Old-school playboys, cavaliers, pantomime villains… Motorsports have never been short of an ‘eccentric’ (or, if they aren’t English, ‘seriously unhinged’) character or two. If we had to construct a racing hero, he’d turn up worse-for-wear to race day, ignore team orders, finish first to scupper the championship hopes of his team mate (who of course, he loathes) before strutting off with the team owner’s wife on one arm and Miss Costa Rica on the other – leaving nothing behind but a hint of Old Spice.
This isn’t just a retro seventies thing (although the above scenario did happen on an almost weekly basis back then): bad-boy behaviour is part of motorsport’s DNA in a way that just isn’t true of say, dressage or badminton. Sure, footballers have their moments – but rarely do they carry it off with the same élan as the gladiators of the track.
Here’s a quick ramble through some of the love-me-or-hate-me characters who’ve shaken up motorsport over the years:
The Formula 1 bad boy for the Loaded generation, it’s fair to say Irvine won’t be remembered as one of the greatest ever drivers. His retirement in 2003 however, marked the exit of one of the most colourful characters the sport had seen for decades.
Never one to shy away from trouble, on his debut Formula 1 race at Suzuka in 1993, the Northern Irishman earned a punch in the face from Ayrton Senna after having unlapped himself before trying to overtake Damon Hill who Senna was trying to pass. Having signed for Ferrari in 1995, he had his best season in 1999, where he won four races and finished second in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. He went into the final round with a four point lead in the Drivers’ Championship but ended up finishing third, handing the title to Mika Hakkinen.
He lapped up his image as a playboy and journalists could always rely on him for a controversial quote. He’s got his head screwed financially on though; he’s amassed a fortune of around £80m and still makes the headlines – earlier this year he was convicted of assault after a punch-up with the Mayor of Milan’s son.
Not all motorsports characters are to be found on the track (see also Bernie Ecclestone, Eddie Jordan and Max Moseley). Briatore’s bad boy credentials are especially strong. In his early business career, he managed to pick up multiple fraud convictions (no mean feat in Italy) before going on to set up a string of Benetton franchises while still effectively a fugitive. Shortly after Benetton moved into Formula 1(later becoming Renault Formula 1), Briatore took the helm. His smartest move was undoubtedly bringing the young Michael Schumacher on board and picking up world titles in 1994 and 1995.
Controversy is never far away with Briatore, though. He got a life ban from motorsport (which was later overturned on appeal) after his involvement in the 2008 Crashgate scandal when Nelson Piquet Jr was ordered to crash deliberately in favour of his team-mate, Fernando Alonso.
He’s a ladies’ man too: Heidi Klum and Naomi Campbell are no strangers to the multi-millionaire’s charms and at 58 he married a supermodel who was (naturally) half his age.
A Boys Own hero, Barry Sheene won three Motorcycle Grand Prix Championship titles in the 1970s – including two elite 500cc titles. Much more than that, Sheene goes down as probably the most universally popular personality in British motorsports history. Ask someone to name a British motorcyclist, his is the name that’ll come up – a full 30 years after he retired.
After surviving the fastest ever recorded bike crash (170mph) at Daytona in 1975, he was interviewed for TV shortly before going into surgery the next day. On being asked how he was, Sheene ran through his list of injuries (a list that included a broken hip, arm, ribs and several compression fractures to his vertebrae) before adding, “Other than that, I feel brand new”.
When not on the track or recording Brut adverts, Sheene could often be found out partying with James Hunt and George Harrison. ‘Bad Boy’ is way too harsh for Sheene; all round top bloke is much more accurate.
The story of Hunt’s 1976 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship win and his great rivalry with Niki Lauda was set to screen in last year’s film Rush.
The ultimate ladies’ man, he caught the public’s attention when driving for Hesketh Racing – thanks in no small part to a badge on his driver’s suit which read “Sex – The Breakfast of Champions”. The team had rather a gentleman amateur image – although Hunt managed to finish a respectable fourth in the 1975 Championship before moving on to McLaren after Hesketh ran out of cash.
Before signing for McLaren, he insisted on a clause in his contract stipulating he wasn’t required to wear suits for sponsorship events, resulting in the former public schoolboy turning up to black-tie events in t-shirt and jeans. Not afraid to speak his mind (and occasionally throw a punch at the odd fellow driver or even a marshal), he had an aggressive driving style to match. In his later commentary career he was never short of criticism for blocking tactics and back markers.
Every now and then a character emerges to shake things up a bit. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for the next one!
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