History will show that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when you grow up as the son of a racing driver, and the same could certainly be said of Freddie Hunt.
The son of 1976 Formula 1 World Championship winner James Hunt – who passed away 25 years ago when he and his brother Tom were just small boys – Freddie bears an unsurprising likeness to his great father. Blessed with a long mane of blonde hair and a near-identical voice and accent to the man who was rarely shy of an opinion, there’s an uncanny feeling when you first meet him.
There’s also the passion for racing, although he got behind the wheel rather too late to have a realistic shot at making it all the way to the Formula 1 World Championship where his father ultimately enjoyed his greatest success. Despite his famous surname which has helped open some doors, ultimately a lack of money (and therefore track time) has kept others firmly shut.
His ultimate ambition is to secure a coveted spot on the grid at the Le Mans 24 Hours, and if his skills behind the wheel of a prototype have been anything to go by then he’s definitely in with a chance.
Freddie hasn’t yet gained his father’s notoriety – on or off the race track – but just like his old man he’s not shy of having an opinion. In an exclusive interview with MotorsportM8, he talks fondly of his father’s legacy but less so of how his father was portrayed by Chris Hemsworth in the film Rush, which chronicled the Hunt-Lauda battle for the 1976 World Championship title.
You recently had the chance to sample your dad’s McLaren M23, what was it like to get behind the wheel of that?
It was pretty amazing, unfortunately, it wasn’t as quite as full on song as I wasn’t allowed to drive it fast. I was only going behind a car with a camera hanging out the back of it, but it felt pretty amazing regardless, it was wonderful.
Compared to what you race today, the technology difference as well too – in the space of forty and a bit years – it’s got to be quite mind-blowing nonetheless.
Oh yeah, it’s unbelievable. The first obvious one is the lack of safety, you’re surrounded by aluminium and fuel tanks so if you hit something hard, you’re not going to walk out of it. The added pressure is there are no rev limiters, it’s not difficult to get the wrong gear, so if you’re trying to go from fourth to fifth and you actually end up going from fourth to third, you can end up boiling the engine and lunching the gearbox in one quick movement. That’s quite expensive or it’s race over. They’re not easy to drive in comparison to normal cars.
Your dad passed when you and your brother were very young, but what are your recollections of him as a father to you and [brother] Tommy?
Mostly, being at home really. There’s a couple of flash memories at being at a Grand Prix, I imagine it would have been the British Grand Prix spending most of the time in the Marlboro hospitality bus. I remember he also insisted on us wearing earplugs. Most of the memories I have of him are at home or on skiing holidays.
The release of Rush (2012) a few years ago helped to really reignite his legend, his persona and brought it to a new generation of fans of motorsport and of film as well. What are your thoughts on Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal of him?
The film, as a whole, was a very good film. It was accurate enough in that it was a theatrical drama, not a documentary, and the people liked it and I think they did a good job.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Hemsworth was the right man for the job playing my father. I am not saying he is a bad actor, I don’t know enough about acting to comment, but he didn’t grasp my father’s personality at all. My father was humble and innocent and honest and that’s why people liked him, and I thought Hemsworth came across as very cocky and arrogant, quite the opposite of my father.
I thought there was an added lack of professionalism. He didn’t do any homework on the family, he didn’t ask to speak to the family at all and learn about his character or anything like that whereas on the other hand in contrast, Daniel Brühl [portraying Niki Lauda] spent two weeks living with Niki to learn what he was like – now that’s a professional actor. So, Hemsworth didn’t do a bad job, but he was up against Brühl who made him look like a rookie in my opinion.
There was a public media persona of your dad as being quite brash, someone outspoken who shot from the hip and called it as he saw it. Yet on balance the film also put light on elements of vulnerability, and that everyone’s got flaws such as self-doubt and how that manifested itself in terms of sex, drugs and anxiety. We as kids look up to our dad’s sometimes as idols and yet the movie laid some of the challenges he faced in 1976 quite bare and open as well. What were your thoughts in terms of seeing that side being portrayed through the film?
Well, I’m not really sure because too be honest it’s a grey area of how dad behaved during his racing. I know he said – and I try to believe – he was very focused and very serious about his driving.
The image of ‘James Hunt, the party animal’ – I don’t think that was anywhere near the track, not before the race of course. After the race, yes, he’d let his hair down and go and get plastered I’m sure.
What really annoyed me in one of the early scenes in Formula 3 is when he has a glass of champagne and takes a joint before he gets in the car which pissed me off because dad would have never of done something like that. That made him look to be just unprofessional and reckless. Having a joint before going into a race is just plain stupid, so that annoyed me a little bit. I think [the directors] portrayed him more gung-ho than he was. Dad wasn’t gung-ho, he was just very open and honest and a non-conformist. He wasn’t some reckless cowboy [laughs]!
It’s been fairly well documented that pre-race he was [usually] quite nervous and very anxious. There would be stories of him [feeling] physically sick, not on the count of being on drugs or anything else like that, but very nervous pre-race. Is there an element of truth in that?
That was earlier on in his career. He got over that once he got into Formula 1 and that was more: a fear for his health and also knowing that if you crash the car in those days, that would be the end of [your] career. So, there was a lot of pressure on him and he really got terribly nervous.
Of course, the danger aspect which is heightened in Formula 1. You can’t get scared in the car, so he would have brought up all those fears and emotions out of the way before you get in the car and I guess this was dad’s way of doing that.
How do you relate that to your own experiences in your own racing career? You’ve been very candid and very public in terms of some of the anxieties, mental health issues and approach of being in the spotlights when having to go out and go racing. How do you time that within your own experience that you would have had as well?
My pressure and fears have always been the fear of not delivering, there’s nothing about the safety. I think my second or third time in a racing car I had a fairly large impact and didn’t have a scratch on me, from that moment on I never was scared.
I said to a young driver’s father once who’s kid was terrified “Put him into the wall at 100 miles an hour and he won’t be scared after that” [laughs]. My anxiety was about not delivering because I can drive fast. I’m in the zone, not under pressure, but then when you put me where it matters, I can freeze up, tense up and not do my best at all.
It’s the same if I’m playing a game of snooker with a friend. Let’s say it’s a friend who I normally beat quite comfortably, as soon as we put some money on the next game, he’ll probably beat me.
We want to step out of our father’s shadow as kids and as young adults. You were very interested in polo and pursued that very seriously and then ultimately went into motor racing. Has the Hunt surname been a help, a hindrance or a bit of both?
It’s been both. It’s been a massive help getting me into the car and off the ground, but that’s all it has done for me. [Meanwhile], it has been a massive hindrance because of all the pressure and expectations I’ve had as well as people watching me and judging me.
The most frustrating part is, everyone assumes James Hunt’s son is loaded and that he’s got a big racing budget. So, when he’s qualifying a tenth or below, “Oh yeah, he must be just a crap driver.”
But then, in reality, it’s lack of money as I might be qualifying in tenth, but I’m racing against guys who have done three days of testing or been in the car since they’re been bloody five years old and I’ve only been in the car for nine months. That’s the frustrating part for the people that don’t realise that. I quite like to get that message out there that I had no money, I was [always] scrambling for sponsors. I haven’t done an official test day since 2009.
You’ve raced across a variety of disciplines and today GT and endurance racing is your principal focusing area. What’s the attraction of this particular type of racing compared to open-wheel and NASCAR that you have also done in the past?
Well NASCAR never attracted me, that was a free drive, so I couldn’t say no to that. The switch from single-seaters to endurance was purely because since I realised at the time I wasn’t going to get to Formula 1, apart of that was also not wanting to go there anymore, I thought “Well what’s the next best thing?”, and Le Mans was that.
[It’s] prototypes with a lot of power and downforce and it’s real endurance stuff. Sometimes you’re expected to do up to a three-hour stint. Yes, it’s an endurance race, but you’re still driving pretty close to what would be your qualifying time. It’s the challenge for me, that’s what appeals to me.
RB: You have mentioned Le Mans as well too, is that ultimately the goal to get out there and be [in] the world’s greatest endurance race?
That is the goal, I want to do it, I want to get there, But I’m also being realistic. I’m starting to look at myself as more of an amateur than a professional, because for the mentality of it really.
I’ve barely done a single race this year because of a lack of sponsorship and if it continues this way, I am never going to get there. So, I need to stop pressuring myself by saying I’m a professional and I must get there. I need to make a living.
As I focus my efforts elsewhere in other businesses that I’m running to try and make that crust. But I want to race in Le Mans, I [just] need the money to get there.
RB: On the flipside, the involvement – in terms of the motorsport space – has seen you do some really wonderful interviews with Texaco Havoline Europe to mark 25 years since your father’s passing. You’ve had some great sit-down chats with Lord Hesketh, Bernie Ecclestone and Mika Häkkinen as well – not enough people know the important role your dad played as a mentor to Mika in the early stages of his racing career and getting him into F1.
I didn’t know until recently either (in surprise).
What’s the experience been like getting on the other side of the camera? Being the interviewer and to engage with three legends of motorsport who played very significant roles at different stages in your father’s career.
It was wonderful. This was the first time I had the chance to speak to any of them really about their relationship [with my father].
Well, Hesketh – albeit – my godfather, I’d never seen him (laughs) – only once since my dad’s funeral – [he is a] great godfather but anyway (sarcastically)…
Bernie, it was wonderful speaking to him. He was very kind and positive about dad and it was very emotional.
Mika was [also] a lovely guy, I’ve always wanted to meet him. The third interview was supposed to be with Niki Lauda [instead of Mika], but we’d interviewed Niki twice and it’s already out there on the internet, [so we said] “Let’s interview Mika.”
He was, in another way, equally as close to dad in the paddock. To hear what Mika said that he wouldn’t have been World Champion without my father was really special to hear. Mika said when he got into Formula 1, he was gung-ho, desperate to win, getting really tense about and dad said to him: “Mika, enjoy yourself. Have fun, enjoy what you do.”
Mika said it took him a year or two to figure out what that meant, but if he hadn’t had that lesson, he would’ve never had relaxed and enjoyed it, therefore drove his best and ultimately, wouldn’t have been champion.
You’ve been quite public in saying you’re not a fan of Formula 1 today in terms of the amount of money that’s involved, the artifice from a fuel conservation perspective, the sheer overwhelming reliance on money and technology. Do you think if your father were alive today, and I’m sorry to throw a hypothetical [question] at you here, but what would your dad make of F1 today?
To start with, he’d be delighted with the safety of [Formula 1], because that was one of his main issues, he’d be very happy with that.
But I think in the way the racing goes, he would think it’s a load of rubbish. There [are] too many rules, they’re not allowed to race really. You can get penalties for not even touching someone, for intimidation, which in the olden days was a perfect, legitimate tactic – you’re not allowed to do that anymore. There’s lots of silliness of rules that I think would really wind dad up.
With the influence and the persona of your father – ‘the man, the myth, the legend’ – and then your actual dad [to yourself]. Somewhere in between, there’s the delta. In a world today of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, if your dad were a young racer today – take the same age as he was in 1976 and put that in today’s era of F1 – I wonder how he would approach the whole environment? Would he be more emboldened to be someone who was very honest and direct, or would it stifle him in the way we see other drivers today so scared to deviate from the PR line and the PR speak?
It’s a good question, I’d like to think that it wouldn’t affect him at all. He would still call a spade a spade and pose whatever he liked, within reason. As long as you’re not doing anything nasty to really offend someone. The thing with social media you got to be mindful of what you put on there – it could offend some people – but as long as you’re not doing that, you can post whatever you like. I think he would [in that respect].
How do you feel when you see the tributes to your dad? The likes of Kimi Räikkönen for example, he’s been a long-time fan of your father and has raced wearing a replica of his helmet (2012 Monaco Grand Prix), he enters snowmobile races under the pseudonym of James Hunt. He’s one of the few drivers that’s probably the closest to the type of very direct, honest persona’s that your dad was, we don’t see enough of it today too. How do you feel about today’s generation, admittedly he’s on the older end of the spectrum of today’s drivers in F1, kind of carrying that legend and story forward?
In Kimi’s case, it’s wonderful and very touching. When he wore that helmet in Monaco, it was very touching, a really nice [gesture]. He actually had a couple [of helmets] made and he gave one to my brother as well. It’s very nice to see [drivers] like that, but I still think that F1 drivers today – [even] a lot of athletes [outside of F1] – come across very dull because they can’t say anything. As soon as they open their mouth about any kind of topic, the press gets over excited and start misquoting them, that’s the problem. Unfortunately, there are some journalists [who discredit] the media as a whole and they are responsible for the dullness of the athletes.
Images via Freddie Hunt; other media via Texaco Havoline Europe