• GP Week

No sex please, we're racing drivers

Kate Walker
October 2, 2012
James Hunt celebrates his win at the 1977 US Grand Prix with a cigarette, a beer, and a Penthouse Pet © Sutton Images

James Hunt would be rolling in his grave. For Hunt the Shunt, sex was the breakfast of champions.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Jenson Button spent the first part of the current millennium being lambasted by the press for his playboy antics, while McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton over the summer received a similar battering from the media for having the audacity to spend the night in a hotel room with no fewer than 10 young women.

Whatever happened behind the closed doors of that hotel room is none of our business. But it is a sad fact of modern motorsport that Hamilton and his colleagues are more concerned with staying on the right side of their clean-cut sponsors than they are with enjoying the fringe benefits traditionally associated with being young, rich, and good-looking racing drivers.

There's an old Fry and Laurie sketch in which Stephen Fry is interviewing a taciturn young racer. Growing increasingly frustrated with his interviewee'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 want to know if this makes you happy!" before decking him.

While that was certainly the case when Hunt was picking up air stewardesses by the baker's dozen, times have changed. The modern female Formula One fan is more interested in following her favourite driver via an on-board television feed than she is in following him back to his hotel room. At least, that's what the drivers will tell you.

"To be fair, I've never thought about [being a sex symbol]," Jenson Button said. "[Our fans] treat us like racing drivers, because that's what we are. We're here to race cars, and that's what we're here to do, and I think that these guys who are sat out here in the pouring rain are here to watch us race cars, and not take photos of us in our underwear. No special poses."

So no fans are throwing their knickers at you, Tom Jones-style?

"Not yet," Button said. "Not this weekend, anyway!"

"That would be great!" Lewis Hamilton interjected.

"I wouldn't want Tom Jones' knickers," Button retorted. "Do you?"

"When we meet the fans, they're just like us when we were younger," Hamilton said, "watching grands prix and getting inspired by the guys that are there, working all the time, always being positive, overcoming good and bad times. So when we meet the fans they're literally just… The majority of fans, they say they're inspired - 'you make my Sundays', or something like that."

It wasn't always so. When Formula One raced in Detroit in the late 1980s, Ayrton Senna checked into the hotel he'd stayed in the year before. Enquiring at the front desk as to whether there had been any messages for him, he was confronted with a mailbag filled to bursting with notes from female fans inviting the Brazilian racer on a private tour of the town.

Apparently fans only find Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button "inspiring" © Sutton Images

But Senna was one of the catalysts for this change in attitudes in Formula One, one of the first drivers to really concentrate on physical fitness as a means of gaining advantage on track. Sports fitness and nutrition were growing fields in the 1980s; now no professional athlete would dream of devising their own diet and training regime without consulting an expert.

In an unpublished 1994 interview, Johnny Herbert admitted that times had changed for F1 drivers, who were no longer the lotharios of yore: "You hear all the stories about the old days," he said, "but I don't know if you can believe them. It's really not like that nowadays. We go to bed and we go to sleep."

One key factor in the changing attitude to sex within the sport has been the increasing level of sponsorship. While blue chip brands are attracted by the perceived danger and rebelliousness associated with motorsport, boards start getting uncomfortable when it all starts getting a little too real.

Public expressions of personality have become the exceptions to the rule, with few drivers able to find the balance between pleasing the sponsors and appealing to the fans. But Formula One is not alone in this - sponsorship has infiltrated all manner of sports, and the expectation of athletes to live up to a clean-cut role model standard has become universal.

Where once athletes were akin to rock stars, forever tumbling out of nightclubs and onto the front pages with a bevy of beauties on either arm, today's sportsman has a brand to protect, and a much more competitive environment in which to perform.

For as Formula One evolved into a business under the watchful eye of Bernie Ecclestone, it lost something of its rock 'n' roll, devil-may-care attitude. Bad boys were welcomed on track - to an extent - but those same aggressive drivers were expected to become meek little lambs once out of the cockpit, adhering to the whims of the sponsors who had brought such an influx of money into the sport.

As recently as the early 1980s, an F1 driver could roll out of the garage with a cigarette stuck to his lip and climb into the car. Ten years later, such behaviour would be unthinkable in a competitive sportsman.

Attitudes to physical fitness and training have undergone a revolution over the past 20 years, with professional athletes now dedicating far more time to preparing themselves for their sport through a combination of physical fitness, tailored nutrition plans, and exercises designed to improve mental agility and endurance. With competitive margins so close on track, drivers must do all they can to gain an advantage - lose weight to improve ballast options, improve their strength and endurance to better perform in races, fine-hone their reflexes, increase their concentration - in order to win races.

When it comes to securing trophies and titles, 1998 and 1999 World Champion Mika Hakkinen preaches dedication and focus: "You don't have room to play around and do crazy things as well. James Hunt used to say to me: 'Go for it', but, you know, everyone is different."

These days, however, drivers are not so different. With their already busy schedules filled with engineering meetings, sponsorship commitments, and trips to the gym, and a single-minded focus to get the maximum out of the car every weekend, Formula One has evolved into a very different sport to grand prix racing, its pre-war ancestor.

One of the biggest driver scandals of the 1930s saw Auto-Union driver Achille Varzi, winner of the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix, steal the heart of Ilse Pietsch, his team-mate's wife. Varzi and Ilse's affair saw the pair descend into a shared morphine addiction, Varzi's reputation in tatters.

As recently as the 1980s, such sexual conquests continued, although the drugs had been left - thankfully - in the past. Off the record paddock gossip recounts numerous well-known drivers of the era taking every advantage of the flesh-pressing opportunities on offer.

Of course, to repeat the stories would be little short of scandalous…