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As the 2009 Formula One season revs up, the gas-and-glamour-fueled sport is facing radical changes on and off the track. But no matter how much F1 culture scales back to meet the times, it’ll always retain that magical, well, formula of speed, savvy, skill, and sex. From the playboys to the drivers to the playboy drivers, here’s an inside look at the people who kick the tires, light the fires, and keep F1 going 200 miles per hour, day and night.
The Baby Jesus
When 23-year-old Lewis Hamilton snatched the 2008 F1 championship away from Ferrari’s Filipe Massa on the final lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix, he became the youngest in history—and the first black driver—to win the title. Hard to say what’s richer: his five-year, $150 million contract with McLaren, or the extracurricular activity it affords him (conquests include Miss Grenada and a Pussycat Doll).
Last year, Max Mosley, the 68-year-old president of the FIA, redefined the term “auto erotic” when he was caught on videotape being punished by five prostitutes in German war paraphernalia. A sticky wicket—especially if your father just so happened to be the notorious fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. Despite widespread calls for his head, Max held on as president and recently made headlines for his controversial new cost-cutting rules.
Renault boss Flavio Briatore is everything that’s right with F1: women, money, flamboyance, women. The 59-year-old Heidi Klum babydaddy—who married a 28-year-old Wonderbra model—is a longtime Formula fixture and loud advocate of technical race rules that favour entertainment over engineering. Off the circuit, he owns a clothing brand non-ironically titled Billionaire, named after his club in Sardinia.
Three months ago, Ross Brawn faced extinction when Honda abruptly pulled out of F1. But the 53-year-old British machinist—who helped steer Michael Schumacher to seven F1 titles—bought what was left of the team and re-entered the grid under the name Brawn GP. In just a few weeks, his drivers have dominated pre-season testing runs and, against all odds, finished first and second in the opening round in Australia.
Ah, Vijay Mallya. Seventh-richest man in India, owner of the last-place Force India team, and sporter of a goatee and diamond earring. Whether he’s throwing parties on his 311-foot yacht Indian Empress—call him “DJ Vijay Mallya”—with the likes of Lance Armstrong, or pledging to bring the F1 circuit to India by 2011, Mallya thinks big and rolls deep.
Look for Greek-born British tycoon Stelios Haji-Ioannou at flashier circuits such as Monte Carlo. If you’re lucky, the devout Formulaphile will invite you to his penthouse on the harbour directly overlooking the Monaco Grand Prix starting line, where his friends (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, perhaps a crasher or two) gather on the balcony during the race for their very own vroom with a view.
The Money Man
Bernie Ecclestone has made a killing as the longtime owner of Formula One Management, which controls the sport’s lucrative commercial rights worldwide. Almost nothing comes too cheap to the septuagenarian (tabloid nickname: “Supremo”), whether it’s the $83 million London house he sold to an Indian industrialist or his recent-ex-wife’s rumoured $1.4 billion divorce settlement. Half his wealth, Gone In 60 Seconds!