At a time when the subject of one driver coming into physical contract with another is in the news, it is coincidentally sad to record the recent passing of David ‘Dave’ Morgan, the driver who was famously punched by James Hunt in 1970.
Five years later, Morgan’s only venture into F1 would end when a deluge hit the closing laps of the British Grand Prix, Morgan’s Surtees TS16 being one of several cars to skate off the road and finish in the catch-fencing. The Englishman had raised enough backing for a single drive that did not do justice to either his talent or a wider and highly regarded association with motor sport. When he retired from the cockpit, Morgan used his engineering skills in F1 (Team Modena 1991), F3000 and Formula Renault 3.5, where he guided Robert Kubica to the title in 2005.
Morgan was able to relate to his drivers, thanks to a background that started with Mini racing and progressed to single seaters in Formula Atlantic and Formula 2. Driving a privately entered Brabham BT35, Morgan scored a very impressive win on aggregate (first and third in the heats) at Mallory Park to beat the established stars (Ronnie Peterson, Jody Scheckter, Niki Lauda) in the opening round of the 1972 European F2 Championship. But the Englishman is perhaps best remembered for a race two years before that.
The penultimate round of the 1970 British F3 was staged at Crystal Palace, a narrow and spectacular little track through public parkland in south London. Unusually for the time, the race would be covered live by BBC Television, giving young hopefuls a chance to make their name. Morgan, driving his March, was among them; as was Hunt in a privately entered Lotus; both wannabes financially strapped and desperate for a result.
The pair had been part of a ferocious five-car battle for second place. Going into the final lap, Hunt was third and being pressed by Morgan who, at one point, had been ahead of Hunt and caused the Lotus to put two wheels on the grass as James tried to get the place back. On the approach to the final corner, a tight right-hander lined by sleepers on the left, Morgan attempted a run around the outside of the Lotus. According to eye witnesses, it was 50/50 and inevitable as the two cars made contact, the Lotus ending its race beached, with wheels missing, in the middle of the finishing straight.
Seemingly oblivious to cars whistling past as they raced towards the chequered flag, Hunt broke into a quick trot towards Morgan’s damaged March, which had come to rest against the wall on the right. Morgan, having climbed out, was caught by surprise and a swift right hook as Hunt felled his rival with a single blow. And then strode off.
Despite the blow having been caught on camera, there was no official comment, not even in the news pages of next week’s motor sport press (the only source of information back in the day). However, the author of the race report in ‘Autosport’ caused a stir when he suggested Hunt’s actions had been justified – which brought outraged correspondence in the following week’s issue from Dave Morgan’s Mum, who claimed her boy had been the victim of Hunt misjudging his speed.
This, in turn, prompted a letter from the mother of another competitor, Mike Beuttler, who had finished second. Mrs Beuttler wrote: ‘I was quite horrified at the driving behaviour of some of the competitors, the boy Hunt being extremely beastly to my son who, as always, drove beautifully, although his father and I do wish at times he had chosen a more sedate occupation. As for Mr. Morgan, mere words fail me. A pity they didn’t fail his mum…’ That was social media in the 1970s for you!
Meanwhile, an RAC tribunal (sitting as British motor sport’s governing body) slapped a 12-month suspension on Morgan. Despite having given an eloquent defence that doubtless swayed a tribunal that found Hunt innocent, James did agree in private that Morgan’s punishment did not fit the crime. Morgan later appealed and had his licence returned.
It had been an uncharacteristically colourful moment for the quiet and popular Morgan, who succumbed to a stroke last week at the age of 74.