"James Hunt was the ultimate rock star"

Elizabeth Hoggard

Australian actor Chris Hemsworth has admitted he envies the charmed life Formula One legend, James Hunt, lived back in the politically incorrect 1970s.

"James didn’t want to conform to any standards and I admire that. I think he took it too far in many instances but for me, working in a business where you’ve got to be constantly careful about what you do or say, this guy was a rock star! I would have loved to have met him. The guy was a one-off."

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When Hemsworth was offered the lead in new movie 'Rush', he had one question for director Ron Howard. "‘I said to Ron, 'Is James the villain or is he the hero? Because he’s doing some pretty unforgivable things here'. And Ron said, 'We’ve been asking the same question . . .' And that’s the vibe I got from people who knew him – there are some very strong opinions about James. He was either a hot-headed jerk or he was a hero. He was capable of being both. He was a man of extremes.’"

Before his early death from a heart attack in 1993, aged just 45, Hunt had slept with more than 5,000 women. He lost his wife to Richard Burton, drank like Oliver Reed and drove like a demon.

"He would be in such a heightened state pre-race," Hemsworth tells the 'Mail on Sunday' newspaper, "and other drivers would be trying to lower their heart rate by meditating or lying down. Not James. He would be pacing back and forth, helmet on, helmet off, smoking cigarette after cigarette and then throwing up just before he got into the car. He’d get in the car and he would be fidgeting so much his legs would be banging the side of the car. I spoke to Jochen Mass [a German driver who raced against Hunt] and he remembered saying to James after one race, 'The first couple of laps you were all over the place,” and James said, 'I can never remember the first couple of laps.' He was that hyper. Then, after a race was over, he would just explode and the partying and the women were part of it."

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The 'Rush' screenplay is by Peter Morgan (who wrote 'The Queen' and 'Frost/Nixon'). The film, which gets its world premiere at the Toronto Film festival early next month, is the true story of the fierce competition between Hunt and arch-rival Niki Lauda (played by German actor Daniel Brühl) that culminated in the 1976 season, which Formula 1 fans regard as one of the greatest of all time.

"James and Niki were completely different characters on and off the track. Niki was calculated and prepped and focused, while James had a very different, almost animalistic approach, which meant he could be quite reckless at times...After a race James would let loose and party, whereas Niki would go home and go to bed and get up the next day and practise... F1 is a lot safer now, but back then the drivers looked around at each other and, statistically, they knew there was a good chance that two or three of them wouldn’t be alive by the end of the season.  It was gladiatorial, the risk of death was a constant looming threat, and those guys just dealt with it."

Hemsworth believes that fear of mortality drove Hunt. "I remember Ron saying to me, 'You know, back then in the 1970s, sex was safe and the driving was dangerous.' And now it’s the other way around. I think James lived in the moment. Nothing forces you to be in the moment more than the threat of death when you are driving in a highly adrenaline-charged race. And I think that desire to be in the moment becomes addictive. "

 The British accent was difficult. "It was tough. I find American accents easier because, in Australia, 90 per cent of our film and television comes from there."

Hemsworth tackled some of the spectacular driving sequences himself, but most of the more dangerous manoeuvres were handled by his driving double, British driver Niki Faulkner.
Hemsworth hasn’t met any of Hunt’s family but has spoken to many of his friends, former racing colleagues and team-mates. "Some would say he really was a kind person, and someone else would say he was a terrible womaniser, yet all of his ex-girlfriends spoke very highly of him."

Passion is a very attractive trait, he says. "Whether you agree or disagree with what he said and did, it was all done with passion and he threw everything into it. Whether it was some of the statements he made to the media – and he could be very indiscreet – or the way he drove, his love life, or the partying, he did it all 110 per cent."

‘Rush’ is released on 13 September