Sunday, May 19, 2013

Last Of The Privateers

Lord Alexander Hesketh, James Hunt, and the Hesketh 308

In an earlier post about Formula 1, I said that by the 1980's a boutique manufacturer could no longer stick an over-the-counter Cosworth-Ford in his chassis and expect to win.  I'm reminded of the one who did, in 1974 and 1975.

Hesketh Racing straddled a fuzzy boundary between boutique manufacturer and private entrant. Private entrants were not unusual in the 1950's.  Maserati 250 F's floated around the backs of starting grids from 1954 to 1959.  From 1959 to 1962, Rob Walker Racing entered Coopers and Lotuses for Stirling Moss.  The Walker-Moss partnership was successful because Moss was at the top of his game. But the team did not materially alter or try to improve the cars.  Walker retired from racing at the end of 1970, having soldiered on with customer cars but without a driver of Moss's caliber.

Hesketh Racing began as a lark in 1972 when Lord Alexander Hesketh and his pal Anthony Horsley entered Formula 3 events because they wanted to have some fun.  Horsley drove and Hesketh wrote the checks.  They were notorious party animals.  Horsley crashed a lot of cars.  They moved up to Formula 2.  He crashed some more.  Hesketh concluded that it wouldn't be much more expensive to race in Formula 1.  They remained party animals and the entire team, including mechanics, stayed in five star hotels.  They weren't taken seriously by the Formula 1 establishment.

In 1973 they rented a March 731 and hired James Hunt to drive a second car.  He was unemployed and came with a reputation: "James Shunt."  He was a free and independent spirit and a party animal too. Recently Steve Matchett and David Hobbs said that, among current drivers, Kimi Raikkonen reminds them most of Nigel Mansell and James Hunt.  Raikkonen himself has said that his role model was Hunt.  Hunt and Hesketh Racing were made for each other.  He was much faster and less crash-prone than Horsley, who climbed out of his car and began to be an effective manager of a single-car team (itself a handicap).  Hesketh hired Harvey Postlethwaite, March's Assistant Designer, to develop their 731.  Hunt's best finish was 2nd in the U.S. Grand Prix, but he had a 3rd and a 4th, and only one retirement.  Aero tweaks to the 731 made it faster than the March team cars.

For 1974, Postlethwaite designed the Hesketh 308.  While it was a conventional car, highly derivative of the March, it was fast.  Hunt scored three 3rd places but the team was plagued with retirements.  He finished 8th in the championship.  For 1975 the 308 was further refined into B and C models.  Hunt won the Dutch Grand Prix and finished 4th in the championship.  1973-1975 were remarkable seasons for a small, "unprofessional" team.  But the costs were high, even for Hesketh's resources, and the team was unable to find a major sponsor.  Hesketh pulled the plug.

The cars were sold to Frank Williams and became FW-05's.  McLaren hired Hunt for 1976 when Emerson Fittipaldi unexpectedly quit to start his own team.  Hunt became World Champion at the end of a very fraught season.  He refused to sign the clause in his McLaren contract that required him to wear a business suit to public appearances, and often showed up in jeans and a tee shirt.

Hesketh Racing was a throwback to the 1950's.  Hesketh himself was more serious about his racing than he was first taken to be.  Horsley developed into a good team manager--something that could not have been foreseen.  Hunt reminds me of drivers like Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins: sometimes brilliantly fast, but mercurial and temperamental.  Formula 1 hasn't seen the likes of Hesketh Racing in 40 years, and probably won't again.

Hesketh 308 at a vintage event: sharp-looking and fast enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment