As the 40th anniversary of James Hunt’s F1 world championship nears, Tom McCooey speaks to the star’s son Freddie about the man behind the myth.
To some, his name doesn’t even feature when lists of top 10 Formula One legends are drawn up over pub tables.
To others, he’s at the top of the list.
Accounts of a tall, good-looking, barefoot but well-spoken rouge; drinking, smoking and sleeping with countless women are often woven into the legend. A fragile temper and the nickname ‘Shunt’ are spoken about by people who remember the celebrity more than the driving ability of the man who dragged Formula One, and its heroes, onto the front as well as the back pages of the papers.
But there are others who add the determination, skill and bravery the man possessed to a tapestry where it’s hard to separate the myth from fact, the legend from the man.
October 24 marks the 40th anniversary of Hunt’s world title win after the most dramatic season the sport had witnessed – with the Brit snatching the title from rival Niki Lauda on the last lap of the last race in Japan, winning by a single point.
It’s something the late champion’s son, Freddie, has been asked about a lot about lately. And he is one of the few who knew the man, not the driver, and one of fewer still who knew James the father – if only for a short time.
Tall, well-spoken, sharing his dad’s looks, the resemblance is uncanny. But it’s also clear that 29-year-old Freddie’s association with James only makes up part of his identity.
“I think we are very similar in many ways but I didn’t know him very well myself, I was only five years old when he died,” Freddie said.
“I remain being myself. I said that when I started racing, I’m not going to change and I will always be the same
Interest in Hunt’s world title season has spiked this year, given the significance of the date and celebrations taking place at every turn. One was this summer’s Silverstone Classic, a huge event for car enthusiasts, which boasted a display of cars and personal items from Hunt’s career.
Such interest understandably affects Freddie, despite the fact he was only a few weeks short of his sixth birthday when his dad died.
I remain being myself. I said that when I started racing, I’m not going to change and I will always be the same personFreddie Hunt
“I’m incredibly proud. So proud,” he says of people’s interest four decades on.
“It’s incredibly touching and it shows how many people love dad and still remember him so vividly, it’s really nice.”
He was admittedly young when he lost his father and had to deal with losing his mum, Sarah Lomax, to cancer in 2014, when he was 27.
But memories of his dad, as his dad and not James Hunt the racing driver, still burn brightly in Freddie’s mind.
“The hotel in Portugal we used to stay at. I have very vivid memories of the hotel there and I remember doing the most spectacular belly flop off the diving board, it was a good few metres and I must have been about four years old. I remember dad pulling me out of the pool before I drowned,” he recalled.
“Those memories are just great.”
Freddie, and his brother Tom, a property developer, are the only ones who knew James the dad though, and as the anniversary of the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix comes around, social media timelines will be filled with tributes from people who knew of James the racing driver, or have at least heard of him since.
There are drivers who have won more races, and more championships.
From his era, you would have a strong case to argue his main rival and three-time world champion Lauda was a better driver.
From other eras, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton fall into the bracket of men who have graced the podium more times.
But like one-time F1 champions Nigel Mansell, Jenson Button and Damon Hill, there is more to Hunt than the number of championships next to his name.
From tabloids in the ’70s to Hunt’s years as a commentator alongside Murray Walker in the ’80s and early ’90s, to how he is portrayed in the 2013 film Rush, the public’s perception of the 1976 world champion is just one side of the story.
Freddie, a Euro Nascar driver with ambitions to one day win Le Mans, has no desire to follow his dad into F1 though. Speaking in a room above the pit straight at Silverstone, he insists he’s not a petrolhead – even if his choice of car and career suggest
“Initially it was at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and someone said ‘jump in and have a drive’ and I had a go and I loved it,” he explained on how his career started.
“But prior to that I knew absolutely nothing about racing – no knowledge or interest in cars at all.
“I’m not a petrolhead at all.
“I like driving cars, I like fast cars. I see a pretty sports car, a Lamborghini or a McLaren or whatever it may be... I appreciate it but I don’t get excited.
“I knew I could drive fast. I passed my driving test a couple of weeks before that and you could see me going flat out everywhere. My first car – mum had it for four years so I drove that. A friend of ours had it from new 10 years before that and I managed to kill it in three months.
“On my first day of passing my test, there was a humpback bridge very close to my house. In the daytime you have to go over it very slowly in case there’s traffic coming the other way but in the night time you could see there was no one coming (because of their lights) so I put my foot down.
“It was only getting on the bridge I thought ‘I’m going a bit quick here’ and the whole car car took off and that was only 30 miles after passing my test.”
Freddie’s attitude to cars is a slight reflection on his dad’s, who once had a Porsche 911 Carrera RS despite, like Freddie, not being a car nut.
“I’ve got a Triumph GT6, which is for sale at the moment,” smiled Freddie, realising his personal transport doesn’t exactly add weight to his claim of not being a petrolhead, despite the justification he offers.
“I had to get a classic car because my insurance was really high because I lost my licence a few years ago, and classic car insurance is cheaper,” he explained.
So why then, does Freddie, a wildlife enthusiast and sustainability spokesman for Formula E, describe F1 today as “rubbish”?
“I still watch Formula One of course but it isn’t what it used to be and most races are fairly dull,” he explained.
“It’s down to the rules, I’d say. They get penalised for everything now. The cars have no noise, they are so planted – it’s a little bit more mundane.
“I think the cars could be more powerful, a little bit less wing would make it more
Straying from F1 isn’t exclusive to Freddie though, as in a happy twist of fate, Mathias Lauda, son of James’ rival Niki is Freddie’s team-mate in Euro Nascar.
“We’re good friends. He’s a really good guy, ” Freddie said.
“It’s good to have a team-mate with more more experience who’s also a friendly guy and willing to help.”
So had Freddie ever spoken to Niki for driving tips?
“We’ve never had any deep conversation about driving,” Freddie revealed. “But one thing Niki did say is ‘work on your consistency and keep calm, be professional and think about it carefully – don’t just go balls to the wall’.”
Such advice would suggest Freddie’s similarities with his dad go further than his looks, as pointed out by former F1 commentator and colleague to James, Murray Walker.
“Pretty much everyone that knew dad says how similar I am to him, and Murray said about how it’s uncanny,” Freddie smiled.
“I like snooker, squash, shooting. I’ve been playing with guns since I was a small boy and I like precision target shooting. That’s what I get up to... girls as well, but who doesn’t?”
While we can only wait to see if Freddie’s dream of winning Le Mans will come true, racing fans will enjoy the looks back at a legend they hold close to their hearts around the anniversary of a famous snapshot in sporting history.
And two young men will smile with pride, and remember the James only they knew. Their dad.