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The Hesketh 308 gave James Hunt his maiden Formula 1 victory – and in the least likely of circumstances, at the 1974 International Trophy. The car was recently restored, prior to sale; Motor Sport was thrilled to sample the distinctive design
Writer Andrew Frankel | Photographer James Lipman

Today, in almost any car and weather conditions, Silverstone’s Woodcote is not a corner but simply an acceleration zone leading onto the old pit straight towards Copse. But 40 years ago it was a proper sweep, one to rival Spa’s Blanchimont, Suzuka’s 130R or Signes at Paul Ricard. A corner, in short, that many drivers said was flat and may even have thought was flat. In reality it tended to induce an involuntary lightening of pressure on the throttle that, when connected to a Ford Cosworth DFV, could be heard by most of the population of Northamptonshire.

“James was the only one. He was flat.” The voice on the telephone belongs to Sir Thomas Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh, and he is speaking of his former employee. Indeed he is referring to a day, a race, a lap, a precise moment in time where in the world’s eyes at least, James Hunt came of age.

The 1974 Daily Express BRDC International Trophy might not have enjoyed World Championship status, but it was a well-attended Formula 1 race. Pressure from British sponsors led Lotus, McLaren, Surtees, Lola, BRM and Brabham to hot-foot it back from Kyalami to take part in the 40-lap race, with the back of the field padded by the best of the contemporary F5000 crop. Hunt’s light had already gleamed that very season, when he briefly took the lead of the season-opening Argentine Grand Prix. But it was only for an instant as, seemingly so surprised by the turn of events, he promptly threw his car off the track.

This was different. Hunt had raced for Hesketh in Argentina but was actually in the team’s year-old March. Now he was in a Hesketh. But the start at Silverstone was as inauspicious as his two previous outings in the brand new Dr Harvey Postlethwaite-designed 308 – the car having already retired in the early laps of both the Brands Hatch Race of Champions and the South African Grand Prix. Hunt was on pole and, says Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley, who ran the team, “We knew he’d win if he didn’t throw it away which, of course, he’d done so often in the past. I think one of the most important things Hesketh did for James was to teach him how to win.”

When the flag fell, Hunt duly threw it away. Crawling off the line with his clutch cooked, the front half of the field, led by Jochen Mass in his Surtees TS16 and Ronnie Peterson in the radical Lotus 76 fled. ‘Superswede’ disposed of the Surtees in short order and set about building a healthy lead.

Hunt must have been about the last man on the grid Ronnie would have expected to see in his mirrors 20 laps later. But there he was. Instead of flooring the throttle and incinerating what was left of its clutch, Hunt had driven gently and let it cool. By the time it recovered he was in 15th place, but not for long. By lap five he was fifth having driven straight past the entire F5000 field and most of the F1 machines, and by lap 13 he was second. Predictably enough Peterson was more difficult to catch: it would take until lap 28 for the move to come, but if ever a move was worth the wait, this was it. Flying down towards Woodcote, Ronnie took the classic racing line because not even James Hunt was going to post one down the inside at 160mph. Surely?

The move is interesting for so many different reasons. Clearly there’s the sheer spectacle of two flimsy aluminium F1 cars slithering around on their slicks side by side at such speed. There is also its significance, for it would be the first time a Hesketh had led a Formula 1 race. Two more things. Hunt’s reputation then was that of a wild man with little finesse, but if you look at his line it is surgically precise. Legend has it that he was on the grass but, having looked at it frame by frame time and again, I think he was more impressively merely at the grass, so close that perhaps even the gentle curve of the Firestone sidewall might have overhung the odd blade, rather than the contact patch. And finally there is what everyone always misses: Peterson’s driving.

At least Hunt could clearly see his quarry but Ronnie saw what must have been a totally unexpected move coming, gave just enough space and kept them both on the track. In that moment, Hunt trusted Peterson with his life.

Sadly for Lord Hesketh, he didn’t see the move at all from his vantage point. “There were no monitors in those days, so all I saw was a great white wall of paper as all the programmes in the crowd went up.” Bubbles just remembers “James appearing in front of us and the Lotus.” And that was that. Ronnie retired two laps later and James ran away to victory, crossing the line 47sec ahead of Mass. And only then, when Hunt was seen nursing a rather bruised right hand was it revealed that, on lap two, the top of the gearlever had come off in his hand and he’d been smashing the remaining alloy stump to and fro ever since.

“It was a great moment to savour,” recalls Bubbles, “and we could all go to the pub afterwards.” These words are fascinating to me, because they reveal so much about how important winning at home was to the team, and also the nonchalant way they chose at least to appear to be going about it.

The Hesketh 308 itself is looking almost nonchalant in the Donington pitlane today. It has come over from the US and, like the Lister to be found elsewhere on these pages, is to be sold at RM’s Monaco auction on May 10. His Lordship, known in the day to Hesketh employees as Le Patron, will be in attendance. The car is estimated to be worth between €400,000-€700,000 but with its history and the post-Rush Hunt hullabaloo, anything is possible.

It is, of course, the first Hesketh F1 car and has had what is described as ‘a recent, complete and correct’ restoration. As mentioned, it failed to finish at Brands and in South Africa, won in Silverstone and sat out most of the rest of the season as the T-car. The chassis was sold in 1975 to Harry Stiller Racing and was used by both Alan Jones and Harald Ertl, though neither scored any points.

As we shall see, there is nothing revolutionary about its design. In the past some have sought to explain how a happy gathering of enthusiasts managed to meet and on occasion beat the world’s biggest and best F1 teams, but there seems to be no single magic wand waved by Hesketh. The secret, if such a thing there be, is that Hesketh Racing was a sight more committed to F1 than it led others to believe. Bubbles, who seems as relaxed and easy going today as he was reputed to be then, actually ran a very tight ship among whose talented crew were Dave ‘Beaky’ Sims (previously Jim Clark’s mechanic at Lotus) and Nigel Stroud (who’d go on to design the Le Mans-winning Mazda 787B).

“The establishment didn’t take us seriously at all,” his Lordship says, “and I wouldn’t have stayed in the sport nearly so long if it had. They just saw me as a fat aristocrat throwing his money around. Showing they could be beaten suddenly became rather important.”

And then there was the car. Postlethwaite had been poached from March and had immediately turned Hesketh’s 731 into the quickest of them all. “But we knew we’d lose him if we didn’t give him an entire car to design,” Hesketh says.

Postlethwaite died in 1999, sadly, but in a curious booklet called The Heavily Censored History of Hesketh Racing published by Hesketh in 1974, just as the rest of the world thought Hesketh had only just got going, he spoke of the car. “What really matters about a racing car is the overall concept; the detail design is relatively unimportant. We had to make a car that was conceptually good but reliable, so we had to be fairly conventional… The overall concept was of a small, narrow-track, very aerodynamic type of racing car rather than perhaps a McLaren or Lotus type of racing car.”

So like the vast majority of machines on the grid at the time, it used Cosworth DFV power, though his Lordship did harbour ambitious but eventually stillborn plans to use an all-new Hesketh V12 for 1975. Transmission came courtesy of a Hewland five-speed gearbox while the monocoque was a stressed aluminium design built to accommodate Hunt’s 6ft 2in frame, a fact that on its own would today almost certainly preclude any hope of an F1 career.

Suspension features double wishbones at the front with March uprights and Jack Knight steering. At the back there is a system involving parallel lower links, a single upper link and radius rods. Postlethwaite’s bodywork was neat and clean with an adjustable front splitter and a distinctive tall, thin airbox developed from an idea trialled successfully on the March.

How quick would it be? Although it was deemed unready to race, the car did travel to the Brazilian Grand Prix and, in testing after the race, lapped 1.8sec faster than pole. “Slightly irritating, that,” says Lord Hesketh today.

As for the finances of such a venture, they seem to come not so much from another era as another world. Hesketh paid Hunt £12,000 for the 1973 season and £60,000 for 1975, the year in which he won the Dutch Grand Prix and Hesketh and he finished fourth in the championships for constructors and drivers. Considering there were 20 of the former at one stage or another during the season, and more than 50 of the latter, some sense of the achievement’s scale can be seen.

In The Heavily Censored History… Hesketh maintains not only that F1 was cheaper than F2, but that the entire 1973 season cost just £30,000 – £68,000 to rent and run the March 731 offset by £38,000 in prize money. Even including the cost of designing their own car, Bubbles reckons 1974 came in at only “approaching £200,000”.

Thanks to Hunt’s size this is one of very few 1970s F1 cars in which I am truly comfortable. Even in the less precise world of 40 years ago, the size, shape and location of Hunt’s body must have compromised the car’s weight, its distribution and frontal area. But when the nose is added the bodywork presses down on the top of my left foot, a problem says Hesketh that forced Hunt to cut the tops off his boots. It would be interesting to see how the FIA might react to a driver trying to do the same today.

Inside, it is as you’d expect. The Smiths dials are all small and difficult to read at a glance. There’s a central rev-counter, flanked by twinned gauges giving oil temperature and pressure on one side, water temperature and fuel pressure on the other. There’s a driver-adjustable brake balance bar, too.

Although the car has been restored, there is no one at Donington to vouch for its state of preparedness and say how hard it’s sensible to push. But the Avons are used and look old and while it may all be mechanically on the money, it’s quite a step simply to assume that’s the case. When I climb in the tell-tale is at 10,800rpm, which might well be fine but comes under the category of risks I don’t have to take. Knocking it back to 9500rpm is hardly going to cramp my style on a busy test day swarming with everything from historic saloons to Group C cars and modern single-seaters. I ask for it to be reset, to avoid any chance of misunderstanding.

I have to say I have rarely felt more fraudulent than when trundling out of the garage to the stares of everyone in the Donington pitlane, in a white Hesketh with the teddy bear on its nose and a single word ‘James’ on its side. Really we should be at Silverstone with a Lotus 76 in my slipstream, but opportunities to run unsilenced F1 cars do not often present themselves.

I spend a few laps just checking it out. All the needles are steady and point in the right direction, but by the usually explosive standards of your common-or-garden DFV, this one is merely thrilling rather than frightening.

It probably needs only minor adjustment to restore what should be about 485bhp, but the way the power is delivered over a broad area suggests it’s at least possible this motor has been put together with long-term reliability and flexibility more than outright power in mind. The gear ratios are also slightly strange, with almost no step between third and fourth but with a fifth so high the car won’t pull more than 7500rpm on the back straight.

But there’s nothing tricky here, nothing in the way it goes, stops or steers to suggest there’s anything that couldn’t be found and fixed. It turns in accurately and, while it understeers a little more than you might think in slow corners, that could be easily dialled out, probably most effectively by a fresh set of Avons. Hesketh says Harvey’s cars were always better in high-speed corners, which is why they tended to go well at quick circuits like Silverstone, a fact Peterson would have been uniquely able to confirm. And while I am in no position to confirm or deny, the way it would hurtle through the Craner Curves, feeling better the faster you went, reminded me what a formidably effective weapon even a 40-year-old F1 car can be.

Of course the 308 would continue to be developed and, in 308B form would deliver James, Bubbles, the Doc and Le Patron a stunning victory at Zandvoort in 1975, made all the sweeter by the presence of Niki Lauda’s Ferrari 312T under Hunt’s rear wing for the latter part of the race. Even if Hesketh Racing never achieved its founder’s dream of delivering the F1 World Championship, it’s genuinely staggering that the team could put one over the Scuderia when its entire staff could – as Hesketh put it to me – sit comfortably around the dining room table at La Réserve in Beaulieu-sur-Mer.

There are so many other Hesketh tales to tell – the yachts, the cars and an intriguing assertion from his Lordship (confirmed by Bubbles) that he was the only person ever to be offered free Ferrari engines by Enzo himself. Together they deserve a story in their own right. For now I have thoughts only for a moment at Silverstone, when a maverick driver of a maverick team took an outstanding car – this car – and showed the world what could be done with skill, determination and balls the size of Berkshire.

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