The Lord and the vagabond
- Rainer Nyberg
- 8W Summer 2001 issue
- 1978 Canadian GP - McLaren's Löwenbräu connection, by Mattijs Diepraam
Hesketh Racing Surtees-Ford TS9
VIII Race of Champions (18 March 1973)
Once upon a time… This is the beginning of a fairy tale come true.
It's the fairy tale of James Simon Wallis Hunt - a flamboyant, talented Englishman, a playboy with an absolute taste of la dolce vita. All his excesses make Eddie Irvine look pale in comparison. James was always controversial both on the track and during his post-driving career as a TV-commentator. He enjoyed a few successful years in the mid-'70s. His strong efforts in a Hesketh brought him his first GP win in 1975. With McLaren lead-driver Emerson Fittipaldi - the multiple world champion - gone to the fledgling Brazilian Copersucar team for '76, McLaren needed a new driver. They turned to the latest hero on the scene - the talented Englishman. Hunt would reward the team for their faith in him with a somewhat surprising world title in his first year with the team in '76 although some say it was a somewhat hollow title due to the accident suffered by his main competitor Niki Lauda at the Nürburgring. But he was there to take full advantage.
As a young 20-year-old medicine student James took a drivers course at Brands Hatch and started club-racing in 1967 with a self-built Mini-special. Soon James realized that a racing career would be a better bet for him. However, he had earned his nick 'Hunt the Shunt' even before he began his race career! This he got by crashing everything including the family cars of the poor Hunts… Single-seaters would follow in '68 when he aquired an Alexis Formula Ford 1600. He raced it to a victory in '68 and another win followed in '69. For '69 James had also acquired a Formula Three Lotus and in typical charging fashion he raced it to two victories. Due to financial obstacles, no doubt partly due to his driving style that made his nickname stick, he would remain in F3 until 1972. He collected six more wins during '70-'72 while other notable F3 fellows like Emerson Fittipaldi, Ronnie Peterson and Niki Lauda had already moved up to Formula One.
In '72 James met his soulmate in the flamboyant young British Lord Alexander Hesketh. With Hesketh having loads of funds to invest he first acquired a worn Surtees for James to use in non-champ events (our picture), before digging out deep and purchasing a brand new March 731 for James' entrance into the big league in '73. He started his first GP on the famous streets of Monaco. In only his third GP, cheered on by the British fans he took a fine fourth place in his home GP at Silverstone.
The '73 season turned out to be difficult for the works March equipe. They withdrew after young Roger Williamson perished in the fire at Zandvoort. In the same race however another young British driver showed the world his talents. James took his first podium with a fine third in his fourth GP. A fantastic drive at Watkins Glen saw him finish second less than a second behind winner Ronnie Peterson. He collected 14 points in his début season and finished eight overall in the final standings.
For '74 an even bolder effort was made. Hesketh Racing decided to go on their own with their own design. The pen of Harvey Postlethwaite produced a simple but distinctive DFV/Hewland 'kit-car'. For the early races they relied on the 731 before moving on to the 308. The 308 proved to be a good car, James managing to collect a number of third places - at Anderstorp, the Österreichring and Watkins Glen - and winning the International Trophy for the team! Once again he finished eight overall in the final standings.
The Hesketh 308 was further developed for '75 into 'B' and 'C' versions. The maturity of this design meant that James was, well, in the hunt, so to speak, for podium places throughout the year. A clever pitstop at Zandvoort when James pitted early for slicks when the rain eased off, meant that they were able to take a maiden win for both Hesketh and James himself. The '75 campaign netted 33 points and a fourth place finish in the championship table.
All the while Hesketh was still running his car for James Hunt in the patriotic colours of Britain, without any sponsorship. But during '75 he couldn't keep it up and started to bring in some sponsorship along with several rent-a-drivers. This was the beginning of the end for Hesketh and the Lord himself left the team. The 308C and its designer Harvey Postlethwaite were sold to Walter Wolf for '76. Team manager 'Bubbles' Horsley continued to operate the team for a few more years without success.
The winter silly-season also saw Emerson Fittipaldi leave McLaren for his brother's fledgling Brazilian effort supported by Copersucar. The empty seat at McLaren was offered to our hero. The Gordon Coppuck-penned McLaren M23 was now a mature design and this would be in use throughout the year in preference of the new M26. With six wins supported by a number of solid drives James was now fighting for the title. His main opponents were both Ferraris and the Tyrrell six-wheelers. Niki Lauda in the Ferrari clearly had the upper hand on all the other drivers including James Hunt.
However, James managed to beat Lauda on the road to win the British GP only to be thrown out of the results for allegations of using a spare car in the restart after a start-line crash. This was not a fact but a result of Ferrari's behind-the-scene politics. Hunt went crazy and according to McLaren team manager in '76, Alistair Caldwell: "…he didn't sleep a lot and would drink every substance we put down in front of him."
Going into the German GP Niki Lauda had collected a massive 61 points. Hunt had only 26 so far. Without question Lauda would have taken his second title in a row if id hadn't been for the bad accident at the 'Ring. With Lauda out of action Hunt returned to form and won the German GP. A fourth at Österreichring followed and with another victory at his lucky track of Zandvoort he had cut the points lead held by Lauda from 26-61 to 47-61. Nothing less than a miracle saw Niki Lauda return behind the wheel at Monza. After a difficult qualifying for Hunt where he only could manage 25th on the grid his difficulties continued as he spun out early in the race while a courageous Lauda finished fourth. 47-64 in favour of Lauda and the title seemed decided.
The 'tour' now moved on to North America. A high-revved Hunt returned to form and took the pole at Mosport Park and duly won the race. Lauda, still in agony finished outside the points in a lowly 8th. One week later at Watkins Glen Hunt once again took pole. After a long battle with Jody Scheckter's six-wheeler Hunt would prevail and score another win. Lauda managed to hang on to a third place but Hunt gained more points on him.
Going into the final race of the year at Fuji Lauda now had a only a slim 3-point advantage with 68-65. Mario Andretti took the pole with Hunt on second while Lauda secured third place on the grid. A heavy downpour would add another player into the equasion. In a move called 'cowardish' by many a courageous Lauda parked his car after a mere two laps deeming the circumstances too difficult for him to cope with. While the other cars waded through the monsoon, Lauda had to watch his main opponent staying out on to the track. Hunt took the four points needed to secure the title by finishing third in the difficult conditions. But not without a scare near the end when Hunt pitted with a flat tyre. The pitwork was not as fleet as nowadays and the crew had trouble lifting the car from the ground. But ultimately they managed to change the puncture. In a confused state after the race James was furious. He stood up in his car and shouted all sorts of things at McLaren's team boss Teddy Mayer. Then he managed to calm him down as he tried to convince him that he was the new world champion! Hunt himself confessed after the race that the conditions were ridiculous and he was hesitant to start the race himself.
The new world champion had to start the '77 season in the venerable M23, now pretty long in the tooth. The M26 was produced as a 'better M23' but it never developed into anything near the M23 in terms of success. Still the '77 season was not a complete waste because the world champion still took the M26 to three wins. He won his home GP at Silverstone and also the autumn races at Watkins Glen and Fuji. He was also plagued by engine trouble during the year, but simply the McLaren was outclassed on several occasions. Niki Lauda used the reliability and outright speed of his Ferrari to take back his world crown. Hunt ended up fifth in the race for the championship. But the future clearly belonged to the ground-effects cars like the new Lotus 78.
McLaren failed to realize the potential of the new technical advances and would still use the quickly obsolescent M26 for '78 as well. The black JPS Lotus cars completely dominated the year and Hunt would endure a difficult season. James suffered a number of accidents, no doubt trying too hard in the out-of-breath M26. A lowly 13th in the final standings with a third place at Paul Ricard as a highpoint was the meagre outcome for James' 1978 season.
James would be reunited with Harvey Postlethwaite for the following season. Since joining the team in 1976, Postlethwaite had stayed on as the chief designer for the Wolf team. They had entered Formula One in '76 by aquiring the Hesketh 308C cars, Wolf running the cars in cooperation with Frank Williams. The Austrian-born Canadian oil man Walter Wolf would go separate ways with Frank Williams for '77 and Postlethwaite designed both a pretty and capable DFV 'kitcar'. Jody Scheckter took the machine to victory in its first race, to become runner-up in the 1977 title race.
In two years time all that had changed. For '79 Wolf had become lost in the development of the ground-effects cars. They were playing catch-up together with many other teams and copycats seldom achieve success. Ironically, notorious backmarker Frank Williams seemed to prove that theory wrong. They got it right with their FW07. After the first half of the season Hunt was nowhere to be seen in the results and two weeks after Monaco he decided that enough was enough and he walked away from Formula One. He could no longer motivate himself to just make up the numbers. He started his GP career at the ritzy Monte Carlo and it was fitting that his career would end at the same place six years later.
He would be back in the sport soon again. For 1980 he was signed as a part of the BBC commentary team as a sidekick to Murray Walker. He became a very popular and verbal commentator with no hesitation to openly criticise other drivers. His dislike of Riccardo Patrese was well-known. He believed Patrese was at guilt in the '78 Monza accident where Ronnie Peterson was killed - an embarrassing mistake that wasn't cleared up before his untimely death.
He would remain a commentator until 1993 when he suffered a heart-attack. In this he became second world drivers champion to die of natural causes, Denny Hulme being the first. James had a brother David who 13 years younger than him and who also raced. David would reach F3000 before he retired and focused on business. James was not partularly supportive of David as he had the view that he made his own way and so should David. David Hunt is now the owner of the 'Team Lotus' name, but the chances are remote that this famous marque ever will grace the GP tracks again.
James Hunt was never renowned for his car-sorting skills, he was more from the Ronnie Peterson and Gilles Villeneuve mould. Both Ronnie and Gilles lost their life in the line of duty. James got away with all his accidents but his lifestyle of living in the fast lane ultimately took its toll. His favourite spot on a GP weekend was always the Marlboro motorhome where he felt at home surrounded by babes while holding a glass in his one hand and a Marlboro in the other…
Reader's Why by Alessandro Silva
How James Hunt and the entrant of the car in the picture, Lord Hesketh, arrived to this race constitutes a funny and romantic story, together with the two following years of Lord Hesketh's cars. Was it the last romantic endeavour in F1 history? Up to now yes. Altough amateur racing teams were the rule rather than the exception in the earlier part of the twentieth century, most people thought that these were extinct, as far as competitive Grand Prix racing was concerned, by the 1970s. Any supposedly amateur outfit could not exist for long without massive sponsorship from something like a tobacco company; even with this support, success was hard to come by.
This was all thrown to the wind when the Hesketh team arrived on the Formula One scene in 1973 and, amid laughter and ridicule from rivals, began to pick up good places in their rented March 731. It was not long before the laughter turned to envy and admiration and the Hesketh team became accepted members of the Grand Prix 'society'.
Owner of Hesketh Racing was Lord Thomas Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, Third Baron of Hesketh. This rotund young man, who has the confidence and self-assurance of a man twice his age, was born in Northampton on 28 October 1950. His family seat is at Easton Neston, near Towcester, which is right on the doorstep of Silverstone. When he was sixteen, Alexander gave up the idea of formal education altogether and went into the used-car business. Alexander (this is the name he is known by) said that he gained more useful knowledge from his two years selling cars than in all the time he was at school. His next move was to leave Britain and head for the United States, where he spent eighteen months working in a Californian investment bank before continuing his journey to Hong Kong to join a ship-broking firm. He returned to England in 1971 and set up his own company, Hesketh Finance, with the money given to him on his twenty-first birthday.
Lord Hesketh had been deeply interested in motor racing for most of his life and he had already begun to get involved with some of the sport's personalities. He had become friendly with Charles Lucas and through him met Anthony 'Bubbles' Horsley, long-time friend of Piers Courage and Frank Williams. In fact, Bubbles was living in Chelsea with Piers and his wife, Lady Sarah, when the two met. As a result, Alexander used to spend long hours at the Courage household, listening to the racing chat and meeting more famous names. Bubbles eventually went off to Bhutan, returning in 1972, by which time His Lordship was thoroughly bored outside working hours, and the two of them decided to enter motor racing.
The plan was that they should buy a Formula Ford car for Bubbles to drive, and take the machine around Europe, simply having fun on the way. However Bubbles was about the same size as Lord Hesketh, so even if he could have fitted into the cockpit of a Formula Ford car the power-to-weight ratio would have left a lot to be desired. The answer seemed to be in Formula Three, so the pair looked around and then bought two Dastle Mk 9. The combination of Bubbles Horsley and the Dastle was singularly unsuccessful, collecting no places worthy of mention.
The only good thing about the series of races entered by this car was that the Hesketh ensemble acquired the services of James Hunt during the early summer of 1972. Though the son of a Surrey stockbroker, James had to finance his early racing career largely from his own pocket, racing his Mini before moving into Formula Ford in 1968 with an Alexis and then a Merlyn. Through the 1969 James moved up to F3 with a Brabham BT21, but it was during the 1970 season, when he was equipped with a Lotus 59, that people began to take notice, with his wins at Rouen and Zolder. Though the 1971 season was littered with accidents and mechanical faults, March signed him for their STP-backed F3 works car in 1972 which he left after a quarrel in Monte Carlo.
James Hunt was quick but not convincing: he had a reputation for crashing anything he laid his hands on, hence the title 'James Shunt'. Alexander's bet payed off, though he has said that James was about the only uncontracted driver with any talent who would work for the Hesketh concern. As it turned out, James Hunt's employment was very timely, for after the British Grand Prix meeting, at Brands Hatch, Bubbles decided it was time he hung up his helmet, when both he and Hunt crashed badly. Hesketh Racing aIready had a reputation for being a light-hearted, fun-loving affair: Le Patron never believed in doing things by halves, providing five-star accommodation for the whole team - including the mechanics - and cool Dom Perignon champagne to refresh the body and the spirit...
However, doing things in style is no good if there are no cars to race, and both Dastles had been written off at Brands Hatch. After a short meeting, it was decided that there was no point in carrying on in Formula Three, so the team headed for the F2 meetings.
Despite the fact that Hunt had been sacked by March, Hesketh managed to borrow a March Formula Two chassis, the team providing its own Ford engines. Things began to look up with this car, a few minor places being gained, including fifth in the Temporada series. By now, Bubbles Horsley had become team manager, the day-to-day running of the show being completely up to him. For 1973, he purchased a new Surtees F2 car. This chassis was competitive, but not the Ford engine and James eventually crashed at Pau in an effort to keep up.
With yet another car in the breaker's yard, the Hesketh outfit had another decision to make. Formula Two had turned out to be very expensive, there being very little prize money or start money, so Le Patron steered his merry men towards the big time of the Grand Prix circus. Their first race was the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch (picture), in which James drove the rented old Surtees to a creditable third place. This result provided great encouragement, so the next move was to rent a March 731 for the rest of the 1973 season, complete with two Cosworth DFV engines. Renting this machine, in itself, probably would not have led to any success, since no works March of that year showed any form. However, Hesketh managed to lure assistant designer Harvey Postlethwaite away from the March fold to look after the modification of the car. In it James put in some sensational performances, the best achievement of the season being in the last Grand Prix, the American. Here, Hunt roared into second place early in the race and hounded Ronnie Peterson's Lotus 72 far the remaining laps, trying everything he knew to get past. In the end, the team was delighted by second place, especially as James had set fastest lap on the way.
During the season, Harvey Postlethwaite had worked very hard on the March and made it a far quicker car than the works entries and in September 1973, Bubbles and Alexander had set Harvey to work on building a brand new car. The two-year long story of the Hesketh car, its sudden demise and how James Hunt went on to become World Champion are a well-known story of success.
In British non WDC races in those years, F5000 cars were allowed to start together with F1 cars to beef up the starting grids. The race in the picture has another distinction: it is the only one that has seen the victory of a F5000 car against F1 opposition. In fact Peter Gethin in a Chevron-Chevrolet won the race.