From The Sunday TimesFebruary 24, 2008, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/ ... 423187.ece
When F1 was sex and drugs and rocky roads
James Hunt was a maverick, tall and blond with Golden Boy looks and public school manners, who could charm the birds from the trees but more often used his talents to charm the pants from the birds. He got so keyed up while racing that he was often sick beforehand, and could be punchy afterwards when the adrenalin was still flowing.
He and fellow racer Dave Morgan crashed while fighting for Formula Three victory at Crystal Palace in 1970, and as they stepped from the wreckage, Hunt felled him with a blow. At Fuji in 1976, in the very moment of his greatest triumph as he clinched the world championship by a single point by finishing third after a late pit stop, he wanted to hit McLaren team principal Teddy Mayer, believing he had lost the title because his team mistimed the crucial tyre stop. A year later, in Canada, he punched a marshal after crashing while trying to avoid teammate Jochen Mass.
In his championship year, Hunt saddled himself with a retinue of sycophants, and offended many by wearing jeans and a T-shirt at black-tie dinners. One of his favourite shirts bore the legend: “Sex - the breakfast of champions.” Another: “If you think my girlfriend can fight, you should see her box . . . ” His career declined. He would win only three more grands prix, all of them in 1977. When he crashed inexplicably in the 1978 British Grand Prix, it was whispered that he was driving under the influence of drugs. He smoked grass like it was going out of fashion. “I like it, it relaxes me,” he admitted, mixing the habit with a craving for nicotine that accounted for 60 cigarettes a day.
The most aristocratic of the 1950s motor racingplayboys was Alfonso de Portago, the 17th Marquis de Portago and Count of Mejorada, a larger-than-life Spanish nobleman whose dramatic character cast a giant shadow far longer than his modest tally of five grands prix might have suggested. “Fon” was an all-round sportsman of dazzling versatility. He rode in the Grand National twice and was France’s champion amateur jockey three times. He was a crack shot, an Olympic-class swimmer, an accomplished polo player and broke the Cresta Run record while demonstrating his bobsleigh skills for the Spanish team he had created for the 1956 Winter Olympics. He and his wife lived in a mansion on the exclusive Avenue Foch in Paris. Men such as De Portago rarely make old bones. In 1957 he and his co-driver, Ed Nelson, were killed, together with 10 spectators, when their Ferrari crashed towards the end of the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile dash across Italy. De Portago’s death brought about the end of the legendary road race.
Foremost among the hell-raisers in the early 1960s was a doughty Scottish fighter called Robert McGregor Innes Ireland. The hard-driving, hard-drinking Ireland was probably too sociable to make the most of his considerable talent. He was a fearless but fair competitor whose sheer speed, and the fragility of his machinery, often led him beyond the brink. Driving for Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus early in the decade, he produced some brilliant performances. Most notable was his 1961 US Grand Prix victory.
The stories of Ireland’s derring-do off the tracks have become part of the folklore of motor racing. After his win at Solitude, the story goes, he got so plastered that he ended up on the roof of a local hotel, firing a pistol into the air, before bursting open the hotel bar after it had closed and then thumping the host when he tried to calm everybody down. The organisers of the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring – due to be run a fortnight after the Solitude fixture – announced they were not going to allow him to compete. In the end, the episode was forgotten and Ireland was allowed to enter.
Later, Ireland served as president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club. In 1992, it held a lunch to honour Nigel Mansell’s world championship but Ireland always had his enthusiasm for Mansell under firm control. Asked why, at this auspicious moment, he had chosen to wear tartan trousers instead of the full kilt, he responded cheerfully: “I only wear that on special occasions, lad!”
By the 1970s, the F1 community had developed in two distinct social directions. On the one hand there was Jackie Stewart, striking the corporate, squeaky-clean note not only as a triple world champion but also a one-man million-dollar promotional industry. On the other, there were Mike Hailwood and Hunt, both blessed with natural talent but both so laid-back they were almost horizontal – and social hell-raisers on a truly superhuman scale.
...Hunt was also highly strung and, by 1978, with his world championship success two years behind him, he was awakening to the dangers of the sport. It was accepted that he would throw up just before the start of a grand prix, but those close to him that season were even more worried about his drinking, smoking and use of drugs.
All this also came at a time when the McLaren M26 was running towards the end of its competitive life. He seemed to be going to pieces and his contract would not be renewed at the end of the year. He drove a few races for Walter Wolf the following year before calling it a day after Monaco, convinced that without a winning car the game was no longer worth the risk. Later he become a television commentator of note, though at Spa-Francorchamps in 1988 he celebrated his 40th birthday in some style, bedding two girls he had picked up and failing to make the BBC commentary booth on time. An embarrassed executive excused him on the grounds of a “gastric complaint”.
Hunt always lived on the edge. His first marriage, to model Suzy Miller, foundered as she went off with actor Richard Burton. A long-term relationship with supermodel Jane Birbeck also failed. His second marriage, to Sarah Lomax, went the same way. There were countless other women in the interim periods. But just as his self-destructive streak threatened to ruin him, he met waitress and artist Helen Dyson, and suddenly he changed. He gave up smoking and drinking, and after weeks of agonising finally released within himself something he had kept pent up all his life. He wrote to Helen to tell her that for the first time he was allowing himself not only to accept the love of another, but to reciprocate. He proposed the day before he died, on June 15, 1993, of a massive heart attack. Typically, his will left provision for his friends to have “a bloody great party”.
Perhaps the unlikely alliance between McLaren drivers Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger came closest to Hunt’s friendship with Niki Lauda in terms of mutual personal esteem, even if their currency involved practical jokes rather than boozing and womanising.
Berger’s sense of fun involved complex tricks concealed behind a mien of unconcerned nonchalance. He somehow got hold of Senna’s passport and replaced his ID photograph with a picture of nude male buttocks, causing his hapless teammate huge embarrassment when he arrived in Argen-tina. Senna counter-attacked at the next race by getting the key to Berger’s hotel room, filling the bath and piling all his clothes into it. The next morning at breakfast, to Senna’s frustration, Berger didn’t mention it.
The two men loved each other’s company, proving perhaps that old adage that opposites do attract.
“We pushed each other really hard, but he was so quick you couldn’t believe it,” said Berger. “I started the first race of my McLaren career on pole, so I thought, ‘This is okay, this guy can be beaten’. After that I hardly ever saw which way he’d gone.
“If Ayrton hadn’t been killed in 1994, F1 would have entered probably its dullest period ever. He’d have been on pole position all the time, won every race for years and taken four more world championships with Williams through to the end of 1997.
“We were the about same age and he was a great guy. I wouldn’t have missed racing with him for the world. He taught me how to be a professional and I like to think I taught him how to laugh.”
Amen to that