When it comes to Formula One, I feel like I lived through a golden era. I’m not just talking about the racing, I’m talking about the after-parties. When Red Bull launched their own F1 team in 2005 it was my job to cover not only what occurred on track and in the paddock, but what happened after the chequered flag. Therefore I’m well placed to judge whether electric power has overtaken petrol in the celebration stakes…
Red Bull hosted raging parties every race weekend for a few years, from building a floating Chinese temple in Shanghai to inviting a few thousand friends to the vast Morumbi soccer stadium in Sao Paulo. Every weekend they seemed to go one bigger. And other sponsors were in on the act; I recall a Turkish petrol company renting ritzy nightclub Reina beside Istanbul’s Bosphorus and paying Missy Elliott $1 million for a half-hour set, and another in Valencia where I found a diamond floating in my glass. But once the crisis hit the sponsors stopped spending and when Red Bull started winning they stopped having fun; instead they ploughed their millions into the car (worked pretty well, I have to say), relied on the TV coverage and became awfully serious.
It has fallen to Formula E to make motorsport sexy again with its black tie galas at every race, its supermodel fans, its takeover of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont following the Long Beach ePrix. There’s plenty of corporate sponsorship, just like F1, but somehow they’ve stopped it from feeling corporate which is where F1 has swerved off track.
Perhaps the biggest sign that F1 has dropped several rungs in the social stakes is that the podium champagne they’re serving this season isn’t actually champagne at all. It’s common or garden sparkling white wine!
Now I hate to come across as a wine snob, but the climax of pretty much every podium ceremony since the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup has included bottles not from Argentina or Australia but from Reims, goddammit (see below for a timeline of motor racing’s historic love of champagne).
GH Mumm were supplying Formula One’s fizz but switched sides the season to keep Formula E refreshed. Formula E cars are all electric, and therefore 100 per cent green. Nothing makes movie stars fire-up their gas-guzzling Gulfstreams and jet in for a party like an environmental cause, and Leonardo DiCaprio is a part owner of one of the teams. The other enticing thing about this electric racing series, which this month hosted its second season finale in London, is that it can take place in city centres thanks to its zero emissions and almost zero noise.
And it was for this reason that Paris was so keen to welcome it to the City of Lights recently. Thankfully the banks of the Seine were dry that weekend and the circuit wrapped its way around Les Invalides and the boulevards of the 7th Arrondissement that cross the shadow of the Tour Eiffel. Formula One, with its screaming engines and carbon footprint (which, it should be noted, is much reduced since the introduction of 1.6 turbo hybrids in 2014) will never be invited to Paris, nor to the streets of London. Formula E though, the world’s most socially responsible motorsport, drew France’s political elite to the podium along with billboard bra favourite Eva Herzigova. Perhaps Sadiq Khan and Kate Moss will trigger the confetti cannons for the next one.
Jaguar is joining the championship next season, adding another luxury brand to the line-up.
Another unique element of Formula E is the Fanboost, where viewers can vote for their favourite driver and give him extra horsepower. The purists complain this is contrived but for kids brought up on X Factor – and Formula E is purposefully gearing towards a young audience – it makes it more exciting and requires the drivers to go out, kiss babies and sign autographs, unlike the F1 mob who are closeted in their motorhomes as much as possible.
Another element I will always judge events on: canapes. I have been known to survive an entire week at the Monaco Grand Prix on finger food. I still maintain that the VIP suites at Yankee Stadium in New York do the best spread I’ve ever sampled in sport (they must have bought Maine’s entire lobster catch that day), but the hospitality in Paris was world class and they even let me have a go at ‘sabrage’. It’s when you open a champagne bottle with a sword, a technique now ticked off my bucket list.
The race culminated in a huge Mumm party at Paris’ Yoyo club, deep within the Palais de Tokyo art gallery. All the drivers were there. Another advantage FE has over F1 is that the races are often a month apart, which leaves plenty of time to recover from the hangover. As the London round is the last of the season I can only assume this time they’ll be going all out. At the very least they’ll be toasting the race result with proper bubbles.
Motor racing’s champagne soaked celebrations weren’t forged overnight. Adam Hay-Nicholls charts three key dates that shaped the modern Formula One curtain call.
October 12, 1936: Long Island, New York
George Washington Vanderbilt III - American yachtsman and scientific explorer - resurrected his uncle’s famous race, the Vanderbilt Cup. Run at the new Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, Tazio Nuvolari climbed from his winning Alfa Romeo and stepped up onto the podium to receive his laurel wreath and a trophy taller than himself. But he received another gift too – a chilled bottle of Moet & Chandon.
It was the first time that champagne had appeared on the podium. Mr Vanderbilt was great friends with Monsieur Ladoucette, Moet’s US agent. “Come to the race”, said Vanderbilt, “and bring some cases of your fizzy drink. I’m sure the drivers will need some refreshment”. Before this date, drivers had been more partial to a nip of brandy with a cigar.
July 2, 1950: Reims, Champagne
It was the sixth round of the very first Formula One World Championship season, and F1 had come to Champagne. The wine growing families from the region all gathered at the Reims-Gueux circuit, eager to meet the drivers. The throng of VIPs, with names like Lanson, Mumm and Pommery, were hugely hospitable on their home turf, awarding grateful drivers cases of their produce. Monsieur Chandon held a large banquet at his chateau that evening, as did several of the other families, and drivers like Fangio were honoured to accept the invitations. It was there that lasting friendships were born, and a commitment to drink a certain label. And thereafter, Champagne always featured in the post-race celebrations, except for in Germany – the Nurburgring was owned by the Prince of Metternich, who insisted the drivers quaff only his eponymous Seck sparkling wine.
June 11, 1967: Le Mans, La Sarthe
It was a particularly hot day, and when winners Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt mounted the podium, the magnums of champagne at the rear of the stage had been sat in the sun for over half an hour. The wire cages had been removed from the corks already. As the silverware was being presented, one of the corks shot in the air with a bang, and the champagne spilled forth, showering the podium party. Gurney, in an attempt to shield his boss, Henry Ford II, tried in vain to stop the flow by putting his hand over the top of the bottle – as a result, everyone got drenched with bubbly and a legend was born.
Gurney, incidentally, autographed and gave the bottle to LIFE magazine photographer Flip Schulke, who used it as a lamp for many years. Schulke, who was acclaimed for his reportage photographs of the civil rights movement, died in 2008. Now the bottle has been returned to Dan Gurney.
July 6, 1969: Clermont-Ferrand
Jackie Stewart was, and remains, a favourite of the Champagne lords since he was the first to ‘do a Gurney’ on the F1 podium, setting a traditional celebration that would prove a mainstay 40-odd years on. “For 42 years I’ve been with Moet & Chandon. I was the first person to spray champagne in Formula One,” he told me. “The 1969 French Grand Prix was 28 degrees. The podium bubbly had been sat there in the sun for the whole race. I didn’t even touch the cork, I just undid the wire and Whoosh! I put my thumb over the bottle – a good Scotsman doesn’t want to spill a drop – but the more pressure I applied the further it went. It was all quite by accident but, when you think about it, the perfect way to celebrate.”