The car hits the top of the esses and flicks past with one final shoulder fake, a blur of virginal white. To the casual observer it is just another Grand Prix car at practice, but then a pinch of doubt asserts itself. Hold on, there. Something was wrong with that machine. Not the line the driver took through the corners; that was standard procedure. And not the sound of the engine; that was a standard Ford-Cosworth snarl, healthy and hawking on all eight. Then the answer comes. What was missing is something even more vital to most racing teams than a strong motor: sponsorship decals. The car that just went past was clean, pristine, unmarked by the gaudy brands—Goodyear or Firestone, Champion or Bosch, this tobacco company or that perfumery—brands whose omnipresence in racing turns even the elegant Grand Prix thoroughbreds into high-speed billboards. In the evermore-costly work of motor sports, a car without decals is like a barefoot miler, a one-legged cornerback, a 4'6" NBA center. Yet this car can win.
Anomalous as the car itself may seem, its owner is even more so. Thomas Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, Third Baron Hesketh, in the 23rd year of his age, is a full-fledged (indeed full-blown) English lord. Tall and plump, cheerfully ursine in the manner of a grown-up Winnie-the-Pooh, his Lordship is the real item; not one of those peers whose grandfathers made it big in coal or newspapers, but one whose title as a baronet dates back to 1761, not far from the era when English lords swung mighty swords. (The rank was upgraded to full baron in 1935.) In Hesketh's case, the mighty sword has been transmuted to a Grand Prix car that he owns all by himself and whose driver is in effect his personal page and coachman, a weapon akin to Excalibur that will win for his Lordship a famous victory over the commercialized heathen: the World Championship.
Romantic, yes. But motor racing right now needs a goodly injection of that commodity. The sport has been suffering from a romance crisis much longer than it did from the putative fuel crisis. The last real aristocrats involved in the sport—the Marquis de Portago and Count Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips (better known as Count von Crash)—both died in the process, leaving the impression that effete European bluebloods were not only ineffective racers but dangerous to boot. Hesketh's effort, for all its romantic overtones, is quite the opposite.
Last year, the team's first on the Grand Prix circuit, Hesketh Racing's lone driver, James Hunt, won 14 points in seven races and placed eighth overall among the 45-driver squadron. In the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen (SI, Oct. 15, 1973) Hunt pressed winner Ronnie Peterson all the way and finished a close second. Indeed, early in the race Hunt had the revs in hand to pass Peterson's Lotus, but his good sense and perhaps a touch of the new boy's shyness kept him on Peterson's tailpipes; it is wiser to stay right behind and keep the pressure on the leader during the early going, particularly if you are a rookie and the man ahead is a tough, wild-eyed Swede.
May 12, 1974
Up to that point Hesketh Racing had seemed just another lightweight joke outfit to many who follow the GP circuit. His Lordship, whose white racing jacket with the red and blue piping bore the title Le Patron, served vintage Dom Perignon in the pits, along with fresh strawberries. His pit crew wore equally fruity Gucci shoes, as red as those in Moira Shearer's movie of the same name. Hesketh's team manager, Anthony (Bubbles) Horsley, was a pudgy road racer manqué ("The 10th worst racing driver in the world—when he was running well," says Hesketh). Driver Hunt, 26, had a so-so career in Formula II cars where he earned the nickname "Hunt the Shunt" and a reputation as motor sports' answer, groupie-wise, to Mick Jagger. The car itself was a March, not one of the quickest in the Grand Prix stable, and when it was parked or standing in the garage area, it wore the plastic effigy of a large black pig over its air-intake scoop. Why?
"A large black pig," his Lordship explained, capitally, "makes a car run faster!"
To understand Lord Alexander Hesketh, much less his wit and wisdom, one must first understand where he comes from. Easton Neston, the Hesketh baronial manor, stands on 7,000 acres near the town of Towcester, roughly a two-hour drive north of London. Towcester, as in "toaster." The manor house, built largely of marble, was begun in the late 1680s and completed half a century later. Slow growth is essential to grandeur: one could fit a full Levittown into Easton Neston and have room left over for all the family rooms in Beverly Hills. The ceilings in some rooms measure a full 30 feet. A Rolls-Royce could be parked in any of the downstairs fireplaces, and maybe one has been. God knows, Alexander is capable of it.
Entering the manor house, one is first impressed by the chill, then by the fearsome visage of a full-mounted bear rearing out of a dark corner. Wintry light glints off the armor behind the bear, whose claws seem to match the marble. On the table in the entry hall lies a copy of M.A.S.H. Goes to Maine, a huge Bowie knife, a guest book full of Churchills, Windsors and Douglas-Homes. In the echoing dining room, a brace of Rubens paintings adds a touch of warmth to the background behind the butler's eyes. In a corner glowers the erect figure of a stuffed snowy owl. Tapestries picked out in silver and gold, the crackle of a bonfire, pheasants and peasants striding through the rain on the putting-green lawns outside the tall casement windows, two great bronze Chinese lions snarling in fierce silence at the Corinthian columns that only seem to hold the place up. Some country cottage.
Footsteps clack in the hallway—a firm, no-nonsense stride—and Kisty emerges from the gloom. Kisty is Alexander's widowed mother, Lady Hesketh. The old lord died when Alexander was five. A strong, handsome, gregarious woman in her mid-40s, with absolutely none of that upper-class English pretension that Americans flinchingly anticipate on first meeting British noblepersons, Kisty could be your best buddy's mother—maybe even his girl friend. She wears a black patch over her right eye, having lost the sight of it in a recent car crash (not her fault, mind you!), and the resulting piratical touch neatly counterpoints her warm nature. Alexander calls her Cuddles, a nickname proudly emblazoned on her racing jacket.
"I'm afraid you may have come a long way for nothing," Kisty begins. "Alexander is down with the flu—he's running a temp of 103, poor dear!—and may not recover in time for the pheasant shoot tomorrow. Thus the bulk of your story seems to be missing." She laughs heartily at her pun: Alexander is awfully bulky these days.
Still, a shooting weekend at Easton Neston, even without his Lordship's presence, is bound to be instructive. Indeed, it may be even more so without him, since Alexander dominates his surroundings wherever he appears both by size (6'4" plus 250 pounds) and his compelling conversation (ranging from automotive design to the Zulu wars, all viewed eccentrically). After a welcoming—and welcome, considering the chill—glass of sherry before the fire in the drawing room, we repair to our rooms for a washup and change of attire.
"You must see the stables," Kisty says. "They date to the 16th century, but Alexander and Bubbles have turned them into a racing-car factory. They're building the new car there, the Hesketh. At first I resented the transition, having been an avid horsewoman all my life, but then I realized that these Grand Prix cars are every bit as thoroughbred as horses. Now it pleases me to think that the stables have found a real use once again."
The stables are impressive. Thick, white stucco walls and heavy, dark oaken doors hewn from the same forests that hulled the ships of Drake and Hawkins and Errol Flynn. One can almost hear the ring of iron shoes on the cobblestones as the ghostly hunters of the past walk out on a misty morning to pursue wily Reynard...but it's only Harvey Postlethwaite hammering on the new car. Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite, 35, B.S., Ph.D., is the automotive genie behind Hesketh Racing, a dreamy-eyed, long-haired design and development engineer who came into racing after growing bored with polyurethane and whom Alexander snagged away from the March factory team last year. "I didn't want to do it at first," Harvey says. "They seemed a bit wild, you know, a bit dilettantish. But they played to my weakness. They bought me a large bottle of a fine white wine and made me drink it. Then they bought me a very large bottle of a very fine white wine and made me drink that. So here I am, a genie out of a bottle or two."
And some genie he is. The March F-I car, on which Harvey worked last year and for part of this season, has a reputation as one of the crankiest machines in Grand Prix history. Jackie Stewart, who drove a March in 1970 and hated it, wrote in his book Faster!, "It reacted slowly, and when it did respond, it responded nastily, snappishly. It didn't go all in one; it felt as though it were of two pieces, as if it had a front end and a rear end, and this sense of never being tied into its moves is what I'm afraid we're stuck with.... A Formula I car is really an animal." Well, whatever the fault of the March's design, Dr. Postlethwaite tamed the Push-Me-Pull-You last season: the Hesketh March was quicker, smoother, steadier and stronger than even the factory entries.
The new car is something else again. "Nothing really novel about it," Harvey said as he walked around the unpainted machine. "The quickest designs last season were the McLaren and the Lotus. We've combined some of their characteristics and some of the good things from the March. The real problem is going to be the engine. Alexander and Bubbles want to build a 12-cylinder Hesketh motor to power the Hesketh chassis. That may well be the wave of the future, but for right now the best power plant is still the F-I Ford-Cosworth. We'll run our good Ford engine in the Hesketh until the new motor is ready."
Watching the evolution of Grand Prix cars is like seeing one of those high school biology movies where the film is speeded up so that a duck's egg goes from ovoid to south-for-the-winter in five seconds flat. Still, though the new Hesketh looks very much like every other 180-mph duck on the GP pond, it remains to be seen, over the remainder of the 15-race season, if it is a speedy widgeon or just a flap-along buffelhead.
In the first four GPs and two intervening non-title bouts, Hunt and his white racer were a bit of both. The Hesketh qualified fifth for the Argentine Grand Prix Jan. 13, but didn't finish. At Sao Paulo, Brazil two weeks later, Hunt qualified 18th and wheeled up to a ninth-place finish. Ah, but then came a break in the schedule—and Lord Hesketh's bubbly moments of glory.
At the Daily Express International Trophy Race at Silverstone, Hunt swept aside all comers: the fastest qualifying at 135.79 mph, pole position and first-place finish. A photograph in England's Motoring News showed Hunt and his Lordship spraying the crowd with Moet; they drank the Dom Perignon.
The Hesketh's speed faltered a bit in the South African Grand Prix March 30: it qualified 13th and didn't finish. But it roared back to seize the pole position by qualifying fastest at the Daily Mail Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. Unhappily, again no finish.
Neither of the newspaper-sponsored Formula I events counted toward the world championship, and when official competition resumed April 28 at the Spanish Grand Prix, Hunt started ninth, finished 10th.
In Easton Neston, Bubbles Horsley is busy at team managing in his office at the back of the stable, tucked in among some stuffed toy snakes, a calendar listing the Grand Prix races of 1974, a sign reading DELIVERIES AT REAR and a miasma of acrid smoke from the Panter panatelas he chain-smokes whenever he is not in the pits. A puffy, pigeon-toed hippie of 34, the eldest of the Hesketh Irregulars, Bubbles affects a constant state of discombobulation. Actually, he is an astute team manager, having learned the art form in his early days as a driver. His peers then were beginners like Chris Anion, Peter Revson, Piers Courage and Jochen Rindt, all of them getting a start in the fierce learner's school of British Formula III racing. Bubbles may not have matched them in terms of quick, but he was well up in smarts.
"Go talk to James," says Bubbles. "He's around here somewhere. An inkstained wretch from the racing press is taking photographs of him. I'll see you at dinner." And he dives back into his smoke screen.
James Hunt is out in the stable yard, posing for pictures with a regional racing journalist. The journalist has brought along a rented bow and arrow ("at considerable expense, I might add," he adds) and is setting James up for a "Hunt the hunter" shot. James, in his Carnaby Street clothes and his long blond hair, looks more like Maid Marian than Robin Hood, but he cheerfully undergoes the ordeal. An onlooker takes the bow from Hunt's unpracticed hands and snaps an arrow into one of the oak stable doors. The thwock of the arrow brings Bubbles out into the rain, on the trot.
"I must ask you to desist," he scolds, looking anxiously over his shoulder toward the manor house. "Her ladyship values those doors quite highly. After all, they date from the 16th century and they don't grow oak like that no mo'." He scurries back to his smoke-filled room.
At dinner that evening the rest of the houseguests assemble, and after a few minutes it becomes evident that Evelyn Waugh's satirical novels of English country life were nothing more than straight reportage, perhaps even somewhat understated. First there are the sisters Anne and Rose, daughters of the unfortunate Lord Lambton, recently expelled from the Tory Cabinet in the latest of Britain's perennial sex scandals. Anne Lambton is small, with the steady, sharp-toothed grin of a dolphin. She affects a freaky air and a Cockney accent—"wif" for "with"—and pretends total incomprehension concerning the "real world."
"Are vey still hafing those 'orrible bombs in Londing?" she asks. "Oy 'aven't bean vare in mumfs. Oh pigs! Oy spilt me caviar!" During the dinner she amuses her mates by snorting now and then, apparently imitating a pig. Ah, the liberation of the English lady!
Her sister Rose is taller, even more out of touch, very pale and with dyed dark-red hair. Rose has brought her pet dog, a neurotic shelty bitch that lurks under the huge dining-room table nipping at ankles and whining every now and then like a household ghost. Next to Rose sits Andrew Fraser, a younger son of Lord Lovat who led the No. 4 Commandos during World War II. Andrew is dark, trim, amused. Very fit, except for his right eye, which he severely damaged not long ago when he threw a firecracker into a bonfire. "The doctors removed the lens," he says, very cool and dispassionate, "but the rest of the eye is still sound. They say that perhaps I can wear a contact lens and regain part of the sight."
"Oh, I hope so," says Lady Hesketh, sotto voce, adjusting her own eye patch. "It's awful not having binocular vision. I was once a fair shot, but now I'm having to learn all over again, using the left eye. Andrew was a splendid wing shot, one of the best, very keen."
Across from young Fraser sits Robert Fermor-Hesketh, younger brother of Alexander. (A third brother, the youngest, John, is not present. An even keener wing shot than Andrew, he spends the bird season, from the Glorious 12th of August through the end of January, traveling around Britain in a car of his own design, complete with bed, shooting pheasants, grouse, woodcock and wildfowl wherever he can glean an invitation.) Robert, who is a year younger than Alexander, is his Lordship's antithesis, physically at least. Shorter but trimmer, wide-shouldered and flat-bellied, he sports a dark, leonine mane and beard, in contrast to Alexander's fair, close-cropped hair and clean-shaven, almost babylike cheeks. Where Alexander is consciously effete—a kind of young Robert Morley—"Bobs" is tough, bouncy, glowering, a real competitor, as would be evidenced the next morning under the flighted pheasants of Easton Neston. Strangely enough, Robert Hesketh has found his life's work in art history. He currently works at the Parke-Bernet Galleries in Manhattan, yet an interest in primitive art took him and Andrew Fraser, his best friend since childhood, up the Orinoco River of Venezuela two years ago where they spent six months "among the headhunters." Primogeniture produces strange hegiras.
"I don't know if he told you this," says Lady Hesketh over the port, "but Alexander was once a used-car salesman. He quit school at the age of 16 and went to work in a car lot not far from here. I was shocked at first, but it all worked out for the best, as Alexander had known all along it would. There's no tougher school for the businessman than being a used-car salesman. I remember him coming home one evening all elated over a sale he'd made. He'd traded his own Ford Cortina to a customer in a nearby town, and as he drove over to deliver it he discovered that he couldn't open the driver's-side door, nor the opposite door, for that matter. When he pulled up to the customer's house, Alexander had to climb out of the window!
"Nonetheless, he promptly walked over to the customer's trade-in car, kicked the tires in a surly manner and knocked the guy down to 200 bucks! All gall, as they say...."
After his apprenticeship in the used-car business, Kisty continues, Alexander hied himself off to San Francisco, where he studied the stock market as an employee of the Dean Witter brokerage house. "Alexander became quite a figure with the San Francisco columnists," she said. "You know, an English lord and all that. Well, someone showed me a Herb Caen column which said that Alexander was awakened every morning by a long-distance call from his hall porter at the Turf Club in London. He did not trust the wake-up service in his hotel. I flew into a rage and accused him of wastrel behavior. He readily admitted the fact that the hall porter awakened him, but excused himself by explaining that he never answered the phone. 'I let it ring 15 times,' he said, 'then the hall porter would hang up. If it was something urgent, he would ring longer.' "
After dinner, at Kisty's nod, the ladies take their leave while the gentlemen clip and ignite their Havanas. Brandy fumes mix with the rich reek of cigar smoke. The conversation turns to masculine subjects: the impending Armageddon. In upper-class English circles, this particular conversation has been going on for the better part of a century, the specifics varying from year to year and crisis to crisis. But this is a vintage year for Armageddon alarums, and as the verbal gloom deepens, the eyes of the conversationalists brighten with a kind of perverse joy. A return to the Dark Ages would suit most of the men at the table just fine. After all, if one has survived, indeed thrived, among the headhunters of the upper Orinoco, a medievalized Britain would be a piece of cake. They love the notion.
Robert glowers through his beard, swirling his brandy with metronomic precision. His right hand, curled around the fragile crystal snifter, might well be cupping a skull....
In the morning there is a cold, fine rain—little more than a mist, but with teeth in it. Alexander is still abed with his fever; he will miss the shoot. We are eight guns, each man backed up by a loader and shooting two double-barreled shotguns. My loader is a cheery countryman named Sid Watker who chatters on merrily as we trudge through a field of winter wheat to the first stand. "Ah, yes, most of the land is under cultivation, but his Lordship maintains about 7,000 pheasants on the estate, that he does, and shoots it only six or eight times a season, killing up to 800 birds per shoot, but today I reckon we won't kill more than five or six hundred, not with the weather like this—watch your step there, sir, it's mucky goin', what?—no, this rain will keep 'em from flyin', too heavy they are in the wet like this, they'd rather run than fly, but here come the beaters now, sir, you'd better get set."
The beaters, some 50 men and boys and a few little girls from the neighboring village, are pushing through the first patch of wood, trilling and chirruping and bellowing to frighten the pheasants ahead of them, whacking the bushes and tree trunks with their clubs, now and then coshing a hare or rabbit that tries to cut back through the line. The gamekeeper, a ruddy-cheeked professional who runs the shoot with an iron hand, directs the beaters with his police whistle. There is as much discipline and tactical skill involved in this kind of shooting as in a company-scale infantry maneuver, and the gamekeeper is a tough sergeant-major. Finally the birds take to the air, milling at first near the edge of the wood—tall, tan, scuttling figures—then exploding with a rattle of wet wings and lining out over the carefully positioned gunners, who stand 100 yards apart and another 100 from the wood's marge.
Guns are slamming all up and down the line. The blue smoke hangs in the drizzle and drifts slowly in the light air. The birds, when hit, seem to double in size, crumpling and falling with wings askew, then thumping hard on the wet fields. What appear to be outsized bronze snowflakes begin to drift past: pheasant feathers. Soon they are thick as a blizzard. I watch James Hunt poke awkwardly at a high double, missing both birds. It is his first pheasant shoot, indeed his first day ever with a shotgun. Bubbles, who has shot before and is learning fast, drops a ragged double, the second bird hitting the ground hard and then scuttling away with one wing dragging. The dogs will get him later. Then I watch Robert Hesketh. He drops five doubles in a row, right and left. All the birds fall within 10 yards of his stand. None of them thrash for even a moment. "Mister Robert's a good 'un," allows Sid. "Shame his Lordship ain't here. He's bloody good, too."
While the beaters collect the dead and the cripples, the guns move off to the next drive, known as "The Wilderness." My post is at the edge of the wood, in a cut among some pines. The birds come fast, appearing in full flight only 10 yards ahead of me as they dodge through the feathery upper branches. It is snap shooting, of the sort familiar to North American dove and grouse shooters, and my score improves. I knock down my first right-and-left, then another, then a string of singles mixed with some absurd misses, then a final double. Already my shoulder is aching. Kisty comes up through the rain, except for bright red knee socks clad all in black—black trousers, black jacket of the sort worn by rejoneador bullfighters, a wide-brimmed Andalusian hat, and her black eye patch. Her good eye twinkles through the mist.
"You shot well," she says. "How do you like it?"
"It's like nothing I've ever seen before. Glorious carnage."
"Strange people, the English," says Kisty, knocking gobs of clay from her boots with a walking stick. "They call this recreation."
The rest of the day is a blur of falling birds, ears ringing with the hollow, ragged rage of 12-bore shotguns, the hallooing of the beaters, the strident chirp of the gamekeeper's whistle. The whole world—black, gray, brown, green—smells of blood and burnt gunpowder. At one point, a pure white pheasant flushes and swivels its way through the barrage unhit. Later, a small, shaggy animal that resembles a long-legged pig erupts from the wood, does a double take on seeing the guns and sprints back to safety. "Chinese barking deer," explains Kisty. "A few of them wandered in here from an estate farther to the south. Ugly little things, aren't they? We don't shoot them, though."
The final tally for the day is 580 pheasants, 16 ducks (which just happened to fly past) and a handful of woodcocks and pigeons. Only a middling score for Easton Neston. The great triumph of the day, however, is that James Hunt learns how to shoot on the wing. By noon he has developed a smooth swing and a consistent follow-through. His score for the day comes to nearly 40 birds, not bad for a beginner. "God, how I loved it when that first bird fell," he exults over a hot cuppa in the drawing room. "It was like winning my first points in a Grand Prix."
That evening I wander the shelves of the library, brandy in hand. The house is lined with books, almost built of them in a way. Kisty's doing. No wonder Alexander needed no more schooling after the age of 16. There on the shelves is everything a human being could possibly absorb by way of words—all the classics, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Plutarch, Homer—in rich, warm leather. Austen and Fielding and Pope. Lots of Shakespeare. A complete history of the British Army. Truman Capote. All of Graham Greene (the Heskeths are not only catholic in their literary tastes, but uppercasedly so in their religion). A yellowing comic book from World War II dealing with the British Commandos.
"Reading," says Alexander, "is a consuming passion of mine. Only one of many, mind you." He is recovering now from his bout with the flu, though a nasty cough persists, making him sound all the more like Robert Morley dying in African Queen. "I don't think that reading and motor racing mix that well—at least, most racers don't read. They don't do much more than race, actually. They can't; it's so demanding a sport. He who reflects, one might say, cannot race. Imagination and action are to some extent antithetical. Yet the sport is deep in history—deeper even than the Mosses and Fangios and Nuvolaris. It goes back, in my mind at least, to those wonderful point-to-point horse races of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the Regency rakes who drank far too much and celebrated the Black Mass and did all sorts of dreadful things, including riding too fast for their own good. Daring should be fun.
"Nothing disturbs me more than that pale cast of mind which insists on removing the joy from action, which reduces it to a dry, commercial, mathematical set of formulae. When I first met Bubbles—I was in my teens then—he confirmed what I had felt as a boy, reading about motor racing: that it was Adventure. So much of that has gone out of the sport in the past 10 years. We want to see if it is still there. Not that Adventure is a sloppy, haphazard thing. It can coexist with sound engineering, intelligent teamwork, canny driving—all of that. But the whole effort must feel Adventurous. A state of mind that obviates ulcers. That is why I avoid sponsorships. Once one falls into the debt of the big companies, once one assumes those heavy responsibilities, the joy drains from the game as surely as oil drains from a split crankcase."
He coughs heartily and swallows half a mug of tea.
"Hesketh Racing is bankrolled entirely by my own company, Hesketh Finance. I use none of my inheritance for the racing effort. Oh, I'm not that moral a man, but I draw the line at squandering the family fortune on racing and leaving my widowed mother destitute. The new car, and even more the new V-12 engine, constitute great gambles, I admit. But what I want to do, quite frankly, is win the World Driving Championship with the minimum of outside help, win it on our own, out of our own skill and wit and—dare I say it?—daring. I want us to be remembered, not as a superteam built of superstars and supersupport, but as people who made it all seem to be fun. That may sound a bit wet in this workaday world, but I mean it. You know, I still have a box of my childhood toys in my room. Now and then, I take them out and play with them."
And if Hesketh Racing does finally win the championship, what then?
"I have a few more ambitions," his Lordship admits. "I would like to win the Indianapolis 500, with an all-girl pit crew. Can you imagine the look on A.J. Foyt's face? And I would like to enter us in American stock-car racing. We've seen a bit of that, and it's the most excitingly pure form of amateur racing in the world. The American South is closer to the world that I grew up in than any part of Europe or Britain. I love it. But ultimately, if the truth be told, my ambition is to win back the America's Cup for England. We lost it 125-odd years ago due to a lack of daring. I think I could find the right people to build the right boat and sail it right enough to win. Oh, we would have to live in America for a year, learning the currents and tides and winds off Newport, but that would be part of the fun, wouldn't it?"
Spot on, your Lordship.