Rupert Keegan was the rich kid in the F1 team with a playboy image – well, Penthouse actually. But being called the ‘next James Hunt’ worked against him. By Tim Scott
When kitsch was cool, John Travolta was new and the only skirts in Formula One were mini, soft porn strutted and pouted its way onto the grand prix grid. On the arm of the ‘Penthouse Pets’ was a rich, handsome young Englishman, one of the latest junior racing sensations with the world seemingly at his feet.
Fittingly enough, for both sides of that good-time alliance, they joined what has become affectionately remembered as F1’s last ‘partying’ team, the effervescent Hesketh squad. With the Penthouse name, allied to that of Rizla cigarette papers, the team contrived to come up with one of the most brazen and distinctive colour schemes the sport has known, complete with a Memphis Belle-type French maid draped alluringly along the car’s bright blue flanks.
To the outside world, it appeared a combination tailor-made for Hesketh’s new charge, Rupert Keegan. Newly crowned as British Formula Three champion, the 21-year-old looked to be straight out of the James Hunt mould: a hard-charging, chain-smoking public schoolboy with straggly hair. A tyro who eyed up the girls and the smallest overtaking chance with the same gung-ho alacrity. A young man in a hurry; a rebel without a pause. But then reality bit.
Donington Park is fresh but bright as Keegan lowers his now far-sturdier frame into the cockpit, a 26-year separation melted by one breakfast meeting as he once more slides alongside his favourite painted lady (he actually knew the artist’s model, Suzanne Turner, quite well).
This is Rupert’s regular car, chassis number one, and the sensations and memories of that 1977 season come flooding back. The 308E’s present owner, successful historic racer Philip Walker, and the Legends Racing preparation company are happy to reunite the car with its original master before it’s sold on. With that same distinctive orange helmet in place (but only go-karting overalls), Keegan eases the car out onto the circuit among buzzing test-day traffic of Formula Fords and Caterhams. He hasn’t so much as sat in a racing car for eight years; double that for the last time he drove a big slicks-and-wings single-seater. A dozen or so laps later, though, there’s a big smile.
“I haven’t driven a car that quick for so long, but by the third lap I started giving it a go,” he says. “It was like riding a bike, it all came back. It was tiring, but exhilarating. I did no more than 15 laps, but it was enough.
The 308E was a fine-looking car, with its tapered, slimline wine-bottle shape, and was striking when clothed in a series of different colour schemes. But the fact that the team’s public face was so chopped-and-changed was a strong indicator of internal problems. Although Keegan’s car remained resplendent in its garish outfit throughout the year, there was a continual flow of liveries on the other cars as ‘pay drivers’ came and went; a tell-tale sign of the echo of empty coffers. Three joined Keegan in 1977: Harald Ertl, Hector Rebaque and Ian Ashley. None distinguished themselves (or ever outpaced Keegan), but they were essential because funds were so very, very short. It was a hand-to-mouth existence that prohibited any meaningful testing, and therefore any positive development of what started out as quite a promising package.
We know now that Hesketh was in its death throes by 1977. Three of the four main pillars from the heady days when the patriotic little team dumbfounded the sport’s giants with victory at Zandvoort in 1975 were long gone. James Hunt was, of course, a world champion with McLaren; Lord Hesketh, playboy patron extraordinaire, had walked; and designer Harvey Postlethwaite had been prised away by Walter Wolf. Only the team manager, Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley, remained, soldiering on through ’76 running outdated 308Cs for rent-a-drivers.
It may have been a shell of the original team, but Horsley was putting the pieces in place for a better 1977. One of his drivers the previous year was sponsormeister Guy Edwards, who had landed backing from Penthouse and Rizla. They agreed to stay on, and promising young designers Frank Dernie and Nigel Stroud produced the neat, all-new 308E. All they needed now was a good young driver, a natural successor to the inspirational Hunt.
” ‘Bubbles’ came to see me at the 1976 F3 finale at Thruxton,” says Keegan. “He put it simply: ‘If you win the title today, we’ll give you a drive in F1 next season.’ It was between Bruno Giacomelli and me, and we never got past the first corner: I was champion, and in F1.”
In just three years Keegan had gone from Formula Ford to the top, and he clearly possessed a genuine gift. He had won the first three F3 races of 1976 in a two year-old March, although he’s quick to recognise the part played by his brilliant young engineer, Adrian Reynard.
What Keegan also had was a wealthy father willing to back his son’s career. Mike Keegan, owner of British Air Ferries, even bought FFord chassis constructor Hawke to aid Rupert’s path. The cynics had already attached to Keegan the undesirable tag of a rich-kid playboy who was paying his way to the top.
Keegan, therefore, was eager to prove he deserved his place in F1 on merit, but the lack of funds meant he missed the first three fly-away races of 1977. He immediately made waves on his and the 308E’s F1 debut in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, running as high as fourth and pulling off a stunning overtaking manoeuvre around the outside of Jackie Oliver’s Shadow at Paddock Hill bend.
His world championship debut at the Spanish GP was also encouraging. Qualifying 16th, he made his way through the field and was battling for eighth with Ronnie Peterson and Alan Jones before he had an accident. The point had still been made: this Keegan fellow was committed and brave, and maybe deserved his F1 place after all.
Still, being surrounded by scantily clad women can lead to you not being taken as seriously as you might like. Penthouse was making the most of its opportunity in the glamorous paddock, a posse of ‘pets’ attending every race. Keegan was left with the arduous task of spending time with them to satisfy his sponsors.
“We wouldn’t party at the weekend, we’d go to bed early,” he insists. “But Penthouse did enliven my playboy image, because I was surrounded by all these women. I was 21 years old. What was I supposed to do – object?
“It didn’t make it any better when I joined Surtees the next year – now I was sponsored by Durex!”
Hesketh chief mechanic Dave Sims corroborates his driver’s protestations: “All that playboy stuff was exaggerated. Now James, he was a real party man; Rupert was nowhere near like that, he was fit. He was a hardcase and I’m convinced he could have made it.”
At the end of May, Keegan was lucky to walk away from a light aeroplane crash, but soon his main concern was the lack of progress with the 308E. The Belgian and Swedish GPs were disasters because and inherent handling problem, chronic understeer leading to snap oversteer, was becoming overwhelming – and rookie Keegan could not get to the bottom of it.
“The difficulty was we couldn’t afford any testing, and had no driver experienced enough to pinpoint the solution,” explains Stroud. “Frank designed a modification whereby we put the oil coolers in the nose to put more weight forward, but we never really got to the source of the problem. I believe the characteristic was inherent.”
The redesign did help initially. In France, Keegan qualified 14th, at Silverstone he was 13th. The Austrian GP in August was a high point, although there was a hiccup when Rupert missed first qualifying – he’d been arrested! Trying to bypass a traffic jam on his way to the circuit, the police had waved him down. The young Keegan thought it wiser not to stop, and the ensuing chase and road block meant a trip to the cells: “The police didn’t find it funny, but the magistrate did and let me go!” He recovered to finish seventh, his best result of the season.
It was at this point that Keegan’s never-say-die enthusiasm behind the wheel – it was quite an achievement that he qualified for every GP entered that year – seemed to have paid dividends.
“I was dissatisfied because people were going forward and we weren’t, but then Colin Chapman came up to me in Austria and made it very clear we’d do a contract for 1978.”
Fortunes failed to improve as the season tailed off but, confident of his Lotus position, Keegan was a happy man. Then things went wrong: “In the Canadian GP, I collided with Hans Binder; it shot me in the air and I came down, nose first, right onto the top of a barrier and broke my toes.” This followed team-mate Ashley’s monumental accident in qualifying, when he’d sliced through a television tower, so Hesketh headed home with two bags of bits.
Worse was to follow: Mario Andretti turned down Ferrari to stay with Lotus, and then Chapman signed Peterson.
“I believe outside pressure was brought to bear on Colin; he was really apologetic,” says Keegan. “I had been näive. Although my father had known Chapman for years, it had been a mistake to be so trusting.”
The curtain was falling on Hesketh’s brief but bright history. With Olympus Cameras money it tried to qualify for eight GPs in 1978, Eddie Chevver’s the lone successful effort. The 308Es were then run for Davina Galica in the British F1 series. The show was over.
Keegan had to make do in 1978 with a drive at Surtees. For the second year in a row he’d joined a team on the way down, and a poor season ended early when he broke his hand at Zandvoort. The bright-eyed boy had lost his momentum; even if Reynard and John Macdonald got him back into F1 briefly, in 1980 and ’82.
Keegan climbs from the Hesketh. He’s enthused enough to boldly say he would happily race it in the Thorougbred Grand Prix series. Since selected Group C and Indycar appearances in the mid-1980s, Keegan has left motorsport far behind.
Glancing over the pristine car, eyes lingering on Suzanne (recently repainted by the original artist), reflection sets in: “The press told me I was the next James Hunt, and maybe if I had gone to Lotus, I might have been. It could have worked out better, but there you go.
“Life is life.”
Type Cosworth DFV (no. 157)
Bore x stroke 85.67 x 64.8mm
Max power 480bhp @ 10,500rpm
Carburation Lucas fuel injection, mechanical and electrical
Ignition Lucas Opus 018A
Lubrication Dry sump
Gearbox Hewland FGA400, 5-speed
Clutch dry, multi-plate
Final drive 8.31:1, cam-and-spawl Hewland differential
Type aluminium monocoque
Track (f/r) 1680/1505mm
Suspension (f & r) Independent, double wishbones, adjustable coil springs, Koni telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Lockheed, vented 11.5in discs (f), solid 11in discs (r), two-piston calipers (f), four-piston calipers (r)
Fuel capacity 200 litres
Wheels magnesium, 13in x 10/11in (f), 13 x 17/18in (r)
Tyres Goodyear, 10/20-13 (f), 16.2/26-13 (r)