Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing
Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing

A Tale of James Hunt, Prince Edward and Zsa Zsa Gabor

James Hunt

James Hunt

I wouldn’t say James Hunt was a mate but we have had our moments over the 20 years or so that I knew him. The first time I became aware of his presence was at a party in Westbourne Grove. Not sure whose party it was but I was invited by a young woman who walked like a Samba and earned her empanadas as a Translator at the Brazilian embassy. It was a hot night and the music was loud and almost overpowered the exotic essence of overheated humanity and expensive perfume but I did get a glimpse of James across a crowded patio. He was sitting on the side of an ornamental fishpond next to a pretty young girl in a little black dress. James was staring at the fish in the pool without noticing them and the pretty young thing was looking dolefully at James. Co-Co, my Brazilian suggested I called her that because she didn’t think I was capable of pronouncing her name, claimed my attention and I stood and did a bit of bored bump and semi-grinding to the music while she made her own clearing to do some moves she had learned on Ipanema. Next time I noticed James he was on his way out. And it wasn’t even midnight.

Now it seems hard to reconcile that image of James as a rampaging, semi psychotic junky and practicing alcoholic with which he was later saddled. I had heard stories about his prowess on the track in the lower classes of racing but none of it was complimentary. Even at this time he was beginning to get the reputation that was going to get him the nickname of Hunt the Shunt – and other more derogatory rhyming words. About a year before he joined up with the legendary Alex Hesketh he got into trouble at Monaco for driving a F3 car for a non contracted team and his career, like circuit racing, was going nowhere with maximum sound. Alex arrived bearing gift-wrapped F2 cars that James set about demolishing at an alarming rate. Hesketh was new to motor racing and seemed to think that writing off the machinery was all part of the fun. Over a jovial meeting with Bubbles Horsley and James, Hesketh announced that they were moving up to the giddy heights of F1. The main reason for this was that he was having so much fun in F2 he assumed that in F1 it would be even more hilarious. And it wouldn’t cost that much more.

Steffi Pitt consoles John Watson

Steffi Pitt consoles John Watson after a unsuccessful Argentine GP.

The entrance into the Grand Prix arena by the Hesketh team was greeted with a certain amount of hilarity by the motoring press. The corpulent Lord and the handsome public school boy image of the team demanded a second assessment when James stroked the Hesketh home to a succession of spots on the podium and then won the Dutch Grand of ’75 in the Hesketh 308 from Nikki Lauder’s Ferrari. The Hesketh team was a breath of fresh air in the carbon dioxide of F1 racing and stories of the quirky behaviour of Hesketh abound. One story has him stuck in the traffic on the way to the GP at Nuremberg when a helicopter swooped overhead. Alex leaned forward and asked his chauffeur if he could fly a chopper. When his driver answered “No” Hesketh sank back in his seat and said, “Learn.” I had a personal experience of Hesketh’s unusual behaviour in the Sheraton in Sao Paolo. I walked into the Billiard room where his Lordship was playing snooker with one of his mechanics. When he saw me he said in a loud voice, “Rudders, any idea where I can get a fix.” I looked around, startled. The Brazilian police don’t need much excuse to arrest a foreigner. Hesketh laughed. “Only kidding. Wanted to see your reaction.” I smiled weakly and sidled out only half convinced it had been a joke.

ZSa ZSa Gabor and her husband Prince Friedrich von Anhalt

ZSa ZSa Gabor and her husband Prince Friedrich von Anhalt audition for Hunt for the Graf und Stift.

I had heard stories of James’ prowess as a tennis player. It had been rumoured that he could have been playing at Wimbledon if he hadn’t got caught up in motor racing. I had a chance to find out just how good he was in South Africa. Over breakfast James suggested a game before practice started. Jody Scheckter and John Watson were up for it and I made up the fourth. I played with John against Jody and James. To say they wiped the floor with us is an understatement. What was interesting was that in spite of the fact that it was immediately obvious that we couldn’t compete they still played barrages of shots to the end of the set before deciding to switch partners. I played with Jody and John with James. We were spectators. Jody was no slouch but James worked him over mercilessly while John and I stood by and watched.

By 1977 I had left motor racing, married actress Ingrid Pitt and was trying to put a film together with an Argentine film company called Dinam. We got ourselves an interesting name, CILA Produciones, (Cine International Latino Americano – I seem to remember) opened an office in Calle Corrientes, the Wardour Street of BA, and waited for things to happen. Unfortunately things were not going to plan. Isabel Peron had been removed from the presidency and with it any realistic chance we had of making a film. It was time to return to England. We decided to stay on for the Argentine Grand Prix, move on to the Brazilian Grand Prix and return home from there. I heard John Watson had arrived at the Sheraton and gave him a call and invited him to dinner. He arrived with James Hunt. Hunt was not in a happy frame of mind. He had regular hate fests against the Press and he was in the middle of one at that moment. It was a pretty depressing evening. James sat morosely pouring red wine down his gullet and the rest of us sat trying to think of a subject that would jerk James out of his bad mood. We were unsuccessful and relieved when John suggested they went. Next morning I was surprised by a call from James. He apologised for his attitude the previous evening and suggested a game of golf. Sounded good to me. He said he had a press conference later that morning but asked me to pick him up at the hotel. I agreed. I gave Chino Fernandes, the Argentine champion, a bell and asked him if he fancied a game and when he agreed arranged for him to pick us, Ingrid, her daughter Steffanie and me, up and then go to the Sheraton for James.

Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand

Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand

In spite of James declaring that his head was in the right place there was no sign of it when he shouldered his way through the photographers and threw himself into the Ford Falcon next to Steffie. I must admit I winced a bit when I saw he was wearing his trademark T-shirt, cut down jeans and flip-flops. I had had the same reaction when he turned up for a game at Richmond Golf Club wearing the same gear – plus his dog. Surprisingly the Secretary at Richmond had turned a blind eye but I didn’t expect the more conventional Argentine golfing fraternity to be so accommodating. I was wrong. The Secretary of the Hindu Club saw the following horde of journalists and decided that now wasn’t the time to brandish the rule book. The game of golf wasn’t a happy event. I think James wasn’t too happy with my extending the invitation to golf to include Chino. Especially as the press gang had followed us to the golf course and kept popping out from behind trees and taking snaps. The game eventually dragged to an end. I suggested a drink in the bar but by this time we had all had enough and I wasn’t put off when everybody decided to go back to town and get ready for the welcome party that evening.

By now most of the drivers and teams had arrived and the turn out for the Welcome party was pretty impressive. As we had been living in BA for a couple of years by this time we were almost regarded as locals and spent much of the evening introducing the teams to the grandees of the ACA. Fangio was there and Ingrid spent a lot of time translating for him. I just wandered around and tried to keep a relaxed smile on my face. Steffanie, who was about 14 at the time, was a bit star struck and followed James around. When Nikki Lauda asked James who she was James put his arm around her and declared that she was his new fiancée. That really had the paparazzi motivated and next day most of the papers carried the news. It even filtered back to England. When Steffie returned to school later that year she had the article enlarged and stuck it on her locker for everyone to see. It certainly earned her some brownie points with the other girls.

Lord Alexander Hesketh and James Hunt

Lord Alexander Hesketh and James Hunt in the early days.

When the F1 Circus folded the big top and left we went with them. For what happened at the Brazilian Grand Prix read about our arrest and court appearance after the Nazi Reunion in Sao Paolo in THE SOUTH AMERICAN WAY.

After James retired and became a Race Commentator with the legendary Murray Walker, I didn’t see much of him. Then in 1992 I put an idea to the newly formed Ardent Company. Ardent was a TV company run by Prince Edward and Eben Foggit. Ingrid and I wanted to do a programme called HUNT FOR THE GRAF UND STIFT (for more details log on to http://www.ingridpitt.net/silverarrows). The Graf und Stift was the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and kick-started WW1. Edward was interested and the idea was put to John King of the BBC. John thought the idea great and suggested that it would be a good gimmick if we had James Hunt as the ‘Hunt’ in the title. A meeting was arranged between James, Edward and Eben and everything looked dandy. James cycled to the office in Charlotte Street and there was a big scuffle as he scrambled the bike through the doors, avoided the bruisers, shed the helmet and various other cycling accoutrement and appeared in ....... cut down shorts, scruffy T-shirt and – a new addition to his wardrobe – a pair of cycling shoes. The outcome of the meeting was positive and it was decided that we would go en masse to see John King at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham. John suggested that we should include Jeremy Clarkson as he might also be interested in presenting the show in tandem with James. En masse meant a train journey that now extended to Prince Edward, Eben Foggit, Ingrid Pitt, James Hunt, Jeremy Clarkson and me.

Steffi Pitt Watches James Hunt at Argentine GP

Steffi watches James doing the Argentine GP

We didn’t have a whole train to ourselves but we did have a compartment with Bill & Ben bodyguards and a copy of every newspaper known to mankind. The journey was supposed to be low key and private but that didn’t prevent a group of school kids at one station standing on the platform waving Union Jacks or the Lord Lieutenant meeting us in Birmingham and conducting us outside to our limousines and police escort. Why can’t it always be like that? So much easier to get around. The meeting was amiable and everything seemed to be on the up. We were a bit late leaving the meeting and there was a chance that the train back to London might leave without us. The Chief Inspector looking after us, (I say us because....) called ahead and said we would be a few moments late. The train waited.

A BBC producer was appointed, Ingrid and I had meetings with James to thrash out who we should contact in our search for the Graf und Stift. Ingrid contacted Zsa Zsa Gabor and her husband, Prince Friedrich Von Anhalt and got their permission to do a shoot in their castle in Pommerania. She also coaxed an ancient German Princess who had a manservant who could stand in for Igor, to open her derelict castle to us and let us see some of her antique cars. James introduced us to his children, his fiancee, his dog and budgerigars and showed us around his decrepit Austin 35 van that was to be his means of transport in his search around Europe. We had a meeting at James’s house in Wimbledon to do a final run-through of the script and proposed itinerary before presenting it to the producer and everything seemed cut and dried. Two days later we heard on the radio that James had died. After the life he had led it was a terrible shock. Evidently he had proposed to Helen the night before, gone to bed and never woke up.

Without James the show wouldn’t have been the same. A truncated version of it was made but the Graf und Stift was excised from the script and it was all about the Silver Arrows. The Silver Arrows had been a minor part of the original script but only as a plot filler. The project was dropped after that leaving only a filing cabinet of fading text messages and photographs of obscure cars.

And memories of James Hunt.

HUNGARIAN GOULASH

A tribute to Zsa Zsa Gabor and her Hungarian Prince even if we didn’t get the chance to spend a few days in their castle. Hungarian Goulash is one of those dishes that if you have only occasionally leaves you wanting more. If you have it too often you soon get tired of it. Best served with red cabbage and mashed potato. At least for me!

Ingredients

1lb stewing steak, cubed
2 tbs flour, seasoned
3 tbs olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
1 green pepper, deseeded and chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1tsp paprika, level
4tbs tomato puree
grated nutmeg
3 tsp mixed herbs
salt and pepper
2 beef stock cubes
can chopped toms
Cup red wine
3tbs Worcester Sauce

WHAT TO DO

Season the flour with the salt and pepper and coat the meat liberally with it. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onion, pepper, carrot and celery until they are tender then add the meat and cook until lightly browned.

Put in paprika, tomato puree, nutmeg, mixed herbs, salt and pepper and cook for 2 mins. Add the stock, chopped tomatoes, red wine and Worcester sauce. Simmer for 20 minutes then transfer to a thick-bottomed pot and cook slowly for approx 3 hours (Gas 2).

Posted 15/8/2011

Those Were The Days - Motor Racing Stories, Tales and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing