The son of 1976 Formula 1 World Champion James Hunt has his sights set on the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2018 and beyond, and what better preparation is there than competing in his first-ever endurance race? Driving’s James Gent catches up with Freddie Hunt at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Prior to this interview, I promised myself I would not get bogged down with clichéd questions for Freddie Hunt, son of 1976 Formula 1 World Champion, James. Now 30 years old, the man has surely done hundreds upon thousands of interviews like that, explaining in detail time and time again his memories of the ol’ man, and his thoughts on being a ‘chip off the old block’. Don’t get me wrong, Freddie’s respect for his father’s illustrious legacy is beyond question, but today, asking those questions above all others just doesn’t feel right.
After all, this weekend at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin marks Freddie Hunt’s first ever 24-hour race – his first race over an hour long, in fact – and is the first step of a much-publicised journey to the world’s most famous endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“My goal is to compete at Le Mans, absolutely,” he explains, “so the plan is to stay in GTs until I’ve gained enough experience. If that’s going well, I hope to stay long enough to win the bloody thing!
“I’ve done two previous races with Brookspeed [International Motorsport, his team this weekend], and they’re a good bunch, very professional. We want to get on the podium, and if we can keep out of trouble for the whole 24 hours – not try to go balls deep every corner – then we’ll be in good shape.
“But I don’t want to put pressure on myself. I just want to drive as well as I can because that’s all I can really do. Everything else is out of my power, and if something is out of my control, I can put it out of my mind, not worry about it, and just get on with racing. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.”
As another thunderous V8 exhaust note blasts its way down the main straight not 50 feet away from us, this last comment strikes a chord, and makes me take a closer look at the erudite English gentleman – a former professional polo player – reclining in the chair in front of me. The shoulder length blonde hair. The wry smile. The familiar red race suit, complete with Texaco (sorry, Havoline) sponsorship decals and ‘Sex, Breakfast of Champions’ appendage. There’s even a black, multi-striped helmet – ‘Hunt’ name stencilled across its flank – sitting on a nearby table. Yes, the resemblance is uncanny, but that’s not the focus today.
For one thing, the Freddie Hunt sitting across from me is a VERY different driver from the Freddie Hunt that made his single seater debut in 2007, aged 19. With no karting experience behind him, and despite genuinely strong pace, three years competing in British Formula Ford – plus sporadic appearances in Germany’s ADAC Formel Masters and Club Ginetta Series – would prove frustrating. A couple of one-make ADAC Cruze Cup race entries aside, it wasn’t until 2013 after a hiatus in Argentina that the lure of competition took hold once again.
“The Freddie Hunt sitting across from me is a VERY different driver from the Freddie Hunt that made his single seater debut in 2007, aged 19”
“It became pretty apparent during my first season of Formula Ford that I had some natural talent and I’m quite quick,” Freddie continues. “But it also became very apparent, very quickly, that I couldn’t deliver that pace during a race. I was an animal in the car and completely wild in the races” – his best result that season was a trio of 11th place finishes – “because I kept getting flustered and couldn’t handle the pressure. It was really upsetting for me.
“To be honest, that’s probably affected me getting funding too: a lot of people could think, ‘well, he might be quick, but he can’t deliver in a race’, so they don’t invest. I might be wrong, but that’s what I took away from that period anyway.
“But I’ve calmed all that down now, I’m a lot more collected in a race and I can actually think about what’s going on around me. In fact, sharing a car is a good reminder that, if you crash, it’s not just you who’s losing out! That keeps me grounded.”
This new ‘out of sight, out of mind’ philosophy would take Freddie to multiple Formula Ford 1600 races in 2014 and an MRF Challenge single seater contract later that year alongside Matthias Lauda (son of three-time F1 champion, Niki) with whom Freddie Hunt would similarly jostle elbows in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2016. Similarly, storming pace at his “new favourite circuit in the world” – the Virginia International Raceway – underlined that early single seater pace, and very nearly culminated with his first GT victory in a one-off Maserati Trofeo race in 2015 (he would be robbed in the closing stages by gearbox issues).
However, it would be a Pirelli World Challenge event at Laguna Seca in 2015 that made the biggest impact on Freddie Hunt’s racing mindset. Quite literally.
“This weekend at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin marks Freddie Hunt’s first ever 24-hour race, and is the first step of a much-publicised journey to the 24 Hours of Le Mans”
“My crash at Laguna Seca a few years ago was a bit of a wake-up call. It was such a slow impact in comparison to other crashes I’ve had – it was only about 60mph – but I was out for a few months, and it buggered up my back.” Unsighted, Freddie’s Maserati GranTurismo MC would drill into a stalled car as the race started.
“That made me more aware of the dangers of motorsport” (almost on cue, a Mercedes-AMG GT3 locks its brakes into turn one). “I used to be completely fearless, but I’m aware now that I’m not immortal, and I want to retire on my feet, not on my back. I have other goals I want to achieve, in and outside of motorsport.
“But you still need to be on your toes. I nearly had an accident into the second-to-last corner this morning: I went in just way too quick and saw the wall getting closer and closer!”
One slip aside, free practice comes and goes without incident, and while Brookspeed’s #41 Porsche Cayman GT4 ultimately finishes qualifying in the tyre barriers, it’s not the Englishman at the wheel. It’s this newfound consistency – and rejuvenated pace – that Freddie hopes will one day manifest itself as Le Mans 24 Hours glory.
“It’s the pinnacle of endurance racing, and that’s why I want to do it. It’s the ultimate test of man and machine. Plus I haven’t even been there to watch the race, let alone compete in it. I would love to go next year, even if there isn’t a seat. It might actually be more fun if you’re not driving!
“Of course it’s all a question of money. I haven’t done a single day’s testing – not proper testing, anyway – since 2009. And when I say ‘proper testing’, I mean turn up at the track for a day or two. I’ve done the odd half-day here or there, and that’s it. But if we go well this weekend at COTA, and get some funding for next year, we could theoretically tackle [Le Mans] in 2018.”
“I used to be completely fearless, but I’m aware now that I’m not immortal, and I want to retire on my feet, not on my back”
It’s at this moment that Brookspeed team principal Martin Braybrook floats into view, explaining to Freddie that he’s got 10 minutes to get suited and booted before his practice run. Moments later that familiar blonde hair and smile disappears behind the equally famous ‘Hunt’ black helmet as Freddie, crossing his arms just below that famous ‘Breakfast of Champions’ badge, awaits the Porsche on pit road, cameras and media forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.
There’s a race to be won and a road to Le Mans to follow, and while his father’s legacy will follow him throughout his life, Freddie Hunt aspires to be just that. Freddie Hunt. No pressure.
24 hours later, Freddie Hunt stands on the top step of an endurance race podium for the first time, Le Mans a crucial step closer than before.
*Images courtesy of Petr Frýba Photographer and 24H SERIES
Freddie Hunt on…his father, James
Turns out our man can’t resist the clichéd questions for long…
Freddie, have you found the name ‘Hunt’ has proven a help or a hindrance to your racing career?
“Both, but more of a help. It gave me a leg-up and got me started. Without that, I wouldn’t have got anywhere. But it’s also a hindrance, because it’s an awful lot of pressure and an awful lot of expectation. There’s always a lot of people watching and a lot of cameras pointing at me.
“If I could have raced in a white helmet with nobody knowing who I was, it would be completely different. And it’s possible I would have done a lot better when I first started. But when people are watching – ‘how good is he?’ ‘Is he as good as his dad?’, etc – and I think word got around after my first official test that I am quite quick. And that sort of added more pressure on myself that I HAVE to deliver. It was just a nasty snowball effect.”
How do you handle this mounting pressure on your shoulders?
“I just try and pretend it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t mean anything, and I don’t really, really want this. It’s a complete lie obviously, but I try to kid myself that racing is just a bit of fun.”
What advice would your father offer you today, if he was here? Would you take it?
“[Pause] I don’t know to be honest. I’d like to think he would give me some good tips, more about driver coaching than career advice, and that’s only because we’re very similar in person. Hopefully he’d be able to get inside my head and understand why I choose to take that particular line, or brake at that marker, and be able to coach me perhaps better than other people are able to. That would be really helpful.”
*Alongside his much-vaunted F1 title, James Hunt took 10 Grand Prix wins between 1973 and 1979, competing with Hesketh, McLaren and Wolf. Fun fact, despite debuting and retiring at the same track – Monaco – he never completed a full race distance around the principality.
Did you also know that James Hunt competed in a few endurance races of his own? His best result was 2nd overall at the 1973 Kyalami 9 Hours in a Mirage M6 alongside former Le Mans winner Derek Bell