Cigars and brandy during pitstops may be a distant memory, but there are still those who pay for the privilege of being behind the wheel. Adam Hay-Nicholls joins the indulgent and hedonistic ranks of the gentleman racer.
There’s an old Fry & Laurie sketch in which Stephen Fry interviews a taciturn racing driver. Growing increasingly frustrated with the sportsman’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!”
Hugh Laurie’s character is blatantly based on Michael Schumacher. As a newspaper correspondent, I have reported on Formula One for the last 15 years, beginning during the Schumacher era. The sport had long been professional, with driven young men committed to extracting as much from themselves as their machines in pursuit of thousandth-of-a-second gains. Cigars and brandy during pitstops have long been consigned to the history books. Even those paying for the privilege of racing – and there are many – have to pretend they’d rather be somewhere else. Once known as ‘gentleman racers’, now they’re called ‘pay drivers’ – a less courtly but more accurate epithet. One of this season’s Williams F1 cars is piloted by 19-year-old Lance Stroll by virtue of his father being a billionaire. You’d never know of his good fortune, because all the lad does is moan.
I’d always wanted to race cars and this summer I took part in my first championship season behind the wheel of a Ginetta G40; a gravel-voiced and featherweight apex-seeking weapon. My role models are not the unsmiling automatons aforementioned. Instead they are the swashbuckling risk-takers of yore, who prioritised style, fun and fair play over winning at any cost. Handily, by affixing a pocket square to my fireproof overalls, attention could be diverted from the fact I’ve never scored pole position.
Racing drivers used to have the time of their lives because they never knew when that life would be extinguished. Prior to the 1980s, sex was safe and racing was dangerous. These chaps were of the same spiritual bloodline as those who flew fighter planes decades before. But it was pre-war that the cult of the gentleman racer really became something to behold.
Author Ian Fleming was transfixed when, as a schoolboy, he stood beside the banking at Brooklands and watched Count Louis Zborowski tear past at 120mph. An American raised in Kent, Count Louis had inherited £11 million in 1911 (£1.23 billion in today’s money) aged 16, following the death of his parents. His father, who was killed racing cars, owned seven acres of Manhattan, while his mother was an Astor. The homestead was Higham Park, and our hero built houses upon his expansive land which he’d then blow up using tonnes of explosives just for the entertainment of his assembled guests. He also constructed his own automobiles in Higham’s stables. The car in which Fleming saw him take victory at Brooklands was a homemade 23-litre Maybach-engined beast christened Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, inspiring the subsequent children’s novel and musical film. The machine was so loud it was banned from passing through Canterbury. The archetypal rake with slicked-back hair, ‘tash, and a cigarette still on the go when the green flag dropped, Zborowski’s fate was much the same as his dad’s: He was killed 44 laps into the 1924 Italian Grand Prix.
Well-heeled amateur enthusiasts made up entire starting grids at this time, and many had interesting backgrounds and side-lines. There were Olympians, spies, industrialists and royals. When not on track, they were often to be found in the casino. Gambling was the thread running through everything they did.
Three-times Le Mans 24 Hours winner Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato wasn’t just one of the immortal Bentley Boys, he was the money behind the manufacturer. Like Zborowski, he had inherited his millions as a teenager thanks to his ‘Randlord’ father’s diamond and gold mines. Following WWI service as a field artillery captain, he kept wicket for Surrey and began racing Bentleys. In addition to his success at Brooklands and La Sarthe, Babe is best known for a £200 bet he put on beating Le Train Blue in his Mulliner-bodied Speed Six saloon from Cannes to Calais in 1930. In fact, the Old Carthusian upped the ante: By the time the locomotive pulled into the French port city, he would be in St James nursing a single malt. He drove from the Carlton Hotel to the Carlton Club – 830 miles, 29 of which were on the back of a cross-channel ferry – in 22 hours 30 minutes, beating the train to its destination by four minutes. For racing on public roads, the French authorities promptly fined him a sum in excess of his winnings.
Scotch whisky heir Rob Walker went as far as to cite his occupation as ‘gentleman’ in his passport and, when pressed, described himself as self-unemployed. In 1939, competing at Le Mans in a Delahaye previously raced by Thailand’s Prince Bira, the 21-year-old Walker eschewed his overalls for a dark blue pinstriped suit and tie for his evening stint and then swapped it for a more informal Prince of Wales check for his 12-hour-long marathon stint the following day. Having crossed the line eighth he then drove another 150 miles to Paris and partied all night long. Walker’s main legacy was running Stirling Moss in his privately-entered blue and white Coopers, Ferraris and Lotuses in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but it was his delinquent adventures that confirm the legend: In Wodehousian style, the Old Shirburnian kept a policeman’s helmet in his study that he’d whipped off a bobby’s head one Guy Fawkes Night, and he had his flying licence restored during the war after the Air Ministry had banned him for life for jumping the fences at a steeplechase in his Tiger Moth.
The thrill of racing was heightened by a mood of indulgence and hedonism. Having survived WWII piloting Fleet Air Arm Lysanders, Duncan Hamilton vowed to grab life by the lapels and got stuck into Bugattis, Maseratis and Talbot-Lagos. He achieved success in the fledgling Formula One series but is best known for winning Le Mans in a C-Type Jaguar in 1953. Less commonly known is he was fairly roaring drunk before the start of that race and refused coffee during pitstops because he said it made his arms twitch. Jaguar administered brandy instead, which probably helped when a bird struck Hamilton at 130mph and broke his nose. It didn’t deter him and he took one of the leaping cat’s greatest victories.
James Hunt was said to have entertained 33 British Airways hostesses in his suite at the Tokyo Hilton on the eve of his 1976 world championship victory. He raced with a badge sewn onto his overalls that read: Sex, the breakfast of champions. Meanwhile, Frenchman Alain Prost is reputed to have lost the 1984 F1 title to Niki Lauda because he was up until dawn the night before seeing to the needs of Princess Stephanie of Monaco.
Come the mid 1980s the top echelons of motorsport still attracted men of private means, but the financial stakes were such that they couldn’t be seen to mess around anymore.
A descendant of Robert the Bruce and Queen Victoria, John Crichton-Stuart – Johnny Dumfries, as he styled himself at the time – dropped out of Ampleforth at 16 to pursue motor racing. Despite the £100-and-something millions-worth of land, property, art and furniture he was set to inherit, the Scotsman toiled as a builder, a painter-decorator and as a van driver for the Williams team in order to raise funds. He wore an earring, a thistle tattoo, and a put-on estuary accent because he didn’t want anyone to think he had a silver spoon and was merely dabbling in the sport. His talent was clear when he took the British F3 title in 1984 with 14 victories before going on to race alongside Ayrton Senna in F1 and win Le Mans with 1988’s iconic Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9LM. When he inherited the title ‘Marquess of Bute’ in 1993, everyone in the pitlane thought he’d just been given a pub to run.
Senna himself was from a wealthy Sao Paulo family, but it was he who ushered in a new era of professionalism. He was charismatic but aloof, compassionate off-track but utterly ruthless on it. His commitment in and out of the cockpit and his win-at-all-costs attitude is mirrored to a large extent by today’s scowling young racers. One has nothing but respect for Senna, but it’s hard not to yearn for the characters of old and the carefree approach they took to racing.
In the Ginetta championship in which I’ve been competing this year, fighting the steering to a chorus of engine revs and wheel spin, you can bet the rivals with whom I joust around the bends are inspired by the uncompromising styles of Senna, Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. High heart rates mean that by the time we arrive at the first corner we’re already sweating buckets through our thick Nomex overalls. Given the choice, though, if the rules would allow, I’d take a leaf out of Rob Walker’s book and choose a double-breasted Savile Row ensemble, heel-and-toeing down through the gears in my brogues.
HOW TO BECOME A GENTLEMAN RACER:
The thrill of racing wheel-to-wheel needn’t be a pipe dream. The Ginetta Racing Drivers Club has enabled me to race at Rockingham, Snetterton, Silverstone and Brands Hatch this year for less than the cost of joining a good golf club.
The price for the season is £42,000, and you get to keep the car at the end. Alternatively, if you don’t wish to own the car you can do arrive-and-drive for just £9,000 for the season. A mechanic is provided to do all the oily stuff. The cars are all identical: Ginetta might sound like an Italian ice cream, but these machines are made in Yorkshire. The fibreglass automobile weighs just 840kg, meaning it handles like a dream. Between its nose and your legs sits a high-revving 1.8 litre Ford Zetec engine producing 135bhp. Forget traction control and ABS; the only driver aids are your hands and feet.
Despite the chunky roll cage, cockpit fire extinguisher and the three buttons you need to press just to start it, this sports car sits on regular tyres and is road legal. This means you can drive yourself to races. Careful how you go, mind, or else you won’t be able to drive it back.
Ginetta holds your hand during the practice rounds, with professional drivers giving instruction. They also arrange for sitting the ARDS – a practical and a theory test set by the Motor Sports Association which grants the ‘National B’ licence needed to go racing. At each of the eight races you’ll receive a signature as long as you finish. Six signatures and you earn your ‘National A’, which would allow one to enter Formula 3, BTCC and Pro-Am British GT races. The road to Le Mans lies ahead.