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Formula 1 Bad Boys

Kimi Raikkonen is rumored to have been in trouble with police in Hungary over a matter of alcohol and sitting behind the wheel of a car. This follows other stories of the flying Finn’s night club and partying exploits.

Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen and friend

It has echoes of an F1 tradition that we all thought had died out with the advent of the super-professional driver epitomized by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher: the “bad boy” syndrome. In the 1950s, many drivers were renowned for their wild behavior at parties, Mike Hawthorn especially gaining a reputation for being heavily into wine, women and song. It was as though the working class lads, who suddenly found the heights of motor sport available to them, intended to make the most of their brief moments of fame. They worked hard and they played hard.

This continued into the sixties, although there were already signs of a growing professionalism that had no time for drunken high jinks. Drivers like Jim Clark and John Surtees were serious about racing and saw it as a profession rather than a bit of fun. Some, such as Graham Hill, still knew how to relax and party between races, however.

By the 1970s, advertising had upped the stakes so high that it was clear that F1 was now more of a business than a sport; the sober attitude of most drivers reflected this too. So James Hunt stands out as the last of the playboy drivers, an isolated throwback to F1′s wilder days. With his retirement, we all thought that era was gone forever.

Through the eighties and nineties we became used to the dour professionals, Prost, Senna, Schumacher, pursuing their career objectives with unwavering intensity. Flashes of humor from such as Johnny Herbert gave relief but the overall atmosphere was that this was far too serious a business to have fun in (hmmm, I think I just identified the reason for Minardi’s huge popularity).

And now Kimi Raikkonen arrives to upset all our preconceived notions. It would have to be someone like him, of course – a driver so talented that all his off track adventures can be ignored by the team manager. Oh, there might be the occasional “talking-to” in the motorhome but, when you’re paying the guy millions to drive for you, it’s not easy to lay down the law about his private life.

What Kimi does for us all is demonstrate that it’s possible to be damn good at your job and still have a good time on your days off. For too long we have believed that only the dedicated monomaniac can get to the very top of any profession. Kimi shows that, with youth, talent and energy, that doesn’t have to be true. After all, what is the point in being paid so much if you can’t live a little as a result?

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John Watson and Button Mania has reported that John Watson has tried to introduce some balance into the Button mania gripping Britain after Jenson’s win in Hungary. Although John never grabbed the headlines as Button is doing, he deserved better and is well qualified to comment on such matters. In 1982, when driving for McLaren, he won the Detroit GP from 17th on the grid and then bettered that the next year, winning from 22nd in Long Beach and setting a record for victory from the worst position in the process. It is no surprise that in those years he became known as the only man who could overtake on street circuits.

John Watson

John Watson

But Watson never became the darling of the press as some other drivers do. Any speed cop can tell you who is the current star who has broken through to enter the public consciousness. In America, the question you’re asked on being stopped for speeding is, “Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?” For years the equivalent question in Britain would concern Stirling Moss, with Jackie Stewart, James Hunt and Nigel Mansell taking their turns for later generations.

Yet there are many British drivers who have had just as much or more success on the track but are never given the speed cop’s seal of approval. John Watson won five Grands Prix, David Coulthard has won thirteen, whereas Hunt won ten. What makes the difference in this race for the public spotlight?

To some extent, it starts and ends with the non-specialist press. If news reporters think a driver’s success is worth reporting, he will break out from the limited arena of the F1 fans to reach those who usually take no notice. News reporters love a bit of gossip and so, when someone with a racy lifestyle like James Hunt’s appears, he’s a gift to the media.

But it’s consistency more than anything else that gets noticed. When a driver like Jackie Stewart starts winning all the races, he cannot be ignored. Watson and Coulthard made the mistake of spreading their wins throughout their careers, never appearing to dominate. A championship helps, although Moss demonstrated that it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

Which leads me to conclude that Watson is right in what he says about Jenson Button. If Button is to become the British hero of F1, he needs to start winning regularly and that isn’t easy. Honda might just be the right team to do it in, however; they seem to be over their mid-season slump and look promising for next year.

I, for one, will be happy if he achieves such fame. It’s about time the speed cop had a new driver to refer to.

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