Sunday, 17 November 2013

1975 Dutch Grand Prix - Zandvoort

June 22, 1975

Lord Alexander Hesketh was a larger-than-life extrovert who enjoyed a considerable inheritance and had a good time spending it. Always a racing enthusiast, he was a friend of Anthony "Bubbles" Horsley, who was having little success in Formula 3 in the 1970s.

At the same time, James Hunt's career as an F3 driver was heading rapidly downwards on the day in 1971 when Bubbles Horsley sought him out. Both men were taking part in an F3 race at Chimay in Belgium, and the encounter took place in the tent that passed for the gents' toilet in the middle of a muddy field. Hunt rapidly agreed to drive one of the horrid Dastle F3 cars which Horsley was running for his friend Hesketh. After both Hunt and Horsley wrote off their F3 cars in the middle of the 1972 season Bubbles gave up driving and concentrated on team management. For 1973 Hesketh bought a Formula 2 Surtees, but James shunted it in testing and the good Lord decided he might as well go the whole hog and rented a Formula 1 Surtees. Hunt was third in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch and Hesketh decided it was time to forget about the junior ranks. He ordered a new March and managed to persuade one of March's young brains, Harvey Postlethwaite, to design a new car, working from Hesketh's Easton Neston estate.

James & Suzy: fit Hesketh to a tee.
In that first year Hesketh Racing was looked on with something approaching scorn by the Establishment. They partied everywhere, taking butlers, champagne and Rolls Royces wherever they went. Memories burn bright of the pranks and excesses in which Hesketh's band of Hooray Harrys indulged. They invited rock stars and celebrity chefs to the races (just as today's far more staid F1 teams do). Bubbles, well ahead of his time, drummed up financial support by offering a range of knick-knacks and clothing emblazoned with a jolly Hesketh teddy bear.

For all of the team's frivolity, Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite proved to be an ambitious and ingenious chief engineer. In 1974 Hesketh's money enabled him to design his very first Grand Prix car, the Hesketh 308. And it proved to be a winner.

As it happened that crowning achievement came at the most unlikely of places. 

Anyone who was paying attention at the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, could be forgiven for wondering why anybody but Ferrari bothered coming to Holland. The previous year's race had been a complete walkover for the Scuderia and pre-race testing in 1975 had suggested that whatever were the magic combination of ingredients inside the Maranello cars that made them particularly well suited for the Zandvoort circuit, had not been lost. Any lingering stubborn optimist must have lost all hope well before the end of official practice, when the time sheets showed the Ferraris still supreme by an almost ridiculous margin. Niki Lauda was firmly on pole position with his team-mate Clay Regazzoni second, Hunt third and Jody Scheckter (Tyrrell) in third.

1975 Dutch GP: Lauda and Ferrari seemed unbeatable.
On race day the skies were dark and cloudy, and there was a heavy downpour prior to the start. As race time approached, the rain had let up and actually stopped. The sky was still dull, the visibility was still low, the wind was still blowing, but nobody knew what would it bring. However, with the light resumption of rain, everyone firmly decided on wet tyres. Then they went to the line.

Lauda got off well, Regazzoni lagged, Scheckter started perfectly. The Tyrrell had to jink left by the Ferrari which put it onto the wet grass at the roadside for a few metres and Jody had to lift off. As the thundering, splashing horde arrived at the first corner it was still Niki in front. Scheckter did get into second, Hunt was on the inside and probably third from Regazzoni, and then it was impossible to sort them out.

It was in fact very wet around the circuit, and faced with dense spray of churning water everyone very quickly settled into a single file formation with breathing space up to the next man. They completed their first lap, Lauda and Scheckter, and then Regazzoni who had stayed third from Hunt after all; Jochen Mass (McLaren) was next, then Tom Pryce (Shadow), and Emerson Fittipaldi (McLaren) with Carlos Reutemann (Brabham) alongside, overtaking the Brazilian into Tarzan at the start of the second lap.

The rain was over almost immediately. More quickly than seemed possible the surface of the road lost its sheen, the comets of mist dwindled, and within only a half a dozen laps a dry line started to form.

Hunt was the first to make up his mind to stop. It was a bold decision to make, because although the racing line may have been dry enough for slicks you had only two very narrow dry strips in which to run and if you went only a few inches off line you were on the wet. But there is an obvious advantage in getting power down through smooth tyres on a dry surface as soon as possible, and at the end of the seventh lap James boldly broke away from his forth place and veered into the pits. He rejoined in 19th place. After that it was wholesale, with runners diving for the pits in large groups. Lauda held on to his lead until the end of the 13th lap, before relinquishing it to Regazzoni; the pitwork at Ferrari was good and he rejoined the string of mixed up cars just as Hunt was coming by, but the difference in speed sent the Hesketh ahead through Tarzan.

When Regazzoni pitted and all else was sorted it was James who was leading the race. That vitally prompt decision to change tyres had paid off. The seconds he'd gained running in those two narrow dry strips, had made all the difference. He was ahead of the fearsome Ferrari by about 10 seconds. Now the thing to watch was whether he could hold it at that. 

1975 Dutch GP: Hunt's inspired pitstop gave him the edge.
What nobody knew, what everyone had to wait and see about, was how well everyone was suited to the rapidly drying conditions. Hesketh had chosen to set the car up for dry conditions. So now, as it went their way, their driver found his car responding properly and he was fast. Ferrari however had chosen more of a compromise, and their overwhelming speed advantage had gone. Lauda was still quick, but not really quicker than anyone else now. Besides, there was Jean-Pierre Jarier (Shadow) who was right on the Ferrari's tail, and was running very strongly. After a couple of laps weighing things up, Jean-Pierre pulled by. Niki did not give up, he gave chase instead. As hard as he knew how he pressed Jarier, and the two of them became a familiar sight as lap after lap they appeared at the head of the pit straight still locked in tight one-two formation. All the while Hunt was holding his place out in front.

Lauda, after 43 laps of the race, managed finally to scratch by Jarier at the end of the straight and quickly broke free of the Shadow. With that it became only a two car race,  Hunt against Lauda, nobody else looking like challenging them. It ws only a matter of seeing if the Ferrari could come good and catch the Hesketh. And it didn't look like it for a while. For lap after lap the interval stayed steady enough to hearten the English squad. Eventually the gap did begin to decrease, though it seemed to be shrinking not on speed at all, but on speed through traffic. 

Immense Pressure: Hunt maintains his composure and wins.
Hunt was losing ground to Lauda, little by little. He was having troubles with backmarkers, and knots of them were occasionally costing him the odd second or two. Lauda did close up, and for many long laps at the closing stage of the race was nose to tail and looking for the slightest error. The confidence of many Grand Prix victories under his belt, the ease of a comfortable championship points lead sweetening it, he could afford to wait for "Hunt the Shunt" to goof.

But James didn't goof. He never put a wheel wrong, he never missed a step in his pattern. As the last five laps began he even began to press harder, and the Hesketh actually drew out a little from the Ferrari. Quicker round the fast bends at the back, quicker along the straight, losing ground only in the slow corners now, Hunt came out on to the straight for the 75th time still having made no error. The final corner accomplished, he ran down the straight and took the chequered flag not quite a second to the good. The Hesketh pit exploded.

It was a popular victory. It was a hard fought, clean, worthwhile victory too, one that will always stick in the mind - and that "Hunt the Shunt" and the merry men of Hesketh had stopped the Ferraris was not the least of it!

British motor racing owes a debt to James Hunt for putting the sport on the front page as well as the back. He was helped there by the antics of Lord Hesketh's band of party animals, and by other acts of personal mischief. But the playboy was also an inspired driver who knew exactly what he wanted to achieve and how hard he would have to work. 

As for Lord Hesketh, Zandvoort was to be the only Grand Prix win for Hesketh Racing. He had always run his cars without commercial backing but even he did not have bottomless pockets and 1976 was looking a bit dubious. Hunt was now in demand and, when Fittipaldi unexpectedly left McLaren, to set up his own operation, James was given his seat and went on to win the 1976 Championship after an epic battle with Lauda. Without a driver of Hunt's calibre on the books, the motivation of the early days were gone and Hesketh Racing wound down, concentrating on servicing customer Cosworth engines for a time. One of the great chapters of classic British racing romanticism was at an end. 

Not all Fun and Games: Hunt give Hesketh it's only victory. 


  1. This was the most memorable grand Prix for all times. My friend Annkie and I watched it together & loved it!!!!!! We also modified our cars with new spare parts.
    ProSpeedRacing.com.au | Pro Speed Racing Australia

  2. I have enjoyed reading your post. It is well written. It looks like you spend a large amount of time and effort on your blog. I appreciate your effort. Please check out my site.
    car racing