Tom Hunt doesn’t remember much about his famous father James, and seeing the about-to-be-released film about his dad’s 1976 world championship exploits doesn’t really help bring back any memories.
Born several years after James retired from driving in 1979, Hunt never watched his dad race in Formula One, so there was no nostalgia when he saw the Ron Howard film Rush for the first time in London earlier this month.
“My best memories are just spending time at home with him really, but I don’t remember a huge amount honestly because sadly over the years the memories do fade a little bit, particularly because Mum and Dad got divorced, so for the last four years I was only seeing him on weekends rather than living with him,” said Hunt, who was seven when his father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1993, a few weeks before his 46th birthday.
“I would have loved to watch him race because looking at all the old footage and hearing the stories from his friends and my family and everything it seemed like a hell of a time to be around, lots of fun and very exciting.”
Most of Hunt’s recollections surround the racer’s country home near Wimbledon where they would walk the dogs, cut the grass, play snooker and tend to the budgies his father bred after he left F1.
His strongest racing-related recollections are of his father’s work with the British Broadcasting Corporation as its F1 colour commentator beginning in 1979. Tom Hunt travelled to several grands prix as a boy and sat in the back of the booth watching quietly as his dad described the action in races next to legendary play-by-play man Murray Walker.
The film about the father opens in a week and stars Chris Hemsworth as Hunt, with Daniel Brühl playing his archrival Niki Lauda. The timing has the film hitting theatres two weeks after the 37th anniversary of the scene that plays a central role in the movie: Lauda’s return to competition in the 1976 Italian Grand Prix at the famed Monza Circuit, where he finished an incredible fourth just six weeks after barely surviving a fiery crash in Germany. That race was on Sept. 12, 1976.
Lauda was horribly scarred but lucky to be alive after a fiery accident in that year’s German Grand Prix at the treacherous 22.835-kilometre, 160-turn circuit Nurburgring Circuit on Aug. 1, 1976. Lauda’s Ferrari crashed into an embankment and burst into flames, but fortunately three fellow drivers stopped to pull him out of the blazing wreck before the Austrian burned to death. He clung to life for days before slowly recovering.
When asked, Lauda said he thinks the accident and the drama of the final race in a torrential downpour in Japan where he chose not to continue because he felt it was too dangerous – a decision that ended with Lauda losing the title by a single point – are what made the battle between he and Hunt so compelling.
“I think this is the key thing, because there have been a lot of battles and in the end there is always a winner,” he said in Montreal during Canadian Grand Prix weekend in June.
“But I lost three races and nearly killed myself, and then I took the championship to the last race and I lost in the end because I didn’t drive.”
The 1976 season was really only close because of Lauda’s misfortune. Before the accident, the defending world champion was running away with the title, scoring five wins, two seconds and a third in the first nine grands prix of the season and had almost double the points of his nearest rival, 1979 world champion Jody Scheckter. The Ferrari driver’s supremacy saw him return in Italy still leading the championship by 14 markers over Hunt, even after missing three starts. Drivers got nine points for wins in 1976.
Although Hunt thinks he met Lauda when his father was calling races, he had never spent any time with his dad’s nemesis as an adult until he mingled with the three time world champion at the London premiere of Rush on Sept. 2.
“I met him for the first time on the red carpet in London and then had more of a chat with him in Toronto a week later,” said Hunt, who was in Canada last week to see Rush at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“It was lovely and a real pleasure to meet him. It was very emotional talking to him – he had some really lovely things to say about Dad, which was amazing.”
While his childhood memories remain fuzzy, Hunt wants to keep his father’s iconic brand close to the family. Along with his younger brother Freddie, he launched a James Hunt Racing collection earlier this year to ensure that the family controlled his father’s name and legacy.
Some of the proceeds will go to the James Hunt Foundation, which will make donations to causes that his father would have supported. It was launched late last week in a charity event in Manchester, U.K., that saw all the proceeds go to the foundation. To make sure they make the right choices, the Hunt brothers plan to ask some their father’s old friends to sit on the board of the foundation or simply help decide which charities to select.
“One of the reasons we hadn’t done anything official before is the fact that I have always been wary of doing something and felt quite conscious about people looking at it and thinking we were just doing it to make money off dad’s name,” Hunt said.
“This is really about preserving his legacy and looking after his image and the iconic brand he’s almost become now. We are going to be raising money each year, not just from a percentage of the sales but also through auctions and special events.”
Many of the items in the Hunt collection are available at Mini Grid in Toronto as well as online at http://www.jameshuntf1.com . Most of the items are tied to Hunt’s iconic black helmet with his name in large white letters and three simple blue yellow and red stripes. The colours are from his alma mater, Wellington College in Bershire, U.K.
With two larger than life characters as protagonists – “the playboy (Hunt) and the serious guy,” as Lauda put it, it’s likely there will never be another season like 1976 because F1 has become so tightly controlled and image conscious that teams rarely allow drivers to deviate from the corporate script.
In addition, safety became a huge concern for F1 that the danger and life-threatening accidents like Lauda’s that shaped the 1976 season are pretty much ancient F1 history. The last driver to die in a grand prix was Ayrton Senna in the 1994.
“You cannot compare it because we had to really ask ourselves before we raced: Do we want to risk our lives or not?” said Lauda who is the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team.
“I said yes because I wanted to drive the car and win races and my ego and fearless life at the time made me do this. Drivers today don’t need to think about it because it’s not an issue anymore, thank god.”
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone