For this Royal Automobile Club Talk Show we focused solely on 1976 – the year that James Hunt won the title. It was an incredible year in Formula 1 with everything from terrible accidents to race disqualifications. “I remember when we were on our way back from Japan,” Alastair told me after we stopped recording, “and we all said to each other: There’s no point in taking this to Hollywood, no one would believe what happened.” Over 30 years later Rush, the Hollywood film centered around 1976, was made.
The Club is celebrating that world championship year all through 2016 and only two weeks ago hosted a dinner with John Hogan, Freddie and Tom Hunt and James’ two sisters and brother.
We hope you enjoy Alastair’s view on the season which put Formula 1 on the global TV map.
Ed Foster: Welcome to another Royal Automobile Club talk show in association with Motor Sport. I’m Ed Foster and I’m the Online Editor at Motor Sport Magazine.
We’re back at Woodcote Park, the club’s country club, after a couple of recordings at Pall Mall and the eagle eyed amongst you might recognise that on the wall there are paintings of lots of four-legged animals rather than four-wheeled cars and that’s because we’re in the Derby Room.
This year the club is celebrating the 40th anniversary of James Hunt’s 1976 Formula One World Championship. Two weeks ago they had a big James Hunt dinner with Murray Walker, Freddie and Tom Hunt, James’ two sisters and brother, as well as John Hogan.
If you rewind 40 years ago to this day the Formula One circus was busy preparing for the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard; a race that Hunt would win. Who better to help us talk through that season than former technical director of McLaren Alistair Caldwell.
Alistair a very warm welcome to The Royal Automobile Club.
I think we’re quite lucky to have caught you because you’re usually somewhere in the middle of nowhere rallying a Rolls-Royce. What’s your latest trip that you’ve just come back from?
Alastair Caldwell: I’ve just come back from South America, well most recently I just did the Paris-Vienna in my in my pre-war Alfa Romeo which was a week down to Vienna from Paris. Unfortunately my car misbehaved and so I didn’t do any good, but a couple of days beforehand I just got back from South America. I did a trip in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, for 33 days in 912 Porsche
EF: Amazing stuff. I feel if we carried on we could keep on talking about the rallying for another hour or two, so we must get on to the 1976 season.
What I want to do is go through in a reasonably chronological order but we will dip in and out of questions from readers. I wanted to go back to before the season started and signing James Hunt. I think it was a case of you needing a driver and him needing a drive but how did it actually come about?
AF: This is my version of it, but basically Lady Hesketh decided that Hesketh racing was non-viable – they managed to get the sponsor and she was funding it so she decided to pull the plug on Hesketh – so suddenly James had no drive and we were trying to do a deal with Fittipaldi and John Hogan, who we just mentioned, and Phillip Morris believed they had Emerson by the shorts because there were no other drives, because in Grand Prix racing when the music stops it’s like musical chairs: you all sit down. They believed the only seat for Emerson was at McLaren and he was trying to negotiate a huge increase in salary and they weren’t having it and then he came along with a surprise second Copasucar and decided to drive for his own team, this Brazilian race team, which of course was a disastrous decision but he probably made a lot of money out of it.
So we were without a driver with only a few weeks to go, so James rang me up and said ‘Hi, I think I’m might be your new driver,’ and I said ‘yeah I think you probably are, and you’d better talk to Teddy about the money but I don’t think you’ll get much.’
So off he went and talked to Teddy and probably John, did a deal and we had a new driver. We were interested because we’d seen him race at Hesketh and he was obviously quite successful but race driver estimentation (sic) or judging is very difficult because they’re so much reliant on their team – always have been – so if the team is no good the driver doesn’t show, even though he’s the best driver, so it’s difficult to say how good James was. We were testing at Silverstone – there was snow almost – it was freezing conditions, and discovered that he couldn’t fit in the car really because his legs were very long and his body was very short. So we extended the monocoque very quickly, we put another inch and a half on it, and moved the pedals forward and went off to Brazil with an untried combination and the rest is history of course, because he put the car on pole. After an hour’s practice he was on pole and stayed there for the rest of the weekend. Sadly in the race the car had a failure otherwise we would have won the race so we obviously had a good deal. Suddenly we had a good driver
EF: Were you nervous about signing him because he’d shown glimpses of speed and brilliance, but there was the other side that he wasn’t the most reliable of drivers perhaps?
AC: I don’t think so, that wasn’t a factor because he graced the whole season of Hesketh and hadn’t flung into the barrier much at all. He turned out to be a solid safe driver, good in traffic and so on: we’d seen this. The “Hunt the shunt” thing was back in his formative days, by the time he got to Formula One he was a steady as any: the other drivers were very happy with him as they raced against him. As a driver his race craft was quite good – or very good.
EF: Did you have a backup plan?
AC: Oh there were other drivers around, but he was the obvious choice.
EF: If you had a free choice of all the drivers on the grid in ‘76 who would you ideally put in?
AC: Probably Niki I guess. Niki was a fantastic driver or Emerson both of these guys are complete racing drivers, very good testers, very good thinkers, hard workers. Emerson or Niki.
EF: You mentioned before that first race Hunt put it on pole and he was on pole at the second race as well. There must have been a certain amount of relief from your perspective although you must have known he was fast?
AC: It was honestly a very good result. Within an hour we thought ‘okay, we’ve got a quick driver here. Very competent.’ We were more than happy with our decision. It was a good decision.
EF: I seem to remember reading that you didn’t like to get too friendly with drivers because of the risk in Formula One. But you must’ve gotten to know James away from the track? He seemed like such good fun.
AC: I’ve used this cliché many times: that on a rainy Sunday night in a bus stop in Bognor Regis if James was there it would be exciting, he would have made it interesting in some way, because he would have hijacked a bus… He was always good fun, it was never boring. Being with James was never boring
EF: It must have been very hard not to be friends with him?
AC: It was easy. I’d had this record where my brother had been killed in racing, and it took a while to get over and then I got to know Bruce very well, he was a friend of mine, and I really liked Bruce and then Bruce got killed and I was a witness to that and at that stage I thought ‘I am not going to befriend racing drivers anymore. I’m not going to go on holiday with them, I’m not going to party with them.’ And it was easy for me as well because in those days we were so understaffed I actually worked probably 18 hours a day, seven days a week, so I didn’t party much, I just went to work at race tracks, came home I went straight back to work I didn’t even see my children grow up – they just got bigger – but I didn’t actually talk to them because I was at work seven days a week, 18-20 hours a day, continuously. Even at race tracks, I stayed at race tracks, I didn’t go back to the hotel. The other team managers went back to the hotel. Not me, I stayed at the race track with my mechanics until they stopped work and then went home with them because that was the best way to win the races.
EF: What was it that was driving you then? Was it winning races? Because to do those hours takes a huge amount of drive.
AC: I have drive and determination which I didn’t realise, I didn’t analyse it, I just worked like mad but I enjoyed work, I had a fantastic job. Very few men in their lives have a fantastic job and I had a fantastic job as we were such a small company and so understaffed – ridiculously understaffed – that I made masses of decisions about everything. I actually built the cars – they got designed by Gordon then I built them along with the factory staff, but I was intimately involved in building the cars, intimately involved in racing them and intimately involved in all the decisions at the racetrack. Teddy was my boss said he and I were a committee, but when it came to the hard shove, to pit stops, and rain or whatever, it was me that made the decisions, so there was no committee involved. I was the man. I made thousands of decisions and I enjoyed it, I really liked it.
EF: I get the impression that you probably wouldn’t like working for Formula One team nowadays?
AC: Well I don’t know, I still think I could do it, I think they’re farcically overstaffed. I think it’s just ridiculous: I said to somebody the other day I think McLaren has got 800 people to do my job now
EF: The thing is that’s probably not far from the truth – they really do have that number of people.
AC: It’s true! They have 1,200 people apparently to not build two Grand Prix cars. To assemble them!
EF: Now we must try to keep on track and the 1976 season and ‘76 season was an incredible rollercoaster. I was going to start with the Spanish Grand Prix disqualification and what happened and why? When you were going through this did you realise how much of a huge season this was for the sport? Because really it kicked off TV coverage and really was the season that put the sport on the map.
AC: When you’re pressed up against it, it’s the old ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’. I was right in the middle of it all and the Spanish Grand Prix was when we had a change of rules where they suddenly limited the height of the wing, the width of the car and various other regulations, overhang, it was a whole new issue. So the cars that turned up in Spain were very different from the cars that raced in Brazil. The aerodynamics were different, imposed by a new set of regulations and famously they came to measure the cars at the Nürburgring the year before, at the German Grand Prix, and asked ‘who’s got the widest car?’ and everyone knew ‘McLaren, that’s the biggest car.’ So they came to my car and said ‘we want to measure your car for the regulations.’ So I said ‘okay,’ we held the rulers for them and they got a tape measure and I think it was 214 cm. I said ‘you can’t make it 214 because it’s a cold day today, you’ve got to give us some tolerance, so make it 215.’ This is the FIA – they went off and wrote the rule.
Now like an idiot I measured everything else on my car but I didn’t measure the width of my car. I still think about what a fool I was, because the car had not changed at all, so the wheels which are very precisely made, the suspension which is precisely made, the car was exactly the same in the width, so I didn’t bother to measure the car. But in reality what happened was Goodyear had made new tyres and the tyres which used to have straight sidewalls now had bulging sidewalls which I didn’t account for. So they swelled out from the well like most road tyres do but in those days the Grand Prix tyres were flat sided, because they were cross plies and now they’d changed to radials and suddenly had this shape and I didn’t take this into account and didn’t measure my car.
Interestingly I believe the Spaniards measured it every day and found it was too wide the first morning and didn’t say anything because I believe the Ferrari lawyers – and they had two full-time lawyers – were involved and they said ‘shhh don’t tell them we’ll wait until after the race and then we’ll tell them.’ Because if they’d told us on the Thursday or Friday we would have fixed it overnight, we’d just narrow the car. It would have taken us two hours, it was well within our capabilities. It was only a tiny bit, 5/8 inch or just over a centimetre.
But they did measure the car just after the race and I’d already left the racetrack to try get back to work. I left during the race to get back to the office – we had a leased plane, there was meant to be a car pick us up during the race to get us back: this is pre-helicopter days – now they would use a helicopter – and amazingly it didn’t work. It was Spain. The car didn’t turn up so we were left on the side of the road so we had to go back to the racetrack. When we went back to the racetrack there was all this s*** that had hit the fan and the car had been disqualified. We were illegal: the car was too wide and then we got huge amount of publicity for this and this was the start of Grand Prix racing getting on the map. We went back to England and there was a huge controversy about it, both ITV and BBC asked for a car to go on TV so we put two cars Gordon Coppuck took one to ITV and I took one to the BBC and we had them on live television so this was huge coverage. All the newspapers picked up, so that was of the start of the daily newspapers taking an interest in Grand Prix racing, and James, because James is glamorous and tall and pretty so that got their attention as well, and had this beautiful wife, had the Playboy background with Hesketh, so all these things got the daily newspapers interested so suddenly Formula One was becoming more important
EF: I was going to say what’s what was it that triggered that the kind of reaction from the papers it must have been Hunt?
AC: He was in the papers in the gossip columns before: the Evening Standard in those days had things about James every week. Famously his brother Peter they called him Norman so he’s been known as Norman ever since.
If you jump ahead then when we had the incident at the South African Grand Prix and Susie ran-off with Richard Burton. James’s wife left him and went off with Richard Burton and this got massive coverage. We had the Sydney Herald and the Jakarta Times and so on, journalists at the racetrack like paparazzi everywhere, surrounding the hotel trying to find out where was because we hid him, he didn’t stay at the hotel. We sent him off in the countryside I think a famous South African tennis player took him home below the windows every afternoon so he could play tennis and relax without being hounded because he suddenly was a worldwide superstar and the paparazzi were after him.
EF: We just touched on it back there, can you give me some sort of background on what the relationship like between Ferrari and McLaren. because in the modern world of Formula One there are a lot of politics and there’s everyone is fighting for control but think if you compared it to 1976 people wouldn’t believe the politics between two teams like Ferrari and McLaren. And there’s been bits and pieces through the ages but think in the late 70s it was at all-time high wasn’t it?
AC: There was huge competition – that’s the joy of Grand Prix racing and motor racing – it’s intensely competitive, but we had this intense rivalry with Ferrari because we were the two top teams then so it was either us or them. Sometimes another team would win but the basic struggle was Ferrari versus McLaren and they had 40-50 people at the racetrack, two full-time lawyers and we had 11 people and no PR nothing, just this bunch of guys building the cars, so Teddy and I had to do what little PR we could. I didn’t like journalists much because most of them asked silly questions and we didn’t have a very good answer. There were some expert journalists who asked the right kind questions who we tolerated but the daily newspaper, the Johannesburg Times, if they came to talk to me had no tolerance. I should have had somebody who had tolerance, should have hired a guy who would have talked them and told them what drivers had for breakfast, all the rubbish they wanted to know, because they all wanted to know about the social side of as opposed to the ‘what do they think of death,’ silly questions. So we had no PR, we just thought that we keep racing and that would do it, it’s not true of course because it rules the world so we would battle science every time. We just we kept on doing the job and they had lots of people who talked to journalists and got the journalists going, so there was a huge political thing going on but we were not really involved, we were just busy, heads down getting on with our racing team.
EF: Talking about getting on with the racing: the beginning of the season went okay, with quite a few retirements, so by the time you got to Monaco I think James was 33 points behind Lauda. Surely at that point of the season you weren’t still thinking the championship was possible because no one could have predicted the second half?
AC: It’s interesting. I did not give this any consideration at all. My job was to win races and try to win races and there were plenty of points in hand and you’ve have to remember in those days the points were far better, there were far more points for winning. Now if you come second it’s almost the same as winning, whereas then there was only points for the first six and quite a steep drop, I forget what it was, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 I think, so winning was far better than coming second. (In fact it was 9, 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1 with dropped scores from the first eight and last eight races.)
You could catch up, with 10 races to go that’s 80 points and we’re 30 points behind but I didn’t even think about the fact that wasn’t my job, I didn’t even read the magazines, all I did was try to get my team to concentrate on trying to win the next race. In Monaco it was a disaster because we did something to the gearbox to lighten the car and it didn’t work. The first practise session at Monaco is extremely important and brief and James couldn’t get going at all because the gearbox kept failing because we took a part out of the gearbox to make it lighter – first gear which we didn’t need – and it kept jumping up into position in the first place and getting on to the interlocks, so he came round in third gear, couldn’t get any gears at all. So we had to take the back of the gearbox off and after two times of this I managed to jam a socket in there and beat it with a hammer to stop it from happening and he was able to practice. That was bad management on my part because we had not tested this mod.
EF: So wonderful to history like that the people mending things like that rather than nowadays when they have hundreds maybe even thousands of sensors on the car they know what before it even happens.
AC: And of course they have a test team and I assume when they change something on the car they test it and they don’t change the race car at all apart, from adjusting it. The actual basics like changing the gearbox is something, they do that and put it in the test team, because they’ve got a totally separate team; separate trucks and 50 or 100 or 200 people and they rush off and wind round endlessly with test drivers and test everything. We didn’t have that ability, we didn’t go testing much because you are just too busy. In the winter time because we will had an off-season we tested the new components, but stupidly we didn’t even have a development engineer. I did it all. I did the six speed box conversion for the car, which was a fantastic gain which the other teams didn’t pick up for a year. I put the skirts around the car, so when we got to South Africa so we have more downforce because we are the car which was becoming a ground effect car. So these innovations were done at night while mechanics were working. I would sit and think about things and decide put the skirts on the car, decide to do the six speed gearbox which was my personal conversion and decided to the air style which lightened the car a lot. Suddenly our car had an air style which took like 12 kg off the car just like that, so I was a development team of one guy and I was team manager and the technical director.
EF: You had your hands full.
AC: I was busy.
EF: You mentioned the testing and things, Hunt wasn’t a huge fan of testing was he? As far as I can remember or find out.
AC: On reflection we made a mistake in that James knew what a proper racing driver should do. He knew what Fittipaldi did, he knew what Niki did and he probably discussed it with Niki, so he knew all about being a proper racing driver, but in fact he was just bored by testing. He was almost bored by racing but he was certainly bored by testing, so when he went testing he was always disinterested basically and wanted to go home that was it: ‘are we finished yet? Are we there yet?’ whereas the proper racing drivers going ‘oh my god we need another 10 minutes,’ begging for some more track time, because we want to try the new wing or try this, try that.
So on reflection we should have, like they do now, have had a third driver who was a test driver and used him and just got James to come along and check it out, but the hard work would have been done by somebody else because he wasn’t interested in hard work, he was only interested in playing an going quick. He was good at going quick he was fine, he just made a mistake. The classic was our big turnaround of the season at the French Grand Prix because if you remember rightly they narrowed the car and the car was uncompetitive and the whole world said ‘ah.’ Ferraris PR boys pumped this and pumped this. The cars now been narrowed by centimetre and it’s no good anymore. And it was true, but stupidly we’d made a mistake; we’d made lots of mods for Spain including putting the oil coolers in the side pods and extending the side pods to take them, plus a couple of things. But we’d moved the oil coolers from under the wing into the side pods and this made the car uncompetitive. In those days without windtunnels we didn’t realise what we’d done, we’d made a huge gain by taking these oil coolers out from under the wings so now the wing was working like mad, and we’d extended the side pods to put these oil coolers in and that had extended the floor and the skirts and our car had more downforce like mad, but we didn’t realise that.
We put it back to the old configuration and raced for three or four races and the car was miserable. I think it did quite well in Belgium but then the engine went but we were no longer super competitive and the Ferrari politicians used to beat us up and tell the world the McLaren were cheating and now they couldn’t cheat they were uncompetitive. But I decided to go to Paul Ricard the week before and test this configuration backwards and forward. We went with the old configuration and we switched to the new configuration and the car was over a second quicker and James ‘oh no the track’s just cleaned up. if I just kept running it would have got quicker and I’m getting quicker because I’m learning the track. So I said ‘oh we’ll change back.’ ‘No, no, no, don’t change it, it doesn’t make a difference,’ but against his will I changed it and he went slower, so I said ‘see now it goes slower,’ and he said ‘no it’s just me I’m getting tired now.’
It is very difficult to pick up this downforce thing because it’s invisible and we changed the car back and it was quicker again and he still insisted there was no difference. So we went with the side pod oil coolers, you can see it in the pictures because the extended side pods, oil coolers out from under the wing and the thing goes like the wind. we realise it’s a very smooth track so I lower the car so it was touching all the way around which you can see because the start of the sparks coming off the car and we just ran away from Ferrari. Ferrari also got silly because Niki came in boasting how he had this new engine and we said ‘oh you’ve got that in the car?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah and bang, bang both of them after 20 laps both Ferraris let the engine go after because they’d changed the engine without testing it. So we won the race and also from this we got 16 points because psychologically on the Wednesday we had the hearing about the Spanish Grand Prix. And these three old geriatrics from the FIA were going to sit there listening to Ferrari saying how we are cheated and how the car was slow and miserable and we should be banned the eight points. But we won the French Grand Prix going away from Ferrari, before we blew up. The car was flying because we had the downforce and it was just skimming the ground going crazy. It was best car there for sure. Teddy was able to go to the FIA on Wednesday and say ‘look the car is narrow and it’s a winner. It didn’t make any difference.’ So the old boys said you’re right, have your eight points back.
EF: Got a question wanting to know how the ground effect system worked on the ‘76 McLaren and whether you think McLaren had more downforce than the Ferrari and was better balanced compared to the 312?
AC: I don’t know about the balance because that’s a matter of adjustment but for sure the car had more downforce. I decided to put these flexible yellow skirts around the car. I decided to let the front nose lift up; it wasn’t held down anymore because one of the problems was one the nose touched down you lost all the downforce because the road actually lifted the car up. But this nose was loose, so when it braked and the nose touched, the nose had running strips… so aerodynamically the car was superior and also cut a hole in the floor underneath the car which people didn’t pick up on it was a NASA-duct under the floor and because of the shape of the cockpit that was a low-pressure area as well that was sucking on this hole and we had the skirts around and we’d extended the monocoque to put these oil coolers on, so suddenly we had a lot of downforce. It wasn’t till we tested later on we realised just how much, it was like 300-400 lb of downforce with no loss, that was a magic thing you see, no increase in drag, normally when you put the wings up you get more downforce but you get more drag, but this was free which you don’t often get in Grand Prix racing – free lunch – the car was just as quick on the straight and it was sucking itself down. So we more or less invented downforce and it was Chapman who picked up the idea and thought ‘that’s a good idea but why don’t they make sides parallel and make the car huge and make venturis’ and that’s history now and then we had the wing cars
EF: Something else which is absolutely history now is the British Grand Prix that year at Brands Hatch. If 1976 was one of the most important seasons in Formula One in terms of getting in front of bigger audience, the British Grand Prix was the most important race that season in terms of global coverage of the sport. There was a huge crowd there all ready for James to take Grand Prix win. When you turned up you must have realised that this race was something a bit different because of the massive crowd lining the banks at Brands?
AC: Once again no! Because I was just so focused on trying to win the races and I wouldn’t have even looked up. Somebody might have said ‘there’s a big crowd here’ and of course they were on the ground got very vocal and I became very aware of the crowd. Up until then it was just another race and in those days of course you had big crowds, of course Bernie’s got rid of them now: he doesn’t like crowds, so he just prices people out so they can’t get to the races. There was 80,000 people or something. Now if you had it again you’d be lucky to get 25,000 because it would be £200 a ticket.
EF: It all started kicking off that weekend when there was the first corner crash. The story’s been told but from your mouth it’s a bit different.
AC: And I know the actual story.
EF: Let’s have the actual story.
AC: I hope you’ve got enough tape or whatever. I’ll try make it not too long! We qualified I think third, maybe on pole, front row was Niki, James on pole in fact and Niki alongside, Clay behind. On the start James got a bit too much wheel spin – Brands was always difficult because it was a slope and if you got wheel spin you slid down the slope and got awkward because it wasn’t flat it was quite steeply cambered and so cars had got wheel spin tended to oversteer, the back dropped down and you had to back off and next thing you know, Clay was by him and ran into to Niki. So the two Ferraris collided and James ran over Clay, flew in the air, landed on the left front corner and bent the front suspension badly. There was carnage behind with cars flying off into the barrier and into each other and so on. James being James kept driving the car – this is really crucial – James did not stop at the scene of the accident he hared off after the Ferraris even though his car was damaged. He tore off up the hill around Druids and on the live TV coverage which you can see, you can pick it up on You Tube, you’ll see that the marshals at the top of got their flags crossed – they used the yellow flag and the oil flag to show the race had stopped and as he comes around Druids, because the TV is following him because he is James Hunt, you can see the lights are flashing on the gantry: the race is stopped, red flag.
Now I don’t want to be too pedantic but the rules actually say if the red flag was shown you must stop where you are. Stop where you are on the racetrack. Now James didn’t do that, he just drove to the back of the pits and stopped and got out because in those days at Brands Hatch the pits and the back straight are right next to each other, so he literally has to run up the hill to see us, abandoning his car at the bottom. Meanwhile Niki and the rest of them who had healthy cars tore round the full lap with the red flags showing, at full race speed, got to the start finish line where the red gantry lights were flashing and at full race speed went over the top at Paddock into the accident. He was trying to persuade them to take the lights off which had happened races in the past and Niki was a good thinking driver: he thought ‘if I keep pressing on here they’ve got a whole lap to clear the thing. They might change their minds and turn the lights out.’ So he comes over the top at Paddock at full speed and the marshals are panicking because I think he is going to plough into them and it slows down stops and then does another lap – goes all the way around to start finish again.
So now he’s done two laps on the red with all the other cars, so now they should be disqualified because they’ve not done what they were told and they’ve also done over the start finish than at full speed, so they should easily be disqualified – every one of them.
Everybody ignored that, meanwhile James had come to me and I said ‘what’s the car like?’ and he said ‘it’s a write-off. It’s too badly damaged.’ I said ‘okay get the t-car, the training car we called it, and put that on the grid, but you won’t beallowed to start the race in it because you have to start the race in the racecar that started the original race. That was the rule in those days: you had to use the racecar that in the original start for the second start. But we put the t-car on the grid along with Tyrrell, Ferrari, I think there were six t-cars on the grid.
The crowd was now getting upset because they thought James wasn’t going to start the race because he was in the t-car. Meanwhile I trotted down, found the race car and all it had was this bent left front corner. So I trotted back to my tiny number of mechanics and took them all off their cars on the grid and said ‘get that car, put in the garage and change the front suspension. The truck was miles away in the paddock so we sent the truck driver off to get the bits and they started to repair the car, which was quite a simple job but they had to get the bits and take it to bits to put the suspension arm on and so on.
Now Dean Delamont who was the man from the RAC who was the clerk of the course assembled team managers saying’ you’ve got to take your t-cars off the grid, we can’t start the race with these t-cars; they’re illegal.’ And they’re all saying ‘no, no, no,’ and Im saying ‘we’re not taking ours off the grid, we’re starting our car.’ And Ferrari said ‘we’re starting out car.’
There were about half-a-dozen t cars on the grid which were illegal and poor Dean said ‘no we can’t do this. If somebody wins with an illegal car what’s going to happen? Is he going to get disqualified? It’s just not tenable to have a race with illegal cars.’ I ran back and supervised the repair of the car, ran back to the meeting saying ‘yeah, yeah, we’re starting our t-car.’ A nice little antidote: a guy named Steve Bunn – haven’t seen him for years – was one of the mechanics and he did the toe-in. He said ‘it’s good.’ Then I stood back from the car and I could see that it wasn’t good and had masses of toe out – he’d got it wrong by a whole degree on the machine. He’d got the little bits right but the major thing as a whole turn out.
Interestingly enough now the crowd in the stands had started to pick this up because they could see me running backwards and forwards, they could see the boys trying to fix the car.
EF: Did the other teams not see you doing this as well?
AC: Well maybe but they certainly didn’t pick up on it and if they did what could they do about it? I went back to the meeting again said ‘we’re going to run our t-car’ and Delamont was saying ‘you can’t do this’ and I ran back and they had redone the suspension and the crowd in the stands were cheering now – the 10,000 people opposite and I literally got in the car and drove it through thousands of people in the pit lane, backed it up to the t-car could have it to James ‘get in that,’ took the t-car off the grid and went back to the meeting and said ‘we’ve taken our t-car off the grid,’ but I didn’t say I’d put my race car on grid, I said we’ve taken our t-car off the grid.’ Ferrari went ‘oh my god, they fixed the car,’ their whole little world crumpled.
So the race was started with James in his original race car and he won the race fair and square there was absolutely no doubt that James Hunt won the British Grand Prix in the original race car and followed the rules implicitly. Ferrari didn’t follow the rules – all the people that did a full lap under the red flag and then did another lap to get back to the grid all cheated if you like, or were illegal. So the only legal car in the race was James: the grid should just have James that would have been it. The only car that complied with the rules. As it was because Ferrari’s politics were so good they got the thing reversed and they invented a role which that said you had to do the lap back to the grid which was the opposite of what the rule said.
EF: But how can they get away inventing a rule?
AC: Because they were politicians and they actually sent – and this is a sad story – they sent Niki to the Place de la Concorde with a big white bandage with staged blood on it.
EF: He had had pretty bad burns.
AC: He was perfectly cured and he was no longer bleeding. This is a long time later, this is Canadian Grand Prix time. He was sent by Ferrari the bloody bandage on his head, which was staged, and the three old boys came, the geriatrics that make the decision, who know nothing about motor racing – they’re probably from Honolulu – I don’t know who they were – I didn’t do the research. Ferrari would have known exactly where they came from, take them to dinner the night before. It’s the way it goes. We didn’t have any mechanism like that, we just took the BBC producer with the film to say that this film had not been interfered with, and the film was our evidence because there was James taking part in the race when it was stopped and there was James stopping, not completing the lap: perfect. We had no case to answer. Ferrari said actually he cheated because he didn’t do the lap and stop on the grid, so he should be disqualified. The old boys said okay ‘let’s disqualify him,’ and took the eight points away and there’s no appeal: you can’t go beyond the FIA tribunal that’s it these three geriatrics make decision and you’re stuffed. So we were stuffed we’d lost the eight points, James was testing in Canada before the Canadian Grand Prix and we got the news and said that’s it there’s no way we can win the championship now because we’re just too far behind, it just seemed improbable now. So now I am paying attention because of this.
EF: I have a question about the Italian Grand Prix so I think I’m going to stoke the fire a little bit more.
AC: That was another stitch up. I can tell you that story as well. Another complete Ferrari stitch up.
EF: Would you be able to recall the manner in which the keenly impartial Italian governing body handled the McLaren team over the Monza weekend of ’76? He finishes it with: ‘both barrels mate.’
AC: We used five-star fuel; that was the rules you had to use five-star fuel and because we were low-budget unlike Ferrari we just bought fuel wherever we were in the world. If we were at Silverstone we just stopped at the petrol station and filled the tank up on the truck with five-star fuel which was meant to be minimum 98, maximum 101 octane. I, in my naïve way, that’s what we did. We used to go to Austria and in Austria the engines used to blow up a lot, nearly all the teams had engines go bang. The perceived wisdom was there was a huge hill in Austria and this long time on the full throttle was too much for the engines. I thought ‘this cannot be true because we’re at altitude already so the engines aren’t producing full power, they aren’t revving any more, so it’s not true. It must be some other factor.’ The only thing I could think of was that we used this Austrian fuel which was available in the paddock. So I took some of it back and gave it to Texaco who were our sponsor, who didn’t provide us with fuel – would have if we’d asked – and they measured this fuel and said ‘this fuel is rubbish. It meets the research figure but its motor number is rubbish.’ All fuel has two octane ratings: one is called motor and one is called research. The motor one is more important it’s done by running an engine in given conditions and seeing when it detonates. Benz invented this: he made an engine with a moveable cylinder head around and he literally ran all the petrol he could find and turned the cylinder head down. He had numbers on the side of the cylinder head and when it knocked he said that fuel’s 90, this one’s 80, that one’s 70.’ he could measure with his single cylinder engine, so he invented this motor number which is far better than research which is burning the fuel and measuring the speed of burning.
So I said to Texaco ‘we need better fuel, can you make better fuel?’ They actually shut down a refinery in Belgium and played the knobs – which cost millions of dollars because they lost a whole days output – played with the refineries and built some fuel which had a motor number way, way higher in the 90s, almost the same as the research number. They made a tank with a load of this fuel put it to one side and went back to making normal five-star. This is what we used and this allowed us to change the compression ratio in the engine reason, raise the compression ratio a little bit. We had pistons made by Mahle in Germany which were lighter than the Cosworth pistons, so our engine had an edge towards the end of ’76: better fuel and slightly lighter pistons so this was a good advantage.
Because you can’t keep many secrets in Formula One this started to get read and once again Ferrari, with their PR system and their lawyers, started to spread the story that McLaren ran illegal fuel. They had cartoons in the papers of people holding their noses ‘you can’t go near McLaren because of the stink’ so they engineered this again, that our fuel was illegal. But every race time we checked with Texaco: they would take a sample and run it through the test and say ‘yes,’ because we thought sitting in this tank it might change, but no. The octane we decided on was 101.8 because the rule said the maximum octane was 101 and in brackets plus or minus 1% tolerance, so 101 plus 1% is 102.1. Our fuel was 101.8, so was inside the rules and we checked it every time we raced and it was bought to the racetrack by a little Belgian guy in a truck with 10 drums and he made his own way to Monza or wherever he was going – nothing to do with me.
He turned up at Monza as he was meant to do, with his fuel, we got the fuel and we used it. Ferrari were doing all this publicity about the illegal fuel and with a great show and practice day they came and took fuel samples from all the cars and went off with them. And the next day they took fuel samples again – didn’t say anything – just took fuel samples and didn’t tell us any results. By the way it’s quite quick to do with the right laboratory, it takes 5 minutes to do.
I never left the racetrack, I always stayed with my mechanics until they went home: 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock in the morning, because there were decisions to make. I didn’t work anymore but I had a wonderful network because I went around and looked at what all the other cars were doing because I could see what had broken on their cars, talk to the mechanics, I was able to go into all the garages, look inside their engines. I had all this fantastic feedback
I could go inside the Ferrari garage because I was an ex-mechanic and I know exactly what they were all doing and talk their language if you like, I was always friendly with Ferrari mechanics and Niki. On a mechanic level we had a lot of fun with the Ferrari we used to take the mickey out of them and they would take the mickey out of us. Niki used to come and visit us and check out our cars out and talk to us because his Italian wasn’t perfect. His English was very good – Niki speaks perfect vernacular English – he can do repartee in English. So used to spend a lot of time in our pit more than Ferraris – he’d have to trot back to Ferrari because practice was starting.
I went home with the drivers and got taken out for and everybody was amazed. All the other team managers were saying ‘what are you doing here?’ Because I had never been seen at dinner in the restaurant. We got back and the drivers said ‘look, go to bed. In the morning come to work with us.’ So I said ‘okay I’ll pretend I’m a posh team manager as opposed to a practical one, and I’ll got to work with you guys.’ So at nine o’clock in the morning we got to the racetrack and I think the warmup was at 10, and Monza has a big fence round it and big gates – they’re probably all like that now – but Monza was definitely barricaded because the Italians were so enthusiastic they needed machine guns to keep them out. We got to the gate and inside the gate were Ferrari personnel and [Marco] Piccinini who was the Ferrari lawyer was there inside the gate. I thought ‘whats that all about?’ We open the gates went inside, the four drivers, Teddy and I and they arrested me in Italian. Nobody would speak English. Piccinini had perfect English. They just arrested me and they had a jail and took me and put me in jail. Nobody would tell me why I was in jail. The other three had to go to work to get the cars ready to do the warmup
Whilst I was in jail Teddy was taken up before the stewards of the meeting and said ‘your car has been using illegal fuel. Your fuel is 101.8 octane and the rule is 101 and your practice times don’t qualify so all your practice times are void. You’ll have to drain your cars, fill your cars up with the fuel provided the circuit by Agip and you’ll race with that fuel and you’ll have to start at the back of the grid.’
Meanwhile I’ve managed to get a sympathetic Italian journalist to ask why I’m in jail and he said because ‘they say you smuggled fuel into Italy.’ Ferrari made this up, it was a brilliant story. So I was in jail for smuggling so I had to get somebody to go to the hotel because the little truck driver didn’t like Grand Prix racing, so they had to go to the hotel find him – he was there fortunately, he hadn’t gone shopping or sightseeing – and got him back to the racetrack of all the paperwork which was locked in his truck and show them how the fuel had been imported into Italy, paid the duty blah, blah, blah. So they had to let me out. I went off to the stewards immediately said we been railroaded and they said ‘why is that,’ and I said ‘because it says plus or minus 1% so 101.8 is legal.’ They said ‘actually you are right.’ They knew this all along. They said ‘oh dear, yes we made a mistake but the stewards of the meeting decision cannot be changed.’ So they had made a decree and that was it, so we had to start at the back of the grid.
We got railroaded: our fuel was perfectly legal, Texaco were going to cause a huge fuss but decided not to because that would get more publicity for it and all people Texaco, illegal. They wouldn’t remember Texaco, illegal, exonerated. So the FIA and Ferrari sent us a telex on Monday morning saying ‘we’re terribly sorry, we made a mistake,’ and that was the end of it. but we got stuffed by Ferrari very successfully and Teddy of course didn’t pick up on 101.8 thing, which he should have instantly, so we got put on the back of the grid and James was making his way up through the grid and got punted off by the Welshman Pryce into the sand barrier and walked home and the crowd spat on him and threw things at him and he and I got in the car with his girlfriend and the crowd tried to turn the car over on the roads at the circuit but they didn’t succeed. I just the held it at valve balance so every time it touched the ground it shot forward – ran over a few them didn’t injure anybody. [Laughs]
EF: It’s amazing hearing about the ‘76 season because it was just the most incredible season in F1 history.
AC: There wasn’t a dull moment. Every race was fraught, of course you had the Nürburgring with the accident with Niki.
EF: I’ve got question here jumping back to the British Grand Prix. Were the fire extinguishers really filled with nitrous oxide for qualifying or was that a rumour Alistair can put to bed?
AC: We never cheated with nitrous oxide. What we did do, along with every other team, was put the fire extinguishers in then set them off so they were empty. Nobody ever raced as far as I know with a full fire extinction because it was too heavy.
EF: How much weight are we talking?
AC: 5 kg so it’s a huge amount of weight. If we got caught by the scrutineers saying ‘this is empty,’ we’d say oh damn somebody must set off by mistake,’ go get a new one, put it and as soon as they turn their backs “poof” empty again. It didn’t make any mess it was lovely stuff, they’ve banned it now, it was called BCF I think. It was a very good fire extinguisher and put fires out brilliantly but the Greenies have banned it now. It left no trace, there was this big cloud of vapour and you couldn’t tell it had been set off.
I can tell a very nice story jumping back a bit when we first put them in, and we were going to use them. We were probably not that competitive in those days and I’d invented as an explosive detonator as opposed to a spring-loaded thing, that I made which was lighter than the original. Bruce got in the car, Kyalami it was, and he said ‘right we’ve got this new thing now, this fire extinguisher. There’s a button on the dashboard which you press and there’s one on the roll-bar for the marshal to press.’ And he said ‘like that?’ and pressed it. “Boof!” off it went. [Laughs].
I don’t think there’s ever been an incident where the on-board extinguisher has helped in a fire. There’s never been a crash in Formula One where the on-board extinguisher has ever been deployed and been any use.
EF: On the subject of fires, it German Grand Prix when Niki had his terrible accident, but he was back for the Italian Grand Prix. The short period of that, it was just over a month, to be back in the car, racing to fifth. That must have been something to see?
AC: Niki was a fantastic race driver and still is. They don’t lose it they just get slower with age. Niki was a very good racing driver because he was complete, thinking, hard-working, testing, mulling it over, tactics, politics… he was in to the whole thing: talking to journalists and trying to sway them, he was part of problem because he was a smart boy he got involved with all Ferrari machinations which were complex, they were Machiavellian, they were at it all the time.
The thing about Niki which doesn’t get much publicity, is for certain the thing that nearly killed was the fire extinguishers, not the fire. His face got burnt but the rest of him was fine, intact, and when he was lifted out the car by the other drivers he was chatting to them, talking quite lucidly about the accident and so on. So they all came back to the pits and said ‘no problem Niki’s fine. He’s burnt but he’s okay.’ So our impression was that we happily raced because Niki was fine. But what happened if you watch the video is that the marshals hit the car with this dry powder extinguisher, and you have been involved with these dry powder extinguishers, it’s almost impossible to breathe, its hideous stuff, it gets in your lungs almost instantly. Niki was being hit in the head with this. So he ingested the stuff which is hideous, it goes like concrete if it gets wet and it was inside him and going like concrete, so this is what nearly killed him, not the fire. He had 2% burns or something, the side of his face was burned but anyone can survive this. It was not the fire that nearly killed him, it was the fire extinguisher powder. In the Rush film you see the doctor pumping out his lungs, they’re putting tubes in and taking this debris out and it’s an incredibly painful business because he’s doing it conscious, because they need to guide him with the tube and tell him what it’s doing. They suck all this debris out of him and now he’s up and away. It’s a fantastic legend, it’s not a legend because it’s true, he did come back but he came back from being nearly killed by the extinguishers and his face was burned and obviously scarring up and when he got to Monza it was still scarring up and in the race rubbing with the helmet on it bled. He was a superhero for sure.
EF: Jumping around once again at the Canadian Grand Prix after the Italian Grand Prix. I seem to remember reading a story about you staying in a hotel with James the night before the race. This is a race that he did win.
AC: James didn’t have a manager. These days they’ve got two masseurs, a doctor, a manager, a dietician, they must have a busload that come with the driver. Official Tweeter, official Facebook whatever the entourage that goes with them. Something to spend the money on. We just had the driver and I was his manager at the racetracks unless his brother was around. We’d been testing the week before and James had a keen eye for the ladies they had a lot of success with women because he is very direct and positive about what he was on about and women respond to that quite well. We were staying in this huge motel down on the freeway. It was an enormous place with an enormous bar, with tiered seating and had a live band. The lead singer was a kind of Stevie Nicks lookalike: little blonde, very tasty and James pulled her. So on race evening I was there, normally I wouldn’t have been, but I’d left the racetrack with James because we’d given up: we thought ‘to hell with it, we’re not going to really work hard at this.’ Went back to the motel, she would do a set then James would take off to his room and then she’d do her set and he’d take her off to his room and this going on all evening and we were drinking beer. At midnight think I said ‘I’ve had enough of this and you should really go to bed James’ and he said ‘yeah, yeah, she’s going to finish in a minute.’ So I think at one o’clock in the morning she finished and they went off to bed and got up early in the morning, probably seven or something to go to the race track for the warm-up and there she was still in the same clothes and him in the same clothes, totally dishevelled. Off we went, rode in the motorhome I think. He’d been up all night wrecked, drunk, womanising, and won the race.
EF: There’s not many drivers who would do that. We’ve got enough time to discover the season finale, the big finish of the ‘76 title. Japanese Grand Prix; the weather was absolutely appalling. I think Hunt and Lauda both went to the stewards to ask for the race to be cancelled?
AC: Yes the weather was absolutely appalling and James and Niki spent the day in the tower. They didn’t go there, they stayed there. They were living in the tower if you like. [Jean-Pierre] Jarier who was the other member of the safety committee – mad dog Jarier – and Bernie and I were trying to get the race run, Ferrari were trying to get the race not run.
EF: At this point Hunt was three points behind Lauda. Surely you would have been speaking to James to say stop trying to get the race cancelled?
AC: Of course, but he was James and I want to James and said ‘what you doing? We can’t win the World Championship unless they run the race.’ He said ‘oh no, it’s far too wet old chap. We can’t possibly race.’ I’m not making this up! He was absolutely adamant that he wasn’t going to race, it was far too wet because he Niki were on the safety committee and it was too wet. This went on for hours, you’d have to look it up. I think it was four o’clock in the afternoon or something, and it got darker and darker and it stopped raining a bit, so it wasn’t actually pouring down rain any more but the track still had lakes on it. This is an interesting story that the Japanese crowd were absolutely impassive. 40,000 or 20,000 by the pits just sat there for hours: didn’t make any noise at all. My mechanics had Acme Thunderer whistles which they used as a horn when they pushed the cars around because they used to run into people’s feet and damage their ankles. So I said you boys have got to stop doing this, these cars are dangerous bits of kit. So they all had these whistles and they practiced with these whistles and they played tunes on aeroplanes; they had a whistle band. The Acme Thunderers were a toy they had. Lance Gibbs who was called the entertainment officer, but he was actually the assistant tire-man and sign writer, because we’re getting a bit more professional, we had a few more people, we had Lance who was a Kiwi who always wore bare feet like James, or flip-flops.
The cars were undercover – I was starting mine every half an hour and the other teams would, so we had this engine noise which was helping to try and convince people that the race cars were about to go. I said to Lance ‘do you think you could get this crowd amused or going in any way?’ he said ‘I’ll give it a go.’ Our pits were almost in the middle, so he stood on top of an Armco post on the edge of the track got his Acme Thunder out and [plays a tune]. And like magic 200 or 2000, I don’t know how many Japanese, had Acme Thunders or a Japanese version of, and they went [plays tune]. Now they’re all watching him, all 20,000 were fixed on him, so he [plays a tune] and they all followed him again. So we have this whistle thing going. I said to him ‘see if you can teach them to slow clap,’ and so he did. They were bored to tears so they imitated him. I don’t know if you have ever been involved in slow clapping but as you speed up it gets faster and faster when it gets to a certain tempo people can’t follow any more and it goes into a big roar, makes a huge noise, but the Icelanders were doing last night in the football.
He was doing this again and again so I trotted up to the tower and Bernie was there trying to get them to run the race, these old boys the stewards, Japanese boys. I said ‘listen to that, you’ve got a riot going on that. Look that crowd is getting really, really upset. You’d better hold the race.’ So Lance Gibbs got the race held because the Japanese organisers were worried about the crowd being excited because Japanese crowds don’t get excited, and they were making this noise.
So they decide to start the race and James, reluctantly, came and got in his car. Some people decided they would do just one lap and pull in like they did in Spain a few years before. In fact the old red mist comes down once they’re off and you can’t stop them, and James finished third despite his best efforts.
EF: He did try really hard not to didn’t he?
AC: He tried really, really hard not to win the race. I’ve no idea, I never discussed it with him because I was so irritated with him, I didn’t discuss it, I didn’t talk to him at all because he was a complete and utter idiot. But in the race he did not respond to his pit signals at all. Not at all. It was like he was blind. We put stuff on his board to tell him what to do, he was in the front so he could see better than anybody else and Mass, for example, who was running in third and second comfortably behind James because after the first lap we made up a board that said ‘cool tyres.’ They knew what it meant: drive in the puddles because the wet tyres were very tall with lots of tread and on dry tracks they just get white hot and melt and go away. If you’ve got water which you can deliberately drive on the straight, that cools them down. So we gave this to James and Jochen and Jochen instantly responded, he turned right, you can see in the video again, driving through the puddles again. Every lap he comes down the straight to the right of James in the puddles cooling the tyres down and we were so excited that we showed this to James again, we took away his main pit board, we took away Mass’ pit board so he couldn’t be distracted and just put this thing which said ‘cool tyres.’ The whole race team pointed at the sign he did not pull over. Andretti who was running behind them saw this and he cooled his tyres. He took our instruction because we’d laboured it so much that Lotus managed to pick up what we were doing, and Andretti came and cooled his tyres and won the race because he had tread left at the end of the race just like Jochen Mass. Sadly Jochen lost concentration just flew off the road from being bored driving behind James with the bald tyres and he still had tread.
James just did not respond to the pit board, so we gave up and just gave him lap times. We had a thing at the bottom which said tyres which allowed him to come in at any time, but there was no way we could judge whether he needed the tyres and there was no way to stop him in race and win the World Championship because he wasn’t far enough ahead. It was a huge long pit road in Japan, you lost about 40 seconds or something in the pit stop because we were taking 10 or 15 seconds to change the wheels because we didn’t practise any of that stuff much. We were only allowed six in the pit road, one to supervise and five to work on the car. Why on earth they’ve changed that, the idiots, I have no idea. They still do this in USAC and NASCAR and have fantastic pit stops because only five people are allowed to touch the car. You can actually see what’s going on, you can’t in Formula One anymore. The only interest is when it goes wrong because no one can see what’s happening.
So we couldn’t stop him any stage and win the World Championship so we had to hope the tyres would last, but they didn’t and on one lap with about eight laps to go he got two punctures: he wore the left front and left rear down to the air and he must have seen the white band appear, because it’s made up like a road tyre and he would have seen the white bands. Did he stop? He drove until it went pop then he drove round slowly losing lots of time and we had never practiced picking the car up with two flat tyres. Flat front yes. Flat rear, but not two on the same side, so the jacks didn’t work: the rear jack picked it up instantly but that meant the rear jack made front of the car immensely heavy because now the back was in the air and the front was pushed down. So the mechanic on the left front and I had to pick up the left front corner ourselves and put the little handheld jack under.
We changed the wheels which took 20 seconds or something, off he went, we put a new set of wets on because they would warm up very quickly because he had very little time to go and if we’d put dries on it would have taken several laps to warm them up enough to work, but the wets we knew would warm up in the pit road. Fortunately for us I think it came out eighth and other cars run their tyres to the air, some cars run out of fuel, some cars spun and a marvellous little antidote is the fact that Ferrari were so stupid because they sacked Clay after the Nürburgring. They told him he wasn’t going to be used in ’77. So Clay was racing and he was an impossible driver to pass even in good conditions. James comes up the passing him and you see Clay wave him by on TV “go by.” So James zooms past Regazzoni, and gets up to third and the rest is a history. We won the World Championship.
EF: Amazing. James didn’t realise he’d won had he?
AC: Once again he didn’t look at the pit board when he came by it said P8, the next lap was P5, the next lap was P3 and when he crossed the line it said P1 World Champion on the board. He did not look at the board. The board was absolutely correct 8, 5, 3, 1, World Champion. He did not look at the board at all and he came in the pits confused.
EF: He was quite angry as well.
AC: Angry with Teddy because he’d been an idiot. We’d done everything we could have done absolutely perfectly. If I live my life again I could not do it better. We did absolutely perfectly. We got the race held, we had the best car, he was on pole, we did everything. That idiot just did not look at the board. And he’s gone so I can’t berate him about it. But he berates us in his book, berates McLaren, talks about how badly we ran Japan. We couldn’t have run it better. It was absolutely brilliant.
EF: To finish on a happy note because it’s such a fantastic season, when you look back and think about James and if it just sort of pops into your mind, what’s your overriding memory of him? Your favourite memory of him?
AC: His shenanigans with women. He was a very good racing driver, I don’t remember any particularly brilliant driving manoeuvres or anything, we had a good car and he was quick. But out of the car he was a lot of laughs. He was a lot of laughs and very successful with women.
EF: Alistair thank you very much for coming in today and talking at length and so brilliantly about ‘76.I think I should offer someone from Ferrari a chance to do a podcast about ’76 so we can get two sides of it.
AC: You can get [Daniele] Audetto. There is a documentary made by the BBC. I instituted this documentary and I get to say a lot. Audetto gets to say a bit but I get the last word. [Laughs]