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Formula 1 Babylon

This article was published in Arena, July 2000

High octane. High stakes. High paying. Or just plain high. . . Inside the fast , dangerous and fun world of the Formula 1 playboy.

Text Ivan Rendall

Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone was once quoted as saying that ‘the world revolves around sex and money, in that order. Except in America, where it is money and sex’. And he should know.

The 69-year-old Mr Ecclestone, who is married to a stunning former model (not a rarity in his industry), presides over the business of Formula1 as a personal fiefdom based on revenues from global television and sponsorship of over £2 billion a year. One of the richest men in the world, he is at the head of a coterie of team bosses and drivers who share in this bonanza, most of them millionaires several times over.

Formula 1 drivers belong to the most exclusive club in the world. Membership comes through holding an FIA Super Licence, the highest grade of racing licence, which is restricted to no more than a few dozen drivers worldwide. It’s a licence to compete for motor racing’s most coveted and prestigious title of World Champion. It’s also a licence to make serious money, a passport to the world of the super-rich, and a lifestyle which revolves around private jets, fast cars, supermodels, two or three luxury homes and the obligatory yacht or flat in Monte Carlo (which, besides being a tax haven, also hosts the most prestigious and unforgiving Grand Prix of the season).
The extraordinary wealth that the World Championship generates has become an important part of its place in popular culture, and racing drivers are among the most recognisable, most heavily sponsored celebrities anywhere in the world. They’re the closest thing we have to old Hollywood stars, with their shameless womanising, extravagance, and flagrant disregard for anything as troublesome as, say, morals.

But the racing is real, and it’s played to win – often to the death. As the saying goes: ‘When the flag drops, the bullshit stops.’


The drivers who regularly start at the front of the grid are not just men, they’re small international corporations and world champions are among the richest. For example, Michael Schumacher’s deal with Ferrari will earn him around £150m over three years, plus other nice little earners such as the £1.5m a year for the space on his baseball hat. Even his hair earns its keep, promoting L’Oreal shampoo on television.

Schumacher is the top earner, but the top five drivers earn an average of £9m a year each just for the driving. The 1997 World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve, owns part of British American Racing, which has a bud get of £250m for five years. And Villeneuve makes no secret of the fact that in hi s eyes, if you’re not a millionaire you’re a failure. You see, a million dollars doesn’t go very far in Formula 1- on or off the circuit.


The average age of an F1 driver is around 28. The older ones are mainly married to stunning, adoring wives and have several real homes to go to. But the sexual politics of Grand Prix racing owes little or nothing to political correctness. It’s a male domain where common languages are male bonding, male rivalry and male chauvinism. There’s never a shortage or groupies desperate to see behind the smoked glass windows of those luxury motor homes.

And this is hardly a new phenomenon. For proof , look no further than the first British champion, Mike Hawthorn. This quintessential English rogue was at the centre of a group of young British drivers – ‘mon ami mates’, he called them – who caroused and womanised together on the Grand Prix circuit during the Fifties.

Even in a much more prudish age, the devoutly chauvinistic Hawthorn was an uncompromising sexual predator who treated women with scant respect. The day before the 1953 French Grand Prix at Rims, he went to a party at a tennis club and met a 19-year old girl whom he invited to the race as his guest. He won after a heroic struggle with the legendary Fangio, then celebrated by taking his new friend to dinner. He then bedded her and had her ushered out of his hotel the following morning. It turned out that she was pregnant, and despite her writing to Hawthorn several times, he abjectly refused to acknowledge the child as his son.

James Hunt, the World Champion in 1976, famously wore a badge on his overalls: ‘Sex – Breakfast of Champions’


Casual sex has a long and honorable tradition as on e of the perks of being a racing driver. James Hunt, World Champion in 1976, famously wore a badge on his overalls: ‘Sex – Breakfast of Champions’. He came to prominence as a driver with a small team run by the young Lord Hesketh. It was a good, serious team , but self-consciously built on male bonding and renowned for its parties. Hunt led the lifestyle of the pop stars of the age: heavy drinking, heavy smoking , drugs and what seemed to be an addiction to sex. He was married and divorced twice; after retiring from racing in 1979 he became a BBC commentator, but he persisted with the old lifestyle, drinking during races and even – on occasions – leaving the commentary box to roll a joint.

He failed to make it to the box just once, after a night spent in a beach hut in Belgium with two young women. Hunt died of a not entirely unexpected heart attack at the age of 45.


Formula 1 drivers are a very close-knit group, and they have the complicated love lives to prove it. By far the most intricate love triangle in the sport’s history had at its centre Nelson Piguet, who was World Champion in 1981, 1983 and 1987. Piguet has been married and divorced twice and has four children by three women. He met his second wife, a Dutch-German model who had already been the escort of a few Formula 1 colleagues, when she was going out with Giulio de Angelis, father of Formula 1 colleague Elio de Angelis. He left her for a teenage Italian model, Emanuela Enfi, then he left her for a Belgian model, Catherine Valentin previously the girlfriend of his countryman and archrival, Ayrton Senna.

Clockwise from above: Eddie Irvine the morning after winning the Australian Grand Prix last March; wheel testing; Nelson Piquet with wife Catharine and son Lazlo on board of his helicopter carrier; Michael Schuhmacher; David Coulthard flying high

Many of the current crop of drivers have a shared past, too. Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s girlfriend from Mercedes junior team days is now married to Michael Schumacher. Around the same time a group of expatriate European drivers were racing in Japan: Roland Ratzenberger, Eddie Irvine, Mika Salo and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. The four became stars of the Japanese Formula 3000 world, assuring them of the attention of numerous young women in motor-racing­mad Japan.

Once, when stuck in a Tokyo traffic jam, Salo and Ratzenberger were caught behind Irvine, who had a photographer in his car, Ratzenberger mooned through the wind screen as the photographer snapped away. The following day, Salo’s face and Ratzenberger’s arse were shown side by side in a Japanese newspaper.


Of the F3000 gang of four, Ratzenberger died at lmola on the same weekend as Ayrton Senna, Mika a Salo married a Japanese girlfriend, and so did Frentzen. But I 0 years on, Eddie Irvine seems to be carrying on in the same tradition. At 34, Irvine remains the bad boy of Formula 1, and is legendarily attractive to women. He’s an Olympic partygoer: a regular at Dublin’s finest nightclub, Lillie’s Bordello, he’s been known to take his executive jet on a world tour in search of the best nightlife, and he’s always quick with a sound bite. (When Liz Hurley was asked in the pit lane which driver she liked most, she said ‘the Irish guy.’ lrvine’s response? ‘She’s only human.’)

Irvine has a reputation for collecting women and casting them off. But he keeps his cars. His favourite is a turbo charged Ferrari 288 GTO, his first real indulgence on the proceeds of his clays in F3000 a decade ago. But maybe Eddie is getting soft in his old age. He recently did a spread for Hello! with his daughter Zoe and his ex-lover, Maria, all photographed at their home in Macau. And the interview was all about fatherhood, not Ferraris.

In this world, helicopters, jet skis, classic cars and speedboats are small change. Size matters a lot, as demonstrated by the much ­ reported fact that Gerhard Berger’s yacht is three metres longer than Eddie Irvine’s.
The late Ayrton Senna’s country estate had a racetrack and boating lake in the garden; his countryman Pedro Diniz has a large private beach. Riccardo Patrese had over 100 model trains in his attic and spent hours playing with them, making him somewhat unusual for a racing driver. But then James Hunt spent a small fortune breeding pedigree budgerigars in his back garden.

Ivan Rendall is the author of The Power Game: The History Of Formula 1 And The World Championship (Cassell, £25)

This article was published in the ARENA for Men, July 2000