Man of the Hour – Freddie Hunt
Ahead of his hillclimb attempt at Goodwood Festival of Speed, we catch up with Freddie Hunt, racing driver and son of 1976 Formula 1 World Champion James Hunt.
What do you remember about your father?
I remember Dad around the house, doing family stuff; on skiing holidays; with our dog, an Alsatian; how he nearly burnt down the garden once when he made a bonfire too big and a silver birch tree caught fire. Then there was the mountain of spaghetti bolognaise he always used to eat – he had his own bowl, which was just for spag bol. I do remember going to the Grand Prix, too – I remember Silverstone very well. My brother and I were in the hospitality bus, which was great – I imagine we were shut in there while the Grand Prix was on and Dad was commentating.
Did you have any idea, back then, how he was viewed as a driver?
I suppose it wasn’t until I started racing myself that I realised the gravity of who he was. I mean, I knew he’d won the [Formula One] World Championship, but I didn’t actually realise how loved and how famous he was. And then, obviously, more recently, they made a movie about him [the 2013 film Rush], so awareness has grown a lot since then.
Do you think people compare you to him? You do, after all, bear a striking resemblance physically.
I suppose so. I mean, I certainly do have a lot of attention on me as a result. And a lot of people do try and compare me to my father. But I like to think the people who know about racing don’t compare me to him on the track, because of my lack of experience. You know, had I started when I was a young lad, and had funding behind me, it would be a viable comparison, but at the moment it’s not. Personality-wise, however, it’s a different story – we are pretty similar.
In what way?
I’m very competitive, like he was. I don’t like losing at all. Also, like him, I get told off for speaking too openly about things. And then there’s our love of dogs – I have a Jack Russell, and Dad had Oscar, who was the only dog allowed on Sunningdale golf course. They went everywhere together.
Do you think things have changed in racing since your father’s day?
I think Formula One is less fun these days. And one big change is that drivers are all athletes now – I think the top racing drivers are among the fittest athletes on the planet – as fit as boxers, marathon runners, whatever. They’re using all their muscles: the majority of the upper body, shoulders, arms, abs, core, the lot. And it’s very physical, though not as physical as it was in Dad’s day. I think as the cars got faster, faster than Dad’s, they introduced things like power-steering. I guess [Ayrton] Senna’s time was probably the most physically demanding.
Because the cars were harder to drive?
Harder to drive, yeah. No power-steering yet loads of power – tons of power.
So, how did you get into racing?
It was at Goodwood. I was 19, so that must have been 2006, and I had no interest in racing at all, I didn’t know anything about it. Horses were my life – Mum was from a horseracing background, so I was brought up around them. I actually became a professional polo player at 16. Then I came to the Goodwood Festival of Speed as a spectator and someone asked if I wanted to jump in a touring car, a Maserati GT, and have a go. I said yeah, great, I’d love to, and the bug bit, as they say.
I did the Hillclimb at the Festival of Speed, in front of 200,000 spectators. I’d only had my driving licence for a few weeks. I loved it – 400bhp of Maserati. Amazing. So I rang up Uncle Dave – now late Uncle Dave, unfortunately; he died last year – Dad’s little brother. I said, ‘Dave, I want to become a racing driver. What do I need to do?’ He said, ‘Ring me back in a week if you’re still serious.’ So I did. He helped me raise the money for my first season in British Formula Ford and got me started.
Are you excited for your hillclimb attempt at Goodwood 2016, or feeling nervous?
Oh, definitely feeling exciting, I don’t really get nervous before a race. I’m just excited to be in the car- a great car, it’s got superb power- and out on the track. The great thing about Goodwood is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and you can really enjoy your time here.
What sort of racing do you do now and what is your racing ambition?
I started in Formula Ford in 2007 and, initially, I was looking to race Formula One. But, really, I started too late for that, so it’s endurance racing I’m turning my attention to. I’d like to drive at Le Mans, ultimately. This year, I’m racing in the Euro NASCAR.
And you have an unusual teammate too, I believe?
Yes – funnily enough, I’m in the same team as Niki Lauda’s son Mathias. Given the film Rush is about the rivalry between our fathers, it’s quite ironic!
Are you friends?
Yes, we are. He’s a great guy, and we have a lot of fun together. There’s no rivalry as of yet, although I hear he keeps an eye on my lap time, making sure I’m not getting too close! He’s more consistent than me at the moment, but when I do pop in a few quick lap times, he says, ‘I hope you’re not going to be doing that every lap.’
And have you met his father?
Yes, he’s the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One team – still working away. A really nice guy.
Do you think your genes have anything to do with your ability as a driver?
Yeah, I think it is hereditary. I think a lot of things are hereditary – you breed two great racehorses for a reason, because they’ve got good genes. Why, if that’s hereditary, shouldn’t a talent for racing cars be, too
Do you have a love of speed, of adrenaline?
Definitely. I was never destined to sit in an office. From a young age, I was climbing trees, doing crazy things, in and out of hospital – that’s just the way I am. I definitely have a craving for speed. I’d driven vehicles long before I’d passed my test, tearing around the farm on quad bikes. If I could ever get my hands on a friend’s 4×4 and drive that, I would – and it was always with my foot flat to the floor. We had motorbikes when we were kids and we’d do time trials, racing laps round the garden. Even when I’m on a horse, I ride fast. Not bicycles though, because when you come off one of those, it hurts. I ride them slowly.
Do you ever get scared?
I feel more fear now. Well, not in a racing car, because a racing car is very safe, but I mentioned the bicycle – if I’m going hurtling down a hill on a road on a bike, I get scared then. Because now I know what it’s like to have an injury. When I was younger, my nickname was Fearless Fred. It took me probably 15 years of smashing myself to pieces before I actually worked out that maybe it’s not such a good idea to impact with things.
So you’re not frightened when you’re racing?
To be honest, I’ve never really experienced much fear in a racing car. In hindsight, I should have had more fear when I first started driving, and I certainly was scared the first time I went off at speed. I crashed that time, and I think that, when I hit the wall, my fears were dissipated, because I hit it really bloody hard and I didn’t have a scratch on me because the cars are so strong now. You wear a six-point harness and you’ve got a brace so your head can’t go forward. As long as nothing hits you on the head – I’m talking about a single-seater here – you’re going to be pretty much fine.
Is speed all about timing?
Well, you’ve got to have quick reactions, naturally. But really, racing is being able to do that fast time consistently. Let’s say a qualifying lap is 1.35.20. Now, in a race, you wouldn’t be expected to do that, but you’ve still got to be doing a 1.35.30 or .40 consistently within two or three tenths of a second every lap. So that is precise timing.
You’ve helped develop two special-edition watches to commemorate your father’s World Championship win. What’s your relationship with timing? Are you, for example, a punctual person?
Very much so. If I’m not going to be on time, I’ll text ahead. I can’t stand it if people are even five minutes late.
Are you interested in watches?
The whole process of working on these two new watches has greatly expanded my knowledge of timepieces and fuelled my interest in them. To be honest, I haven’t actually worn a watch for a while. I was given four for Christmas when I was 13 years old and, by the following Christmas, I’d lost every single one of them. When I was 14 or 15, I got my first mobile phone, so I always had a means to the time. But now I’m very much looking forward to wearing a Limited Edition TAG Heuer watch. It feels a bit like growing up.
What is it about a watch that now appeals to you?
The precision of the mechanics is what’s really interesting to me. One of my great hobbies is long-distance target-shooting. There’s real precision involved in making a bullet from scratch – not the cartridge itself, but you reload it – once it’s been fired, you need to resize it, and we’re talking down to the half of a thousandth of an inch. So it’s the same sort of precision as building a watch. I find it fascinating. I don’t know anything about watch-building, but I do find it really interesting. I once saw a demonstration of what watchmakers do, and the screws were so tiny, you need bloody great big lenses just to see what you’re doing. I saw that on show at Silverstone and I thought, ‘This is really cool, really interesting.’
How did the design process work when it came to these new commemorative watches?
TAG Heuer discussed the project with me and, because they’re very good at their job and have great motor-racing credentials, they came up with a whole lot of ideas that I liked. I added some of my own, the most significant of which was to incorporate Dad’s racing stripes.
So what do you like most about them?
It’s probably the way they’ve applied Dad’s colours – that’s pretty cool. Red, blue and yellow. They come from his helmet – originally, they were the Wellington colours, those of Dad’s old school. I use the same colours on my helmet today. One of the watches has them as stripes on one side of the strap, and both have Dad’s name and signature on the back. And then, obviously, because they’re chronographs, they look very racy and sporty, and I really like that.
And you’re definitely going to be wearing one?
Certainly. I’m very much looking forward to it.