The Unofficial Partner column: F1, Liberty and the libertines

Richard Gillis argues that for all the careful planning in Formula One's future, its new owners should take lessons from its carefree past.

My absolute favourite type of sports business blog post is when a hack with ideas above his station, who neither understands nor cares about Formula One, offers unsolicited advice to the billionaire media mogul who has just bought it. 

If that’s your sort of thing, too, the next 400 words are going to be a blast.

Freddie Hunt is telling us something
James Hunt’s (above) son Freddie has been doing the feature page rounds, getting double-page spreads appropriating his dad’s image – propelled by a PR deal with Havoline, the old man’s oil. 

Hunt Sr was F1’s shagger-in-chief, a man said to have ‘bedded 5000 women’ and whose wife left him for the quiet life with the famously abstemious family man Richard Burton. 

Tom Rubython’s book Shunt captures the gist:

Hunt had a gigantic appetite for sex. Physically, he was unequalled even if, emotionally, he was, perhaps, an amateur.

In Japan, his playground of choice was the Tokyo Hilton, where every morning British Airways stewardesses were dropped off at reception for a 24-hour stopover.

Hunt unfailingly met them as they checked in and invited them to his suite for a party – they always said yes.

It wasn’t unusual for him and Barry Sheene to have sex with all of the women, often together.

Nothing could have prepared Patrick Head, now co-owner of the Williams F1 team but then a young car designer, for the morning when he inadvertently walked into the wrong pit garage.

He found Hunt inside, with his racing overalls around his ankles, cavorting with a Japanese girl. Hunt laughed when he saw the interloper, who left, not quite believing what he had seen.

A few minutes later, Hunt left the garage and went around the side to carry out his pre-race ritual of vomiting – the result of extreme nerves combined with overindulgence.

At a British Embassy reception in his honour, Hunt was so drunk that the ambassador hesitated to let him in.

The return flight on Japan Airlines had been block-booked by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s travel company and was the scene for a riotous 12-hour party that drained the plane of alcohol.

When Hunt arrived back at Heathrow airport, 2,000 fans were waiting to greet him. He staggered down the steps of the aircraft, drunk, into the arms of his mother Sue and his beautiful, long-suffering girlfriend Jane Birbeck. 

Of today’s cohort of drivers lining up in Abu Dhabi, only Lewis Hamilton hints at the sex and booze part of Formula One’s origin story, which has been watered down, de-risked, along with the cars, to become a paler version of itself.

There are exceptions – Martini Racing being the obvious one – who at least take the time to nod to the old days. Meanwhile, most sponsors activate around performance or tech metaphors. 

This makes a great deal of sense, but it’s also boring as hell. 

Which brings us to the future under Liberty Media.

This quote jumped out from Reuters’ reporting on Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei, who was talking at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecoms conference last week. Maffei was discussing Liberty’s strategy for the race series. When asked how he saw the commercial development of F1, his reply could be summarised in one word: More. 

“There is a general line of interest if you increase the number of races to a point. The FIA makes more money, the teams make more money, we make more money.”

Liberty Media has acquired an initial 18.7 per cent stake from controlling shareholder CVC Capital Partners and “plans to complete a cash and shares deal” by Q1 2017. The deal values Formula One at US$8billion.

Reuters reported Maffei saying that F1’s new owners “expected to lead to a new push to develop the U.S. market and win fresh audiences around the world.” 

So that’s the strategy. More. More races, more hosting fees, bigger footprint. 

Sounds like an accountant’s plan to me. Bring back shagging.


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