Hesketh Racing: shaking up the F1 establishment

| 1 Sep 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Hesketh Racing: shaking up the F1 establishment

The New Year celebrations had barely faded when the great and the good of the Formula One Constructors’ Association gathered at Olympia in London.

They were there to give their side of the story in a dispute with race organisers, who had recently formed their own ‘union’ – Grand Prix International.

With less than a month to go before the start of the 1973 World Championship, battle lines had been drawn and it all boiled down to one thing: money.

Classic & Sports Car – Hesketh Racing: shaking up the F1 establishment

Harvey Postlethwaite (hands on hips), Lord Hesketh (in sunglasses) and James Hunt (right) with the March 731 on the Silverstone grid © Motorsport Images

The Constructors’ Association included all of the top teams and, in effect, offered the organisers a ‘package deal’: we’ll come to your race if you pay us a certain amount.

If you don’t, you get none of us.

With costs going up, it said its members needed much more start and prize money to survive, and Grand Prix International said it couldn’t afford it.

Its argument was that much-needed improvements to both safety and spectator facilities at its circuits simply didn’t leave enough in the pot.

Over the winter of 1972-’73, it seemed that the situation had reached an impasse.

It was typical of a turbulent decade in which the sport moved away from old-style Grand Prix racing towards the modern, trademarked entity known as Formula One.

Great road circuits were being replaced by sterile autodromes, and financial necessity dictated that famous team names were now officially prefaced by those of their sponsors – John Player Team Lotus, Yardley McLaren and Marlboro BRM.   

Into the middle of it all came Hesketh Racing, a team with zero commercial backing but money seemingly to burn, a confidently stated ambition to make James Hunt World Champion, an unashamed desire to enjoy themselves in the process, and a car that would take on a grid full of mobile billboards finished in nothing more than virginal white with patriotic flashes of red and blue.

Paddock insiders could have been forgiven for looking upon this extravagant new venture with some scepticism.

It was led not by a Colin Chapman-esque engineering genius or a self-made businessman such as Bernie Ecclestone, but by Lord Hesketh – a 22-year-old aristocrat who was financing it all himself.

Here, they must have thought, is a team that might be a harmless and mildly eccentric diversion, but which clearly doesn’t understand what had become A Very Serious Business.

For his part, Lord Hesketh had famously said Formula One was like a bottle of flat champagne that he intended to give a vigorous shake.

Classic & Sports Car – Hesketh Racing: shaking up the F1 establishment

Ronnie Peterson (left), Hunt (middle) and Hesketh on the United States Grand Prix podium © Motorsport Images

When Hesketh Racing made its World Championship debut at the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix, it had been in existence for a little over 12 months.

Lord Hesketh had started out by entering a Dastle in Formula Three, with the ambitious aim of making a World Champion of his good friend Antony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley.

He had raced in the ’60s, but it soon became clear that neither Horsley nor the Dastle were ideally suited to the task, so instead he and Le Patron recruited Hunt, whose career had stalled after he’d been fired by the works March F3 team.

“I quickly worked out that there was a very good reason I never made it in the 1960s,” Bubbles reflects, “and that it had carried over into the 1970s.

“When we had the opportunity for James to join us, that completely convinced me, because everywhere he was a second and a half quicker than me. Two seconds.”

Hesketh Racing could have met a premature end in July 1972, when Hunt and Horsley both destroyed their cars at Brands Hatch.

With Lord Hesketh’s interest already beginning to wane and the Dastle proving uncompetitive, that could have been that – but Hunt’s determination to reach the top kept things moving.

His friend and advisor Chris Marshall convinced Max Mosley to lend them a year-old Formula Two March, and Lord Hesketh paid for a new engine.

When, in September, Hunt finished a sensational third at Oulton Park behind Ronnie Peterson and Niki Lauda, it had the effect of reigniting Lord Hesketh’s interest.

“Without that result,” says Bubbles, who had settled into the role of team manager, “nobody would have ever heard of us.”

Classic & Sports Car – Hesketh Racing: shaking up the F1 establishment

Hunt leads Jackie Stewart in the 1973 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard © Motorsport Images

The plan for 1973 was to do the European F2 Championship with a Surtees-BDA, but the combination was very much second-best to the new March-BMW.

After a troubled start to the year, during which Hunt managed not a single racing lap at Hockenheim and Bubbles broke a bone in Lord Hesketh’s foot by inadvertently pushing the Surtees over it at Thruxton, things came to a head at Pau, when Hunt failed to start following a practice crash.

Hesketh Racing had intended to tackle a number of Grands Prix that didn’t clash with F2 meetings that year, then enter F1 full-time in 1974.

At Pau, it was decided that the schedule should be compressed somewhat.

There seemed to be little point hanging around in F2, making a mess of things with a car that was clearly uncompetitive.

“We went off and had lunch,” recalls Bubbles, “and said, ‘Okay – what are we going to do?’

“It was suggested – probably by Alexander [Lord Hesketh], but egged on by James and myself – well, why don’t we just do F1? And when we make a complete cock-up of it, we can get on with the rest of our lives.

“We’ve started this journey, so we’d better finish it.”

After being what Bubbles would describe as “a complete joke” in F3 and F2, Hesketh Racing was heading for the big time.

Crucially, it had managed to prise away from March – from which it would be renting a car – two talented engineers who would be central to its success: Harvey Postlethwaite and Nigel Stroud.

“Bubbles said we had to have an engineer,” says Lord Hesketh. “You couldn’t do this with even the best mechanics in the world, so we had to lure away Dr Harvey Postlethwaite.

“We gave him lunch at the Carlton Tower, where I was living at the time.

“I think we gave him two bottles of very fine white burgundy and, at the end of that, the doctor agreed to come to us.”

“We got him absolutely rat-arsed,” agrees Bubbles. “It was brilliant for us and it was brilliant for him. It launched his career.”

Classic & Sports Car – Hesketh Racing: shaking up the F1 establishment

Hunt, driving the Hesketh-Ford 308B, heads to his first F1 World Championship win, in the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix © Getty

Lord Hesketh arrived at Monaco aboard his yacht, Southern Breeze, and also on board were many of the friends who would have been socialising with him at weekends anyway.

Now they had an excuse to change the backdrop and move their socialising to an F1 paddock – or, in this case, a yacht in the Monaco harbour.

Hunt would affectionately refer to them as the team’s “Entertainment Division”.

Lord Hesketh also had his Bell Jet Ranger II helicopter on hand, while the team’s ground-borne transport included a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, a Porsche 911 Carrera RS and a Suzuki 750 motorcycle.

It was a grand entrance in every respect, but when the serious business of practice got under way, there were clear indications that Hesketh Racing was far more than just an extravagant excuse for a party.

Monte-Carlo was a claustrophobic and unforgiving place for Hunt to be making his World Championship debut, but he survived and was classified ninth after his engine blew in the closing stages.

It was a solid start, and Bubbles reflects that: “It kind of gave notice that we weren’t complete idiots.”

The colourful paddock newcomers firmly reinforced that impression by finishing sixth in France and fourth in Britain, before claiming their first podium with third at the Dutch Grand Prix.

Just in case anyone was tempted to get carried away, however, the next three races brought Hesketh Racing down to earth.

The team skipped Germany to carry out more development work on the March, then retired in Austria after only three laps.

At least it had got as far as the race, though, which was more than it managed at the Italian Grand Prix.

During practice, Hunt went off and damaged the monocoque sufficiently for the team to call it a day – a decision with which he did not agree.

Classic & Sports Car – Hesketh Racing: shaking up the F1 establishment

Lord Hesketh’s team was only in Formula One between 1973 and ’75 in its original form, but its legacy endures © Getty

“Max [Mosley] said, ‘We’ll fly out a new tub and you can rebuild it overnight’,” recalls Bubbles.

“And I said, ‘No, we’re going home and we’re going to do it properly and then do some testing.’

“We needed the days because, shortly afterwards, we were due to go to Canada and then Watkins Glen.

“There was a slight internal disagreement about that – James was keen on having the chassis flown out. I wouldn’t say we had a row. Well, it was a bit of a row.”

Bubbles prevailed and, after blotting his copybook at Monza, Hunt took it easy in Canada and finished seventh.

The team then headed to the United States Grand Prix and came within an ace of finishing the season with a giant-killing victory.

Having qualified fourth, Hunt went around the outside of Emerson Fittipaldi at the first corner before dispatching Carlos Reutemann to move into second behind Ronnie Peterson.

From that point on it was a two-horse race, and Hunt was initially content to sit behind the Swede.

Given the March’s superior straight-line speed, his plan was to attack the Lotus in the last 15 laps, but as the fuel load lightened the car’s handling started to deteriorate.

It was oversteering through the Esses, which meant that he couldn’t get close enough to Peterson to overtake him on the straight that followed.

In the closing stages, Hunt set the fastest lap with a time that was only a fraction slower than Jackie Stewart’s lap record, but it wasn’t quite enough and he trailed Peterson by 0.688 secs at the flag.

His measured and determined drive nonetheless won both him and the team plaudits across the paddock.

Much to the surprise of those who had considered them to be more style than substance – or who had seen them struggling in F3 and F2 – Hesketh Racing had turned out to be pretty good at F1.

Classic & Sports Car – Hesketh Racing: shaking up the F1 establishment

The appeal of Hesketh’s bear mascot endures to this day

Even the often-cynical press corps gave the team a warm reception.

Ian Phillips wrote in Autosport that it had: ‘Brought a much-needed breath of fresh air to racing.

‘Where they score is that they are all happy and friendly while going about a serious occupation, while the other teams go around poker-faced and miserable doing the same job half the time less successfully.’

Bubbles remembers a comment that Ken Tyrrell made during that 1973 season: “He said, ‘You know – these guys are quite good because their attention to detail is fantastic. That car is really well prepared and James is really quick.’

“He’d worked out that we were there to stay – as long as the cash lasted.”

As it turned out, the cash lasted only until the end of 1975, but what an adventure it had been.

Over the winter of 1973-’74, the team moved into the stable block of Lord Hesketh’s Easton Neston estate and built its own car.

It then won the 1974 International Trophy at Silverstone, and the following year Hunt held off the Ferrari of Niki Lauda to win the Dutch Grand Prix on his way to fourth in the World Championship.

During that period, Hesketh Racing – and its famous teddy-bear logo – captured the imagination of enthusiasts around the world.

Over the following decades, there has been a tendency to dismiss Hesketh as a ‘playboy’ team, just as Hunt subsequently became the ‘playboy’ champion.

The label sells them both short. They enjoyed themselves along the way, but behind the glamorous façade was a seriously professional outfit that beat Lotus, Ferrari and Tyrrell.

No wonder the ‘Biggest Little Racing Team in the World’ is still so fondly remembered, 50 years later.

Images: Motorsport Images/Getty

This story has been excerpted and adapted from Superbears: The Story of Hesketh Racing, published by Porter Press International (£89, porterpress.co.uk; ISBN 9781913089337).

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