Monaco, the Hesketh way
I was sitting at my desk at ITN in London in May 1974 when life suddenly got better. A lot better.
“You know a bit about motor racing,” said my news editor. “We need someone to get down to Monaco and do a piece on this bloke James Hunt. You’ll be going down there in Hesketh’s transporter so you need to be in Southampton tonight.”
The transporter wasn’t hard to find, a large yellow teddy bear logo standing out in a line of trucks on the dockside. The fun began on the ferry, where mechanics and truckies gathered in the bar.
After an overnight stop in Lyon we became involved in a truck race to the coast. This was for position in the paddock, which was then on the Monte Carlo harbour front. We did well, beaten only by Lotus. Crawling through the traffic I handed out many a teddy bear sticker to fans clamouring for any souvenir of Hunt or Hesketh.
Accommodation was aboard the yacht Henry Morgan. Lord Hesketh, wearing a jacket emblazoned with ‘Le Patron’, asked what I needed for my film. An interview with James, he winced, could be tricky. “He tends to be preoccupied, a little bit tense, before the race.” When I found the man, on the morning of first practice, he was surrounded by photographers, looking a little uneasy. But I waded in. He was edgy, but helpful.
After final practice he came to the yacht, with fans, mainly female, trailing behind him like the Pied Piper. It had been a hot afternoon, he looked pensive, distracted. Shrugging off his overalls, he called for a drink, looked at me and asked what I wanted to know. About the car, how the race might go, how was life with Hesketh?
“We have a lot of fun, and Monaco is, yeah, you know…” he ruffled his hair and looked at the girls on the quayside. “But the racing is serious. The car is OK, not great, too many retirements. The Firestones don’t work so well in hot weather but anything can happen here.” A silver tray with glasses of champagne arrived and someone handed him a sheet of paper. He lit a cigarette. “Seventh on the grid. I worked hard for that but you need to be higher up, there’s nowhere to pass here, it’s pretty stupid, really. And in case you’re wondering I’m not talking about girls, parties or tax exile in Marbella, I’m here to race and we need to start gaffing results. Ask Alexander about the fun and games.”
So we went in search of Alexander. Sitting on the deck, champagne in hand, Hesketh was charm itself. The world faced recession, oil prices were rising, stock markets falling, but Hesketh Racing was in full swing. “It’s our first anniversary in Formula 1, we’ve shaken things up a bit, and we intend to party,” he smiled. “James, bless him, is terrific and he’s right we are serious about results. But we want to do it with style and have some fun.”
The party that night, aboard the yacht Nefertiti, was not the kind of event to which I was accustomed. I’d never seen so much champagne, never mind a yacht with a swimming pool. I made conversation with lots of tall, glamorous and scantily-clad people.
Race day brought another retirement. “Bloody driveshaff broke,” said Hunt, striding along the waterfront, “and I think Stuck hit me up the back in Casino Square. Things can only get better.” We followed him back to the boat where Hesketh asked if I’d like a lift to the airport. I assumed he meant by road, but I was shown to a launch that took me across the harbour to a quay where stood Le Patron’s white Jet Ranger helicopter.
“Hi, the airport, right?” asked the pilot. “Let’s go, I’ll show you the Cote d’Azur.” He did, at fairly close quarters, as we flew fast and low along the coast to Nice. Turns out my chauffeur learnt his trade in Vietnam. “Fun, huh?” he said in my headset. Yes, it was.
James Hunt, as you will learn from my colleague Eoin Young this month, was a complex character. But he was a Boy’s Own racing hero, the camera loved him, and we all rejoiced when he won the title in Japan two years later.