Niki Lauda’s return to the world of Formula One, with Jaguar, is fine news for anyone with an appreciation of a man who speaks his mind. Asked about the return of electronic ‘gizmos’, like traction control, Lauda’s response was to the point. “I don’t like it — it should depend on the driver, not all this technical bullshit. Do we want developments for road cars, or proper racing? We need to get back to overtaking on the track!”
Think of Lauda, and in the same beat you think of James Hunt, good friends, yet implacable rivals, in the Formula One of 25 years ago. Both, it may be said, came into the category of ‘characters’. Ye Gods, yes.
At the time, I was very much in Niki’s camp, for I really didn’t care too much for James during his racing career. At the height of his fame, his posse of hangers-on set your teeth on edge, but when he gave up racing, in 1979, it mercifully disappeared, and there remained a man charming and witty and kind.
Later Hunt began a second career, as a broadcaster and journalist, and I was one of many former detractors who came to hold him in great affection, as well as respect. Ultimately he came to love racing a great deal, but it wasn’t always so. While he was actually doing it, he once told me, he didn’t really like it very much.
Hunt became one of the great sports commentators, unsurpassed as an analyst of grand prix racing. There was always the substance of personal experience: the ability to apply his considerable intelligence to a race had come very much into play in his own career.
He loved to talk about his days with Hesketh Racing. Lord Alexander Hesketh, a racing fan from childhood, was but 22 when his association with James began. After an unsuccessful F3 campaign in 1972, it was decided to do F2 the following season. “We were all set up, with a new Surtees and a Ford engine,” James recalled, “but it quickly became evident a Surtees certainly wasn’t the thing to have, and neither was a Ford engine.
“We did four or five races, which were disastrous. Early in the year, though, we did a one-off F1 race, at Brands Hatch, with a rented Surtees, just for the Lord” —James invariably referred to Alexander as ‘the Lord’ — “to get a taste of it, and finished third. So he then suddenly took the rather intelligent view, we all thought, that we might as well do F1. At that time it was possible to do it for about 30 per cent more than F2.”
Hence, Hesketh Racing purchased a new March 731, and entered for its first grand prix, in Monte Carlo. With three laps to go, the car blew up, but it was running sixth at the time, and both driver and team had made a good impression. On the track, anyway. Off it, few knew quite what to make of Hesketh Racing.
During that week on the Cote d’Azur, Hesketh hospitality was — even by the standards of Monaco — at the lavish end of the scale, although Hunt, who liked a party as well as any man, always stressed that this was not the whole of Hesketh.
“There were two divisions: the workers, who had come along to do a job, and the social side, which was Alexander’s friends, a set of extremely committed party-goers. It was just the same as a weekend in the country, and they’d certainly have been on the vodka by 10 in the morning if they’d been at the Lord’s place at Easton Neston.”
The workers were entirely committed to what they were doing. The lamented Harvey Postlethwaite was brought in, and ‘Bubbles’ Horsley was the team manager. As the season progressed, Hesketh Racing, for all its apparent fripperies, ceased to be a joke. By the time of the British Grand Prix, Hunt was among the front-runners.
“At Silverstone we were competitive,” James remembered, “but I didn’t have the confidence to mix it with the three in front of me — all I did was follow them round. My career had been so chequered, because of financial problems, and so on, that I’d hardly done any racing. Plus there was a lot of pressure from the team to keep it steady — we didn’t want a crashed car, because we didn’t have a spare, and so on. In my first year, I was not encouraged to race.”
By season’s end, though, on pace Hunt was right there. At Watkins Glen he finished at the heels of the victorious Ronnie Peterson, and for 1974 Hesketh Racing built its own car, designed by Postlethwaite. At Silverstone’s International Trophy, it gave team and driver their first F1 victory, but otherwise the season was largely barren for what Hunt reckoned a ‘second-division car’.
In the first race of 1975, at Buenos Aires, James got into the lead, but spun, under pressure from Emerson Fittipaldi, and finished second. “It was a long time,” said Hunt, “before I learned how to win. When I made mistakes in F1, it was usually when leading, just through abject panic!”
He was to break the mould at Zandvoort. “For the first time,” he always said, “I won a race more with brainbox than balls.”
An hour or so before the start, it began to rain intermittently, and soon the circuit was soaked. Then the umbrellas came down again. What to do? Set up for the wet, softening rollbars, cranking on wing, or play safe with compromise settings?
Hunt and Horsley spotted a clear patch in the sky, and gambled further, leaving the Hesketh on ‘dry’ settings. Lauda, knowing he had the fastest car, went for compromise.
There was no option but to start on `wet’ tyres, but as soon as the race had begun, the rain stopped altogether, and the Hesketh gamble was looking good. James ran fourth, behind Lauda, Scheckter and Regazzoni.
As a dry line began to emerge, the next decision was when to stop for slicks. “Not easy,” Hunt said. “The racing line itself may be dry enough for slicks, but effectively you only have two wheel tracks in which to drive, and if you go a few inches off, you’re on a wet track again.”
For all that, he came in after only seven laps, and at once knew he had done the right thing. So long as he had a clear track, and could keep to the dry ribbon, slicks were emphatically quicker, but Lauda, taking no chances, did not stop until lap 13. By this time Hunt had taken a chunk of time from him, and as the Ferrari rejoined, James went into the lead.
It took Niki a lap or two to get accustomed to his slicks, during which time he was passed, for second, by Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Shadow. Not until lap 44 was he able to find a way past, and by then the Hesketh was some way clear.
Even so, I remember, at that point we still thought Niki would win, reasoning that the flat-12 would eat the Cosworth V8 down Zandvoort’s long pit straight. As it was, Lauda, running more wing than Hunt, found his power advantage nullified, and the Hesketh, with ‘dry’ settings, was superior to the Ferrari in the quick corners; only in the slow stuff did Niki’s high downforce work to his advantage. This went on for almost 30 laps, right to the flag. “In the closing stages,” Hunt said, “I really got myself settled in, and began to pull away from him a bit.” At the flag, Lauda was 1.06 seconds behind.
“We all did a lap of honour on a lorry afterwards,” the Lord recalled, “and there were Union Jacks all round the circuit. Even today, the memory of that race gives me goose pimples.”
Although the team continued, after a fashion, beyond 1975, it was never a force again; Hunt joined McLaren, and won the world championship. At James’s memorial service, in 1993, Hesketh recalled that brief period when a quintessentially English mix of eccentricity and genius took on the establishment.
“James represented something very English, didn’t he?” Alexander said. “He was the combination of the Corinthian Casual and the anarchist. Hesketh Racing gave him very little, but he gave a great deal to us.
“It was my honour and privilege and still the greatest thing I ever took part in to have been able to give James his chance.”