JUL 10th 2015

Thank Frankel it's Friday: Beards ‑ motorsport help or hindrance?

Many of you, I know, will remember Russell Bulgin. For those who don’t, he was the most prodigiously talented writer ever to earn a living scribbling about cars. This is the man who once started a story: ‘The Austin Motor Company Limited never gave my grandfather £100 to blow on discovering the delights of sheep husbandry’ and another with ‘There has never been a Formula 1 World Champion called Derek. Coincidence? I think not.’ Russell died in 2002 aged just 43 but not before observing that, ‘when I finally croak, a line in my obituary will read: “In 1993 Russell Bulgin was the first journalist to ponder the precise facial hair rationale of Williams driver Damon Hill.” But then I guess you usually get the epitaph you deserve.’

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You will need to find a November 1993 issue of Car magazine or, rather less likely, a super rare copy of the book of his finest words published by his friends shortly after his passing to raise money for the Royal Marsden Hospital that cared for him in his final days, but it would be worth it to read his learned discourse on the relationship between the hair on your face and your speed on the track.

Face fuzz seems frowned upon in racing circles these days. Jenson can be seen sporting a token layer of stubble so vestigial as to appear almost apologetic while I’ve always thought that if Lewis focussed the time he spends teasing his barnet into hitherto unimagined arrangements on his driving, Nico would not have seen which way he went all season. But proper, prize-winning, privet hedge tonsorial masterpieces are nowhere to be seen these days. It wasn’t always that way.

Frankel Jenson Button Harald Ertl beards

During a prolonged Twitter-based discourse among learned freelance colleagues (including our own esteemed Mr Hope-Frost) last week we reminded ourselves of the huge slabs of fuzz that could be seen slapped to the sides of the faces of any number of early 1970s F1 drivers, though probably Emerson Fittipaldi, Jackie Stewart and Denny Hulme most prominently. And, while I might not align myself precisely with Bulgin’s highly iconoclastic views on the relationship between hair and speed, I should perhaps point out that between them these three won six of the eight F1 world championships contested between 1967 and 1974 and that a seventh went to Graham Hill complete with comedy Terry Thomas top lip.

But then as always happens when freelance journalists gather online to do anything other than earn a living, it started to get competitive. Henry reminded us what a loss to the sport was John Watson’s lush but trim beard, sacrificed in a bet with Roger Penske after he won the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix, while Paul Fearnley pitched in with the late Jorge Recalde’s ‘tache (up there in the Mansell class and well worth a look) before dazzling us all with summoning the memory of the great turn of the previous century racer Rene de Knyff. Here was a beard so copious small children could play hide and seek in it.

Sadly the conversation didn’t last long, for I had committed the cardinal sin of kicking it off by name checking the racing driver whose facial hair was not merely abundant but so exceptionally arranged that one disgruntled contributor likened my move to kicking off a round of Mornington Crescent with Mornington Crescent. I refer, of course, to the majestically, magnificently bewhiskered Harald Ertl. If the amount of hair on your face really was proportionate to your speed on the track, he’d have been world champion at least six times. In fact, despite racing in F1 from 1975 to 1980, he never scored so much as a single point. Why this might be remains a mystery – some have opined it may have had something to do with him not being a very good F1 driver; perhaps rather controversialy I rather incline to the view that he was getting so much in helmet frontal lift from his moustache he could never get his car turned into the corner. Look at a photograph and you’ll find it hard not to agree.

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