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LORD IN THE PITS
Robert F. Jones
May 13, 1974
From his marble 17th-century manor, Lord Alexander Hesketh plans his assault on Grand Prix racing, a sport he believes should be more romantic. With that in mind he serves champagne to his crew
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May 13, 1974

Lord In The Pits

From his marble 17th-century manor, Lord Alexander Hesketh plans his assault on Grand Prix racing, a sport he believes should be more romantic. With that in mind he serves champagne to his crew

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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.

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 manqu� ("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.

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