Michael Schumacher is not Formula One's only significant retiree this year. From the beginning of next season, no car will carry cigarette branding. And I'm not convinced this is such a good thing. It's not that I smoke myself, or that I'm a fan of destroying youthful lungs. It's just that I worry about the diminution of what cigarette sponsorship represents.
A cigarette has always been a potent symbol of naughtiness. Just as the young Brigitte Bardot looked impossibly erotic with a cigarette in her mouth, so tobacco branding has always hinted at F1's darker, more heroic side. The most iconic cars of the past 30 years all owed their appearance to the power of the tobacco dollar. Thoughts turn to the black-and-gold John Player Special Lotuses of the '70s, or the Marlboro-liveried McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. These cars were fast, dangerous and emotive.
Some of F1's most engaging drivers were also smokers. James Hunt-arguably the most iconic playboy in Grand Prix history-was rarely seen without a pack of Marlboro. There is a picture of Hunt slumped on a sofa in a Marlboro motorhome, wearing a white, unbranded t-shirt, denim shorts and sneakers. On the table is a well-used ashtray and a pack of cigarettes, while above his head are dramatic pictures of Hunt at the wheel of his championship-winning McLaren. It's hard to believe the man on the sofa is the same as the one in the car.
Murray Walker, Hunt's co-commentator for the UK's Formula One TV coverage, once wrote that James "drank to excess, smoked to excess and womanized to super-excess." Here was a guy who lived even faster than he drove. It was no surprise he died young.
Hunt was no anomaly. In 1986 at Silverstone, Keke Rosberg famously stubbed out a cigarette before he jumped into his Williams-Honda and became the first man to average more than 160 mph during a qualifying lap. But even Rosberg couldn't match the smoking passion of his motorcycling counterpart, Barry Sheene. Sheene had his engineers drill a hole in his helmet, so he could smoke in the pit lane.
These men operated in a dangerous world in which death remained an ever-present possibility. They were athletes and, by conventional standards, ferociously fit. But they adopted a devil-may-care attitude to life that made tobacco branding the perfect fit. Names like Rothmans, Camel, Gitanes and Lucky Seven sit easily beside those of Villeneuve, Arnoux, Peterson and Andretti.
It is a different world today. Michael Schumacher wore Marlboro branding until the very end of his career, but the association was oblique. Schumacher was no more likely to be seen lighting up than he was letting a rival pass into Turn One. Philip Morris was paying hundreds of millions of dollars each year to associate its product with Ferrari, not because anyone truly believed that Schuey fancied a smoke.
Contemporary teams employ an army of public relations boffins to manage every moment of the drivers' lives. If the image of Hunt were be to taken now, they would have removed the Marlboros, dressed him in a branded t-shirt, hand-picked their favorite photographer and presented an image of the champion power-napping: "Hunt is so cool he can sleep before a race."
Many of today's F1 drivers enjoy what could be described as an 'energetic' private life. They are young, normally wealthy, sometimes good looking and in the public eye. In such circumstances, the pleasures of the flesh are not difficult to come by. But whereas Hunt wore a patch on his overalls declaring that 'Sex is the breakfast of champions', we are taught to be shocked when a modern F1 driver is caught getting jiggy in a jacuzzi. We rely on sordid kiss-and-tell stories to discover what we always hoped was true.
Everything is so well controlled that if a driver does let down his guard, the world goes into meltdown. On the grid before this year's season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, racer-turned-commentator Martin Brundle approached Kimi Raikkonen. This was Kimi's last race for McLaren and he was clearly de-mob happy.
Pele had just handed Schumacher a special award and Brundle wanted to know if Raikkonen had watched the ceremony. "No," said Kimi live, on-air, "I was having a shit." Millions of viewers across the globe fell off their sofas in shock and the normally unflappable Brundle was momentarily lost for words. Raikkonen's comment was rude and not particularly funny, but it was so irreverent that I couldn't help but applaud-he really couldn't have given a shit.
This is the same Raikkonen that caused a sensation when he was accused of being naughty in a London lap-dancing club after spending thousands on champagne. Such incidents never sat well with McLaren's squeaky-clean image, but next year Raikkonen will be driving for Ferrari. Watching the 'Iceman' grapple with the demands of competing for the world's most famous marque will add an extra frisson of interest to the 2007 season.
In this airbrushed world, Raikkonen is a glimmer of hope. If only he'd take up smoking.