health and personal problems during 1954 and lost his spark. 1955 was worse for the same reasons, as well as losing his father in a road car crash. Hawthorn improved in 1956 despite driving just three races for BRM, Vanwall and a private Maserati! This level of 100.7 he maintained for 1957 with friend and team-mate Peter Collins at Ferrari. For 1958 Mike wanted to win the Championship and retire afterwards: he then raced at his best level of 100.4, the same Rating Jody Scheckter and Alan Jones at their peaks.

Hawthorn was superior to Hunt in being mechanically-minded; James was not interested in cars or their technicalities. Mike on the other hand started tinkering with his own motor cycles from an early age, being around in his father’s garage and doing his technical apprenticeship. He was good at working with the teams, especially with Ferrari in car set-up and development; exactly Hunt’s weaker point. Mike had a natural balance and feel: as an apprentice he used to amaze his mates by riding his motor cycle along the top of a 2-metre high yard wall.

James Hunt went downhill in his last two seasons: struggling in 1978 with a below- par McLaren and in 1979 with an off-pace Wolf. He promptly retired mid-season, having dropped his pace by almost a second a lap.

“Similar. They both raced for the same reasons”, was renowned journalist Denis Jenkinson’s opinion when I asked him at Kyalami in 1978 how he rated Hunt and Hawthorn.

© Patrick O’Brien. Nothing from this page can be used without the permission of Patrick E. O’Brien.