F1's mid-flight entertainment

Aviation and motor sport have been inextricably linked since virtually the beginning. When Camille Jenatzy won the Gordon Bennett Trophy race for Mercedes in 1903, the Wright Brothers were fettling up their ‘Flyer’ in preparation for its historic controlled teeter over less than a Boeing 747’s wingspan at Kitty Hawk that December. Over the following decades many racers became flyers, and vice versa. American World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker was a pre-war racing driver who would own and run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1927-45, before he sold it to Tony Hulman. In Europe Henry Segrave was a WWI flyer turned post-war racer. After World War II the leading Italian fighter ace Franco Bordoni-Bisleri was a national champion driver by 1953. There are many, many more aviation/motor sporting links, including – of course – the technological ones.

During the 1950s John Webb – of subsequent British motor circuit management fame, including Brands Hatch, Mallory and Oulton Parks and Snetterton – ran his air charter business, Webbair, most notably for ‘the racers’. They responded ungratefully by dubbing his flights ‘Webbscare’. One to the Syracuse GP passed into legend for being pretty hairy – Innes Ireland organising the passengers into a scrum which gathered at the tail end of the cabin, then on his order ran up to the front, paused long enough for the pilot to re-trim the aeroplane, and then ran back again. Innes ended up behind the controls on that occasion. On another flight – possibly not Webbair – with engines spitting and faltering, the normally high-spirited racers on board subsided into a deathly hush. The tension was broken by one probably gin-anaesthetised player at the back of the cabin declaring “Would anyone care to join me… in a quick PRAYER?”.

Gordon Murray recently reminded me of a particularly rowdy Formula 1 constructors’ charter flight to South Africa. After the classic running-up-and-down ploy had been unleashed once more it apparently degenerated into a massive pillow fight between the opposing teams on board. This triggered an unexpected aftermath since the airline concerned had to ground its aircraft for almost a month while its pressurisation and air-conditioning system was completely stripped – to remove the feathers… The punitive bill no doubt became a legitimate Formula 1 expense. Gordon also recalls the Brabham team using up the tolerance of every available car hire company in Johannesburg. Yes, I’m told Bernie Ecclestone’s team (pictured mid-flight) was finally blacklisted as being “too risky”. That would have cheesed off Colin Chapman, who took real pleasure in his Team Lotus lads being regarded as the most daring kids on the block. I have no idea what the pecking order might be among present-day F1 teams. But I hope a league table exists?