It looked like an extravagant joke, an extended April Fool’s stunt played by a bunch of ex-public schoolboys with more money than sense. It ended, as everyone had predicted, in tears. But neither the initial appearance nor the manner of its final departure give the truth to the tale of the Hesketh Grand Prix team.
There was a schizophrenic quality to the Hesketh Formula 1 squad, which was never more apparent than at its Grand Prix debut at Monaco in 1973. In Monte Carlo’s harbour, the team’s principal, a portly peer of the realm not long out of his teens, had a 192-foot yacht in which to entertain the wealthy guests he was ferrying from Nice airport in his Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. For transport around the Riviera streets there was a Rolls-Royce Corniche, a Porsche Carrera and a huge Suzuki motorbike. But in the pits he had only a second-rate customer F1 machine, overseen by a former car salesman and bit-part TV actor, that was to be driven by a grand prix debutant whose reputation as a party-goer was only exceeded by his notoriety as a crasher of racing cars. When the driver in question was seen and heard making frequent trips to the facilities to throw up his breakfast through sheer nerves as the minutes ticked by towards the start of the race, it’s not hard to understand why the rest of the F1 fraternity had trouble taking the Hesketh team seriously.
By the end of the race though, it was clear that there was more to this team than was apparent on the surface. The car had qualified 18th on a grid of 25 starters and had been running in sixth place, on target for a point-scoring finish, when the Cosworth DFV dropped a valve with only five laps to go. Considering the circumstances, it was an impressive debut, though nobody watching could have expected what was to come within the next few months.
By the time of that Monaco Grand Prix the Hesketh team had existed for little more than a year. Early in 1972 the 22-year-old Alexander Hesketh, newly come into his considerable inheritance, had started backing a F3 Dastle Mk 9 for his long-time friend, Anthony Horsley. Better known as ‘Bubbles’, a nickname derived from ‘Bluebell’, after he had bought a racing car from a woman racing driver called Bluebell Gibbs, Horsley had been in and around the sport for several years. If he was no great shakes as a driver he was, to say the least, a resourceful character, who had earned his living in a wide variety of ways, including acting in TV commercials.
It was at Chimay in Belgium that Hesketh and Bubbles first approached James Hunt. Then 25 years of age, Hunt had spent four seasons in F3 without conspicuous success and was best known for an incident caught on live TV when, after a collision in a race at Crystal Palace, he had thumped the driver he considered responsible. At this stage, Hunt’s career looked to be going nowhere. A few weeks before he had been sacked by the works March F3 team, and he was at Chimay driving a borrowed year-old car.
“I was introduced to James in the gents loo,” remembers Lord Hesketh, now a thoroughly respectable figure and a whip for the Conservative party in the House of Lords. “Chimay was a pretty ghastly place and the loo was actually a WWI tent. I remember that the proprietor of the track used to drive around at great speed in an E-type without a windscreen. Anyway, we were looking for a second driver and Bubbles suggested James. However, the first time I saw James drive he crashed into the wall at Silverstone practically under my feet”.
From the archive
A few weeks later, at the British Grand Prix meeting at Brands Hatch, the Hesketh Dastle team came to a premature end. Bubbles crashed one car in practice and Hunt smashed up the other in the race in the most comprehensive style imaginable. The story could have ended there and then, but Hunt at least had no intention of giving up. Still smarting from his dismissal from the March F3 team he persuaded (blackmail is too strong a word) March director Max Mosley to lend him a year-old March 712 F2 chassis, while ‘the good Lord’, as Hunt usually referred to Hesketh, stumped up the money for a Ford BDA engine. Bubbles meanwhile, decided to quit driving and manage the team instead.
They had failed in F3, but those end-of-season F2 races were rather more encouraging. Twice Hunt finished in the European F2 Championship points and at Oulton Park he scrapped with the brand new works Marches of Ronnie Peterson and Niki Lauda, finally finishing third.
The team had by then already acquired something of its later reputation for eccentricity. On one occasion Mosley had seen them gathered in a circle in the circuit paddock, praying to the ‘Great Chicken in the Sky’ to find them a new engine, their original BDA having expired. Mosley lent them a spare, after which the team always referred to the future President of the FIA as ‘The Great Chicken of Bicester.’
“We always called him that,” says Hesketh today. “And we used to cluck whenever we saw him, which enraged him.”
After what Hesketh now describes as a top-level conference in a Fulham Road restaurant, the decision was made for a full-scale assault on the 1973 European F2 Championship. “We bought a Surtees TS15, but it was the wrong car and the wrong engine. The first race was at Mallory Park and Jean-Pierre Jarier; who had the works March with the new BMW engine, simply disappeared into the distance. James was fastest of the Ford-engined ears but it was obvious that we weren’t going to be doing much winning.”
The Hesketh solution to this problem was unconventional. Can’t win in F2? Then go up to F1. At the Race of Champions the team borrowed a Surtees TS9B F1 car and Hunt, taking to the extra power with considerable ease, drove it to third place. Hesketh was sufficiently encouraged to sanction the move into F1. Another visit to the Great Chicken of Bicester resulted in the team taking delivery of a new March 731 with Cosworth DFV power and an entry was made for the Monaco Grand Prix.
More important than the car was the team’s recruitment of a young engineer from March, Dr Harvey Postlethwaite. “Bubbles said there was no point in buying an F1 car unless we had somebody to improve it,” said Hesketh. “So we plied him with fine white Burgundy until he agreed.”
The foundations were now in place, but it was the trappings that caught the eye at Monaco. F1 was considerably less well-heeled then than it is today, and the sight of this new team in its matching kit, nicknames printed on their backs, sipping champagne served by livened butlers and barely-clad young women, convinced most observers that this was anything but a serious effort. In a sense they were right, because if the Hesketh team took its racing seriously it was under the guise of pretending that all life was a joke. Underneath the gloss though, was a fierce commitment, a determination to prove that it was possible to shake up the po-faced Grand Prix fraternity and to have a bit of fun at the same time. As for the nicknames, Lord Hesketh was known as Le Patron’, Horsley was, of course, ‘Bubbles’, Postlethwaite was ‘the Doc’, and Hunt was ‘Superstar’.
The next appearance was at Paul Ricard for the French GP. It was here that the first of the Doe’s tweaks was unveiled — a towering airbox over the engine. It worked loose and flew from the car mid-race, but Hunt soldiered on to finish sixth and give the team its first World Championship point.
The real breakthrough came two weeks later at Silverstone. It was the team’s ‘home’ race, just down the road from the Hesketh family estate of Easton Neston, near Towcester. In practice Hunt was sensational, lapping two seconds quicker than the works Marches and qualifying 11th on a grid of 28 starters. The race had to be stopped at the end of the first lap when Jody Scheckter launched a multi-car pile-up after spinning wildly at Woodcote. Hunt closed his eyes and drove through the carnage, but the detached rear wing of Scheckter’s McLaren sliced off the Hesketh March’s airbox passing within inches of Hunt’s head. Only 19 cars survived for the restart and after a poor getaway, Hunt, now with a conventional March airbox, more than lived up to his practice form. At one stage he had worked his way up to third place and he finished fourth in a desperately close race, just 3.4sec behind the winner, Peter Revson.
“He said afterwards, and I’m sure he was right, that if he’d had the new airbox he would have won that race,” says Hesketh. “It was giving us something like another 400rpm.”
More chassis and aerodynamic modifications followed and the results continued to impress, but then Superstar relived the bad old days of Hunt the Shunt when he crashed the March in practice at Monza. There were signs, too, of Hunt’s volatile temperament when he clashed furiously with Horsley who refused his driver’s demand for a new March chassis to he flown to Italy for the race. But it was proof— if proof were still needled — of Hunt’s commitment.
The season finished on a high though, when Hunt took second place in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, hounding Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 72 all the way and finishing only 0.7sec behind. The team had entered only eight of the season’s races, but Hunt finished eighth in the World Championship with 14 points, the only March driver to score.
From the archive
Le Patron had big plans for 1974 and it was indicative of the progress the team had made that this time no one was laughing. Hesketh would build its own car, designed of course by the Doc, and there was even talk of a new V12 engine to power it. In fact, the V12 never materialised, and the new car was finished too late for the season’s opening races in South America, so the ageing March 731 was again pressed into service.
In Argentina, Hunt planted the March into the scenery, while in Brazil the team’s performance was rather overshadowed by its antics off the track. Returning to the hotel late at night, accompanied by a dusky lovely, Hesketh and Hunt were told by the doorman that their companion was not welcome. “How dare you insult this lady,” said the good Lord blithely. “She’s my sister.” The following day Hesketh noticed that the Union Flag on the circuit had been hoisted upside down. Demanding this insult to the national flag be rectified at once, he stood underneath with the rest of the team standing to attention while the flag was re-hoisted in its proper state.
It was at the Race of Champions, exactly a year after the team’s first F1 appearance, that the new Hesketh 308 made its race debut. Like the old March it was painted white with red and blue stripes. Hesketh was a patriot, but he thought British Racing Green too sober a colour. There was nothing sober about the way Hunt stood it on its car to claim pole position though, to the delight of the British racing fans who had taken the team to their hearts. But any chance of a win disappeared with the rain of race day. The car’s Firestone tyres were hopeless in the wet against the Goodyear rubber, and Hunt dropped steadily down the field before retiring with handling problems.
Next up was the South African GP at Kyalami, a race that would set the pattern for the rest of Hesketh’s season — flashes of speed interspersed with heartbreaking mechanical failures. The team soon learned that running its own car was a considerably more complicated affair than running someone else’s, and that while Superstar was undoubtedly extremely quick, he was still prone to making stupid mistakes. The net result at the end of the year was 15 points, only one more than achieved in 1973, after third places in Sweden, Austria and the United States, and a fourth in Canada. But there was also one day of glory, which will live long in the memory of everyone who saw it.
It was early in the season, at Silverstone, for the non-championship Daily Express Trophy. Hunt invariably performed well on fast tracks and in practice he was simply in a class of his own, taking pole position by the incredible margin of 1.7sec. When the flag dropped though, the Hesketh’s dutch slipped badly and the gear lever knob came away in his hand. Hunt scrabbled away slowly, banging the stub of the lever through the gears, his normal state of hyper-tension at the start of the race this time brought to fever pitch. He was 14th at the end of the first lap. By half-distance in this 40-lap 117-mile race he had worked his way up to second and only Peterson’s Lotus stood in the way of Hesketh’s first ever race win.
On lap 28 it stood there no longer. Hunt had pulled off one of the most audacious overtaking moves ever seen at Silverstone, putting two wheels on the grass at the inside of Woodcote as he hammered the Hesketh past the Lotus at some 160mph. There was no catching Superstar after that, and this time there were no mistakes, despite the lack of clutch and the damaged gear lever, which would leave his right hand bruised and raw. Hunt pulled into the pits after taking the chequered flag, flung off his helmet and broke into a full-throated rendition of The Dambusters, which the rest of the team deliriously joined in.
It all became more serious in 1975. Although Le Patron had given the go-ahead to the development of a new car, he was beginning to understand one of the sport’s oldest maxims. If you want to make a small fortune from motor racing, it’s best to start with a big one. There was even talk of what had hitherto been unthinkable that to continue in F1, Hesketh would have to find a sponsor. The economy drive was nowhere more pronounced than at Monaco where the team slept in a hired motor home, driven by Lord Hesketh himself. Of the yacht, helicopter and Rolls-Royce there was no sign. Now the results were needed not just to cock a snook at the F1 establishment, but to pay the team’s wages. A second car was often entered, for a paying driver, of which the most frequent was Alan Jones.
The new car wouldn’t be seen until the tail-end of the season, but the modified 308B, now with sick radiators and a full-width wing running in front of the bluff nose, proved a competitive proposition. Indeed, Hunt finished second in the season-opener in Argentina though he should have won it, a mistake under pressure handing victory to Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren. It was a similar tale in the Spanish and British GPs, both of which he led before crashing.
At Zandvoort though, there were no mistakes. It was wet at the start, but noting a glimmer of blue sky in the grey above, Bubbles and Hunt decided to leave the car on dry settings, though like everybody else on the grid they started on wet tyres. As the sky cleared, Hunt dived out of fourth place and into the pits to change to slicks. He was the first to do so and the move was decisive. When Clay Regazzoni in the second Ferrari stopped on lap 14, Hesketh moved into the lead.
Almost immediately Hunt had his mirrors full of Lauda’s Ferrari. There were 60 laps remaining and the Austrian tried everything he knew to shake Hunt into a mistake, while in the Hesketh pits they were praying once more to the Great Chicken in the Sky and keeping everything crossed. And this time their prayers were answered; their luck and Hunt’s nerve held. The Hesketh took the chequered flag by a winning margin of just 1.06sec.
Hunt racked up 33 points that year to finish fourth in the world championship, and the team took the same place in the constructors’ title. But the money had run out.
Britain was in the throes of a severe financial recession which had hit Hesketh’s other business interests hard. The search for a sponsor continued, but one sensed that Le Patron couldn’t really bring himself to give up his cherished independent underdog status. It was also more than possible that there were few companies who wanted to be associated with the wilder aspects of the team’s behaviour. Hunt, in particular, had shown time and again that he didn’t give a stuff about what people thought of his propensity for turning up at formal functions in jeans and T-shirt, or partying late into the night.
At midnight on 14 November 1975 the deadline for finding a sponsor with £300,000 to invest had passed and Lord Hesketh wound up the team.
Hunt, now firmly established as one of the world’s quickest drivers, joined the McLaren team. Twelve months later, he would be World Champion. Postlethwaite went to Wolf, to start work on the car that would take Jody Scheckter to within a whisker of the 1977 world title. Bubbles kept the Hesketh name alive in Grand Prix racing for a couple more sponsor-funded seasons, but there were no results worthy of mention.
It had been brief, but glorious. Looking back today Lord Hesketh sighs and murmurs that it’s hard to believe it was nearly a quarter of a century ago. But there are no regrets. “I’m glad we did it if – only for James. I always felt that he was underestimated as a driver and I’m glad we were able to put him on his way.”