Technical Editor Jacob Joseph calls on team owners and racing officials to let drivers be themselves, and let us cheer for them because we like them.
While waiting for the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix to get started, F1 driver James Hunt dropped his coveralls and urinated in full view of the spectators in the stands, who applauded him when he had finished. Hunt then went to the McLaren garage where he was seen having sex with a young Japanese woman, one of the more than 30 young women with whom he had performed the act just in the two weeks leading up to the race.
He left the garage, vomited, climbed into his car and won both the race and the championship. In a post-race interview he was asked what his plans were for the immediate future, to which he famously replied, in that posh accent of his, "I shall be getting drunk". He in fact managed to get so drunk that later that evening he was nearly denied entry to a party at the British embassy being held in his honor. Racing drivers used to be crazy, and I'd like to say that the sport used to be better for it. Of course, you had to be crazy to race cars in the old days, since they were horrifyingly dangerous.
Just in the years when Hunt was racing in F1 (1973-1979), eight Formula 1 drivers died in crashes. This is quadruple the number which have died during Sebastian Vettel's entire life, and by the 70's F1 was already making big improvements in safety. Previous decades had been even worse, and the men who drove the cars were brave to the point of being nearly suicidal. F1 driver and Le Mans winner Masten Gregory, for example, once told a friend before a race "If I should die, just bury me wherever. Along the side of the road would be fine." Making the sport safer didn't kill the fun though, it was the money that killed that.
Corporate sponsorship has generally made racecars less attractive, but this pales in comparison to the damage it has done to drivers' personalities. Teams keep such a short leash on drivers now, out of fear of losing a single sponsorship dollar, that they're virtually indistinguishable from one another. NASCAR drivers fair a bit better, but for a sport which is derived from a criminal enterprise, they're pretty tame these days as well. What annoys me is that now race officials and racing governing bodies have taken it upon themselves to punish drivers for bad behavior that takes place off the track and doesn't hurt anybody.
Take the example of Will Power, the IndyCar driver who was recently fined $30,000 for flipping off race officials at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway over what they now admit was a bad call. Who did that hurt, apart from the officials' egos? Let's stop pretending that racing drivers have some sort of duty to present an example of clean living. Their duty is to drive fast, and that's where it ends. Let the drivers be real people who we might want to hear from and be able to identify with. Let's have a return to the days when racecar drivers were larger-than-life personalities.
A return to the days when you could cheer for a driver because you liked who they were, not just what their publicist told you. It's just possible that it will help the ratings, since more people are likely to watch if they actually give a shit about who's racing. Thanks to ABC for the photo of Will Power.