For as long as there has been a premier single seater racing category in worldwide motorsport, then there has always been a case of celebrities flocking to its race venues.
Like moths to a flame, those that are deemed to be fairly recognisable in society or culture have managed to mingle well with the glamour and exposure Formula 1 is able to provide.
Whereas most celebrity race attendees would only probably be able to write what they know about the sport on the back of a stamp, there are a handful of genuine enthusiasts who carry a true passion for motor racing.
Off the top of my head, musicians Eric Claption and Jay Kay from the band Jamiroquai can often be seen milling around in the background of one of Martin Brundle’s infamous gridwalks. They also seem to know their (crimson red) racing onions, and both would probably be able to wax lyrical for hours about their love for the Prancing Horse.
Yet there still remains one ‘celebrity’ who to this very day has an almost unrivalled passion for motor racing, that no other personality has been able to hold a candle to. He gave more to racing than he ever took away. That man was ‘the quiet one’ from The Beatles: George Harrison.
Most people will already know that George had a close relationship with Jackie Stewart over the years, and I was inspired to delve into the history books when Jackie picked one of Geroge’s tracks (“My Sweet Lord”) on BBC Radio 2’s “Tracks of My Years” recently.
The pair first met when The Beatles arrived at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1969, and from there they would regularly meet at subsequent races. From the very beginning, they instantly got along and would often visit one another in Switzerland and London, spending a lot of time together.
George clearly enjoyed motor racing and was able to mix well with many a racing driver, completely immersing himself in their world. He would regularly hold post-race get togethers after the British Grand Prix at his large estate in Henley-upon-Thames, where the likes of John Watson and Nelson Piquet would be in attendance.
In 1979, he wrote and released a single called “Faster”. A song that provided a lyrical snapshot and gave insight into Formula 1, and whose record sleeve explained that it was “inspired by Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda, and dedicated to the entire F1 circus.” It also noted that all proceeds would be donated to the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Fund.
“Faster” by George Harrison.
Jackie made a cameo appearance in the music video for “Faster,” as George’s chauffeur, sporting a cap with a tartan band, in keeping with the style of his racing helmet at the time. While Jackie drove the Daimler for the day, George sat in the back, strumming away on his guitar and singing his song, with a chorus that ran:
Faster than a bullet from a gun
He is faster than everyone
Quicker than the blinking of an eye
Like a flash you could miss him going by
No one knows quite how he does it but it’s true they say
He’s the master of going faster
A lifelong fan of all things racing, George was also able to realise his boyhood dream with his one and only outing in a Formula 1 car when he participated in the Gunnar Nilsson Memorial Trophy at Donington Park in 1979. An event held in tribute to the Swedish driver who sadly died several months earlier.
At the time, Motor Sport Magazine described the event as “Donington’s first Grand Prix for over 40 years,” which was perhaps a little bit much since the fundraiser was just a time trial around the track, attended by the top drivers of the day. It was George however, who captured much of the media’s attention, driving Stirling Moss’ Lotus 18 and clocking up eleven, rather tentative, laps of Donington in the process.
As the years passed, George continued to grow ever closer to the Stewart family and would regularly be spotted at grands prix, trying to make as low-key appearance as possible as he clearly hated the trappings of fame and living in the celebrity bubble. He tried to attend as many races as possible, but it was difficult for him to avoid the publicity that ensued.
But with fame comes fortune, and it was apparent that George clearly enjoyed the benefits money was able to provide him. He took time out of his musical career in the early 80s and concentrated on racing his large collection of sports cars and would later become one of the first owners for the McLaren F1 car that would later make an appearance in one of The Beatles’ Anthology videos.
George also dipped into his large coffers to assist an young upstart called Damon Hill, who at the time was struggling financially on the first few rungs of the Formula 1 career ladder. His generosity helped tide over the would be Formula 1 drivers’ champion, until communications giant Cellnet came along and funded his British Formula 3 drive in 1986.
As the years passed by, there were many who genuinely begun to worry for George’s wellbeing and things took a nasty turn in 1999 when, after a knife attack by an intruder at his Henley residence, he went into seclusion and rarely made any public appearances. His last sighting at a race was the Canadian Grand Prix in 2001, before he was diagnosed with cancer and then turned his full attention to fighting the disease. He later died that same year.
George was not your conventional celebrity. He was a dignified, reflective soul who never wanted the attention that was bestowed upon him. There were those who wondered if he was ‘all there’ in his later years, remaining casual under a spiritual influence and often seen wearing way-out clothes. But perhaps that’s just a sad indictment of how we perceive people?
His fascination for all things racing derived from the fact he had the the same fanatical attention to detail as those who participate in the sport, and like them he could be amazingly fastidious at times. This determination to get things exactly right extended to his music and he would work and work until the song he was producing was how he wanted it to be – precisely right. Sound vaguely familiar to Formula 1 at all?