They live their lives at 200mph, but do grand prix drivers still know how to have a good time?
Formula One drivers were once the undisputed playboys of the sporting world, with off-track exploits to rival anything The Rolling Stones could do. But today’s breed are a much tamer bunch – or are they?
Kimi Raikkonen is his own man. In an age where racing drivers take fitness as seriously as Olympians, Kimi just wants to finish work and get drunk. On the night he sealed the championship in Brazil in 2007 he slipped out of his own team’s celebrations to crash Red Bull’s party, and stayed up all night smoking Marlboros and making me cocktails.
Fuelled by vodka, I recall Kimi being caught in the ladies’ loos at a party I attended in Shanghai in ‘05. His chaperones had to carry him back to his hotel. Having practically strapped him to the bed, they closed the door and walked down the corridor only to have their route blocked by a room service trolley bearing “20 Heinekens for Mr Raikkonen”. On another occasion, he hit the headlines for showing a London lap dancer the reason he wears a six-point harness. Yet he’s fiercely private: He once entered a speedboat race dressed as a gorilla, so as to preserve his anonymity.
He loves driving but hates having to do any kind of PR. This is obviously not ideal when there’s over $100 million worth of stickers on his car, but the lack of lip service is viewed as refreshing. Shrugged silence seems to make him all the more magnetic.
His on-track rivals are perfectly articulate, when they can be bothered. But you sense they’re reading from a script and stage-managed by their uniformed cronies, who will blacklist you if you ask a question that’s not suitably bland. This is sport: you want to see anger, conflict and joy. It’s also fantasy: these guys are doing what every young man dreams of – racing cars, earning millions and getting their pick of the high-heeled trophies. Yet seldom do we see them unguarded. And never do you hear about champagne-soaked ménage-a-trois aboard trackside yachts in Monte Carlo, which is a shame because they do happen.
I blame Schumacher. Sure, he’s a superstar but only because of statistics. In the 1990s he ushered in a new era of soulless, unsmiling corporate robots. There’s an old Fry & Laurie sketch loosely based on the German himself, in which Stephen Fry interviews a taciturn young racer. Growing increasingly frustrated with the driver’s lack of enthusiasm, Fry eventually screams: “You do a job that half of mankind would kill to be able to do, and you can have sex with the other half as often as you like – I just need to know if this makes you happy!” The one time Schumi let his hair down, after winning his fifth title in Japan, he stole a forklift truck and threw a fridge through a window. My friend James Moy managed to get the only photos, and sold them to The Sun. The headline read: ‘Schu Trouble Macher’. It made him more human and relatable.
During more vintage times – and the era everyone seems to look back on most rosily were the 1970s – every driver wore rebel colours. Back then, the saying goes, sex was safe and racing was dangerous. They were all characters; barking mad, over-sexed and privileged. Because their life expectancy was so short, they wanted to pack as much fun in as they could. Consequences were never considered. The biggest tearaway was James Hunt who, legend has it, bedded 33 British Airways stewardesses at the Tokyo Hilton on the eve of winning the world championship. He raced with a badge sewn onto his overalls that read: Sex, the breakfast of champions. He was also almost permanently under the influence of booze, cannabis and cocaine, and this began to affect his driving.
Alain Prost blames losing the 1984 world championship to Niki Lauda because the Frenchman was up all night before a key race seeing to the needs of Princess Stephanie of Monaco.
Though you would never accuse Ayrton Senna of being soulless, he was the first really professional driver who just focused on driving and fitness. He was glamorous – movie star looks, palatial homes, helicopters, and a couple of high-profile girlfriends (including a little-known romance with supermodel Carol Alt, who was married at the time), but none of that ever dented his ruthless obsession with winning. When groupies asked for his hotel room number, he gave them team-mate Gerhard Berger’s, who was justifiably grateful.
More recently, on the eve of the Australian Grand Prix in 2009 – his championship-winning season – Jenson Button insisted on a no-sex policy with lingerie-model girlfriend Jessica Michibata ahead of the race. But half an hour after the chequered flag had fallen, they made up for lost time in the Brawn GP hospitality unit. Interview opportunities were postponed.
Button came in for a lot of flack early in his career. Arriving in F1 aged 20, the first thing he did was purchase a yellow Ferrari 355. He immediately moved to Monaco, bought a big yacht and traded-up girlfriends accordingly. Too many distractions, warned the critics. Team principals didn’t take him seriously, thinking he lacked commitment. It was only when he finally lucked in on a winning car that he was able to prove them wrong.
The Button-bashing served as a warning to many of the youngsters coming through the ranks: Don’t be too flash. And if you must have a G450 and an island, try to keep it out of the papers.
Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s the sponsors – mostly cigarette companies – got into bed with motor racing because of the glamour, danger and testosterone. But in the new millennium, tobacco was forced out and banks, energy drinks and telecoms companies took their place. It all became terribly clean-cut.
I recall a meeting once with McLaren’s commercial chiefs. It came at the same time a woman had sold her story to a tabloid about sharing a bubble bath with then-McLaren driver David Coulthard. This was the perfect image, I told them, to promote their partners West and Hugo Boss. However, the team had been advised by their clients to try to contain all of DC’s playboy exploits. Whatever happened to ‘sex sells’?
Most drivers these days start racing before they’ve hit double digits. They miss out on a normal childhood. Few emerge well-rounded.
Lewis Hamilton is the prime example of a Truman Show upbringing. Now that he’s leaving McLaren (the team with whom he has been contracted since he was 13) for greater freedom at Mercedes it will be interesting to see how his character evolves. He will either mature into an F1 statesman, with all the box office adulation that being the only world-class black racer commands, or he will go completely off the rails.
Sebastian Vettel, who made his F1 debut aged 19, arrived more relaxed than most and I immediately warmed to his sense of humour, which he’d picked up in England racing in the lower formulae. But he still looked like a choirboy and was just as innocent. He turned up at the Pacha nightclub in Sao Paulo that year wearing a black turtleneck and looking like he’d stepped out of a Milk Tray ad. He had his eye on some girl who was there but he was so nervous about approaching her that his trainer and I had to physically drag him over. Not long afterwards, having won his first grand prix, a reporter asked him if it was the best day of his life. He replied: “You obviously weren’t there when I lost my virginity”. I reckon I probably was.
Team PRs ring-fence the media so that stories such as these – of a personal nature, or of bad behaviour, or the controversial – don’t meet a wider audience. Sponsors are attracted to the youth, glitz, and inherent risks of F1, yet are uncomfortable when it starts getting a bit too real.
It’s difficult to find a balance between pleasing the sponsors, appealing to the fans, and living your life. With the pressure that comes from having 450 staff and $200 million of investment dependent on you, plus engineering meetings, press junkets, and demanding fitness regimes, you can’t go boozing and inviting girls back to your presidential suite till you’ve got the race out of the way… unless you’re a test driver. The reserve racers have the best deal of all: The sex appeal of driving F1 cars for a living, and a license to stay out late because they don’t work Sundays.
I was in a cave-like booth at the Zouk club in Kuala Lumpur late on a Saturday night when a ‘third driver’ stumbled in, tripped and landed on a table of 20 champagne flutes. God knows how he explained all the cuts to his physiotherapist.
F1 still knows how to let its hair down, but it’s also a proper job for these guys. The public wants to see heroes who live fast on and off the track. They still do, it’s just you rarely get to read about it.