Vogue: A Day at the Races

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Steve McQueen famously said: “Racing is life. Everything else is just waiting around”. This morning, at 6:55am, Formula One is in the waiting phase. Two hundred mechanics are huddled together looking to their watches for the hour to strike. Then an air horn blasts, curfew is officially lifted, and the teams swipe their electronic passes and head for the pits to begin their day’s work.

The sun is already burning over Valencia’s street track as the crews prepare for pitstop practice, where they rehearse again and again the critical moment when their drivers pull off the circuit for a three-second tyre change. Many worked late last night, and brush the crust of sleep from their eyes as they pick up their wheel guns.

Down in the Red Bull Racing garage, though, eyes are out on stalks as supermodel Maryna Linchuk poses alongside the pitbox in a busty D&G embroidered corset and high-waist hot pants as the car rolls in. It might give them a better boost than a double-espresso, but the crew mustn’t be distracted. The pitlane is as noisy, frenzied and potentially dangerous as a war zone.

It’s also obsessively single-minded. Time here is measured in 1000ths of a second, success in championship points, and wealth in billions.

Formula One is the haute couture of motorsport. In North America, where they race NASCAR, or ‘stock cars’, each beast is more-or-less the same. It is prêt-à-porter racing; off-the-peg cars with minimal investment in technology, and a pure focus on which driver has the biggest cojones. Formula One is a more sophisticated and stronger cocktail, which attracts the best drivers in the world by building the cleverest, fastest, most exciting cars, as well as attracting the most money and the biggest global audience. It’s paid for by sponsorship and TV contracts. The budget of top F1 team McLaren, divided by the number of chassis they produced last year, values each car at over US$62 million.

As much as the drivers, it is the engineers, aerodynamicists, IT boffins and genius mathematicians that win these races. It’s about man and machine in harmony, ripping through the Valencia scenery and glancing off its steel barriers at 200mph with a deft flick of an electronics-laden steering wheel.

Adrian Newey is the quiet, slap-headed 53-year-old designer of the Red Bull car, and he stares across at the pitstop rehearsal from a perch on the pitwall, in front of a dozen telemetry, timing and TV screens and a rank of buttons. Newey’s designs have won eight Formula One world championships and counting, making him the sport’s most successful designer ever. He doesn’t look like a millionaire, rather like an everyday accountant, but he earns more than the team’s drivers – eight figures. In terms of his influence in the way racing car design has changed over the last 20 years, he is the Alexander McQueen of carbon fibre and physics. To petrolheads, he is a household name.

The Chanel/YSL accolade – the designer who laid the foundation for the modern generations – goes to another Englishman, Colin Chapman, who founded the Lotus team and dominated the sport in the 1960s and 70s with his innovative, simple, lightweight and compact designs, and thrilling drivers like Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti. Their catwalk was taken flat-out and strewn with life-threatening obstacles.

Before Chapman came along, F1 cars looked like cigars or coffins (and often proved to be the latter) with their engines up front and the driver sitting high between its spindly wire wheels. Racing was ruled by power-houses like Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo. Then the independent teams came in; teams like Lotus, Williams and McLaren. The grand ‘Commendatore’ Enzo Ferrari sneered, calling them “Garagistes” as if they were simply oily spanner-monkeys who had stumbled into the big time. Chapman’s innovations, which included the monocoque chassis, aerofoil wings, floor aerodynamics, and even corporate sponsorship, soon left Ferrari coughing on his exhaust fumes. These are fashions that still exist today.

Nevertheless, Ferrari was and remains the style icon, through its mystique as much as its many race wins and seductive scarlet paint. Italian heroes, the marque ranks alongside Michelangelo as much as Gucci or Armani. Culturally, in the 21st Century, the Prancing Horse arguably exceeds all in aspiration.

For many, the 1970s were the golden age of grand prix racing. The sport was ‘pure’, with business and technology in their infancy. Without 200 million households tuning in, and the pressure of corporate partners, the drivers were unrestrained.

Back then, sex was safe and motor racing was dangerous. Both stoked F1’s image as the world’s most glamorous sport. François Cevert was F1’s poster boy in the early 70s, with Gallic good looks that graced billboards and magazine covers. He was killed at the 1973 United States Grand Prix aged 29. It was gruesome, yet there was also an undeniable romance to it.

In preparation for his single title showdown at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, legendary lothario James Hunt bedded 33 air hostesses at the Tokyo Hilton. His rival Niki Lauda, meanwhile, raced with seeping wounds sustained in a fiery crash two months earlier that left him scarred for life, yet he fought on undeterred.

That’s the level of commitment required to succeed in Formula One, though these days the drivers – most of whom are under 30 – are more likely to prepare for a race in a state-of-the-art computer simulator, and shovel down some bland-looking carb-heavy food and an isotonic drink (rather than Hunt’s preferred pack of Marlboro reds and four bottles of claret) before cycling 30 miles to the track.

Just like the commercial side, the sport has become thoroughly professional; and with it one’s commitment through a scary corner is now matched by commitment to a PR schedule.

The air hostesses won’t go ignored though, nor any of the growing legion of groupies. There’s probably as much sex as ever in F1, the attraction to fit and famous young men willing to put their lives on the line is as visceral as it was 40 years ago. It’s just that now it has to wait till Sunday night after the race and, with the media so tightly controlled by the teams and the sport’s governing body, the FIA, it rarely gets reported upon.

McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton dates Pussy Cat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, while team-mate Jenson Button is smitten with Japanese model Jessica Mitchibata. Singers, models and TV presenters make up a large portion of F1’s WAGs (Wives And Girlfriends).

Others choose to stay single, either to focus on their job or take full advantage of their VIP status. Jean-Eric Vergne – known by his initials – is new to F1 this year having won in the junior formulae, and has shaved his trademark stubble in preparation for our shoot today. Perhaps summoning the spirit of countryman Cevert, the 22-year-old is excited about Vogue and wants to look presentable. Mere minutes after meeting Maryna and showing her around the Toro Rosso pit he’s texting me, sheepishly asking if I can grant him her phone number.

Bruno Senna may not have won a grand prix yet but his surname and face, which is eerily similar to his uncle Ayrton’s, make him a star in the eyes of many fans. He doesn’t act like it. He’s actually one of the most down-to-earth and approachable drivers. Nevertheless, he must feel dynastic pressure on those shoulders. Ayrton Senna was arguably the greatest racer of all, and killed in his prime aged 34. He had movie star looks, spirituality, unmatched eloquence, and mesmerizing skill at the wheel of a racing car which earned him three world titles.

In F1, the name Senna is bigger than Versace and just as tragic. The outpouring of grief, particularly in his native Sao Paulo, was unmatched by any other sportsman’s passing. That was 1994, the last time there was a death in Formula One. Since then great strides have been made in the name of safety, both with car design and circuit layout and medical facilities. It’s no longer a blood sport.

Like ‘JEV’, Bruno counts Maryna among his more alluring media appointments for race day and jokingly asks his manager to keep his girlfriend busy while he goes to the garage to help Maryna into the Williams-Renault car. With the seat specially moulded for the driver’s body it has to be taken out, as Maryna slides her long legs down the cockpit and re-attaches the rectangular steering wheel. Her blue Baleniciaga dress and lamé and neoprene gloves match the car not only in colour but in being a vision of the future. Barbarella had her spaceship, Maryna has the Williams FW34.

Baleniciaga doesn’t meet with the FIA’s dress code, of course. The drivers wear Nomex fireproof suits in the car, with epaulettes in case they need to be heaved out of the cockpit by marshals. Maryna tries on Jenson Button’s, still soaked in his sweat from qualifying. Far from letting the car do all the work, it’s hot and extremely physical. During the European Grand Prix, comprising 57 laps and a distance of over 300km, the drivers will perspire more than two pints. Cockpit temperatures will reach a sauna-like 55° Celsius.

Girls wearing race suits are an increasingly common sight. There have been female F1 drivers before – five to be exact. The last was Giovanna Amati in 1992. But now there are several girls in the junior ranks hoping to make the step up, and in the US racers like Danica Patrick have been successful. Far from there being a glass ceiling, F1 would kill for a female star. It would give the sport wider appeal, and act like commercial fly paper. However, she needs to be quick enough. If a girl were signed up purely on the basis of gender, rather than talent, it would only serve to reinforce ugly and outdated stereotypes. There is no reason a woman can’t win the world championship, it’s just that she hasn’t been discovered yet. The teams are looking.

The McLaren pitcrew helmets have caught the stylists’ eyes. Reflective silver and more than a little Star Wars, they protect the mechanics during pitstops, where a late-breaking car can send them flying like skittles and petrol fires, though unusual now that mid-race refueling is banned, have been known to happen. Maryna poses with the McLaren helmet for our cover shot, and it sparkles like an enormous jewel.

The world championship’s 20 rounds take place in all four corners of the globe, from Australia to Brazil, Montreal to Malaysia, and of course its European heartland where modern autodromes are swapped for traditional tracks like Monaco, Monza and Spa-Francorchamps – haunted venues dripping with history.

Valencia is a relatively new addition. It came onto the calendar in 2008, utilizing the public roads around the city’s port. The cars race across a swing bridge which is welded shut, meaning yacht owners like Mansour Ojjeh, Vijay Mallya and Eric Clapton have to moor their yachts in the marina days before the race. Competing with the likes of Bilbao and Barcelona, Valencia’s Santiago Calatrava architecture and now the European Grand Prix, as it is called, were commissioned to raise Valencia’s international profile. They wanted to create a Spanish Monaco by building this track, and feed off the popularity of Fernando Alonso.

When Michael Schumacher dominated the sport in the first half of the last decade Germany was awarded two races in order to cater for the demand. With the Asturian Alonso’s world championship success, Spain inherited the honor of being the only country to host two grands prix. That will stop from next year when the Spanish Grand Prix will alternate between here and the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona, a permanent facility that has staged F1 since 1991. The decision is a straight-forward economic one, yet painfully it comes just as Alonso is in the hunt for a third world title.

He is in his third season wearing Ferrari red, that most sartorial of F1 labels. It means that he carries not just the hopes and dreams of his own nation, but that of Italy and red-blooded ‘Tifosi’ – the Scuderia’s appassionata – across the globe.

In Valencia, for the first time and at the circuit that was effectively created for him, Fernando took the chequered flag to win a breathless and incident-packed race. Screaming joyfully down the radio, he slowed to pick up la Rojigualda – the Spanish flag – before pulling over to celebrate with orange-suited marshals and the fans in the stands. The organizers had to send the Medical Car to pick him up and drive him back to the pits to the podium party, where he was joined by former Ferrari champions Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher for the traditional champagne supernova.

Our friends at Red Bull, Toro Rosso, McLaren and Williams had a harder time of it. Sebastian Vettel was leading before an engine issue struck, causing him to throw his gloves away in frustration. Jean-Eric Vergne and Bruno Senna both made costly mistakes which saw them crash, and the McLaren crew botched one of their pitstops. One might assume they were distracted by Maryna’s scorching poses.

Underneath the podium, the Ferrari flags are waving as their man Fernando sheds a tear. He’d later describe this race as the most emotional of his career. “Una giornata fantastica” cried his mechanic when Fernando crossed the finish line. For both Italy and Spain, no doubt, and Maryna made it all the more bellissimo. After all, this is meant to be the most glamorous sport in the world. A supermodel should be required for every pitstop, and she proved pretty handy with a wheel gun.

PHOTOGRAPHY: MACIEK KOBIELSKI

STYLING: MELANIE HUYNE

COORDINATION: ADAM HAY-NICHOLLS

CONCEPT: MACIEK KOBIELSKI AND ADAM HAY-NICHOLLS

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