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When James Hunt’s family assembled to watch Rush, Motor Sport was there to gauge the reaction
Writer Rob Widdows

One winter afternoon earlier this year, I went to the cinema in London. Not something I would normally do, but this was no ordinary visit. Invited by David Hunt, an old friend and James Hunt’s younger brother, I was at movie producer Working Title to watch Rush, academy award winner Ron Howard’s film about Hunt’s battle with Niki Lauda for the 1976 World Championship.

This is a big year for Hunt’s family. The Monaco Grand Prix marked the 40th anniversary of James’s World Championship Grand Prix debut for the Hesketh team. Kimi Räikkönen wore a special helmet in recognition of a driver, and an era, that inspired him as a youngster in Finland. He was born in 1979, but became very aware of Hunt’s lifestyle. “There was not so much money then,” Kimi has said. “I liked that era very much and always respected James. It’s good to remember those guys. Life would have been easier for me in the 1970s. Maybe I was born in the wrong era.”

James would have appreciated Kimi’s modus operandi, the serious racer with plenty of time for some fun and none at all for bullshit.

Tom Hunt, James’s elder son, has been working with David on the launch of some stylish new merchandise – the James Hunt Racing Collection – including caps, shirts and jackets using images created by Nicolas Hunziker. There is also a new website (www.jameshuntf1.com) and a charity, the James Hunt Foundation, to which a percentage of the proceeds will go.

There was a certain amount of nervousness as the Hunt family gathered for this private screening. James’s mother Sue was there with Tom (whose younger brother Freddie was away in Argentina), plus James’s siblings David, Tim, Sal and Jo. The absent Freddie is uncannily like his father in looks and character and sports a James Hunt signature tattoo…

It’s a daunting prospect to see your father or son in full Hollywood technicolour, but Sarah Hunt-Jeffery – who married James in 1983 and is mother to Tom and Freddie – was the one with most reservations. She anticipated a raw, upsetting experience, but that turned out not to be the case.

“I was absolutely terrified that they would capture James as I remember him,” she says.

“I might not have been able to cope with that. Within 30 seconds, however, I realised that, visually, it wasn’t anything to do with the man I remember. All I saw was an actor who I felt was too good-looking, too clean cut. His teeth were too white, and he had none of James’s mannerisms, the slight stoop, the way he stood, his shyness. I could sit back without any emotional attachment to colour my judgement.

“What didn’t come across was that James had incredibly low self-esteem, but a belief in his inner core. His arrogance, I felt, was hiding an inner fear. He was constantly on edge, but easy to live with. He did the shopping and cooking, things like that. I never knew him when he was racing, though I did have his photo stuck to the back of my cheque book when I was much younger. I had no real interest in Formula 1, so when I met him on the beach in Marbella I really didn’t know who he was, but there was an instant animal attraction. I love naughty people…

“I enjoyed the film, the whole drama between James and Niki. Both were equally determined to win but both had issues, both had difficult journeys. I don’t think either of them felt they were part of the pack. They were desperate to prove themselves. James was painfully shy and insecure, the arrogance was a camouflage.”

The film is sure to attract enormous attention, the kind of headlines that followed Hunt throughout his career. So what might James think of the film?

“He’d say, ‘Stroll on, get it right, hope you make some money from it’, and he’d be pleased if it was advantageous to his children, whom he adored. Tom has been working hard on the new website and merchandise ahead of the film’s release. James was a very kind and sensitive man, but to do the job he did, to achieve as much as he did, he had to be in the fast lane.

“He had enormous discipline, though, which might seem strange. He had no intention of dying in a racing car, but for some reason always said his journey would end when he was 45 years old. He could have sat in the layby for longer, but he wasn’t in his comfort zone and hadn’t fully adjusted to a quieter kind of life. That would have been very tough, and uncomfortable, for him.”

Surely the best judge of how her son is portrayed, James’s mother Sue seemed quite underwhelmed by the experience. “It wasn’t James, not at all,” she said, “but I quite enjoyed watching it. We didn’t see that much of him in 1976, but ITV invited us up to London to watch the last race in Japan and that was exciting. It was very early in the morning, I do remember. We went to quite a few of his races, yes, but not so much that year because he was always so busy. The film is entertaining, but it wasn’t James on the screen, not the son I knew.”

For son Tom it was a moving experience to catch a glimpse of the exuberant racer, rather than the adoring father he knew as a child. James was long retired when Tom was born, his life much more about budgerigars and billiards than birds and booze.

“The film was a weird experience, very surreal, and I did feel shaken up afterwards,” he says. “My dad was very different from James Hunt the racer, and since all the publicity surrounding the film I’ve been getting to know more about him as a racing driver. That’s weird for me – but it also makes me feel very proud. There is so much interest. It amazes me how everyone still talks about him, even more so now because of Rush.

“I realise more and more just what an iconic figure he is, so when the film is released I’m sure all the old stories about dad being a party animal, with his odd wild moments, will be repeated. I just hope people will also remember him as the caring, intelligent man we knew.”

Executive Producer Eric Fellner, whose company Working Title made both Senna and Rush, caught the racing bug as a teenager and remembers the excitement of 1976.

“I was obsessed with cars and racing; it was so dynamic in those days, and James was somebody different,” he says. “He was a British hero, a dashing playboy, and a winner who looked like he was leading a life many of us wanted to lead. James was last of the great showman racing drivers, the men we remember from the pre-war days or the 1950s.

“We love to find good stories that capture the audience’s imagination and this story is incredible. You couldn’t make it up. People would say it could never have happened. It is of course a dramatisation, but I believe we have enough authenticity to satisfy the fans who were there at the time. You can’t cover every detail of a story like this in 100 minutes, but I think it will engage people emotionally and entertain them as well.”

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