Facial hair and speed: Russell Bulgin's archive views chime with 2020's lockdown beards

Published: 30 December 2020

► An archive gem from CAR magazine
► Russell Bulgin, November 1993
► Do beards make F1 drivers faster? 

The phone rang at 10.50pm, Monday. A mate with a question: ‘Are you watching Damon on television?’ I was. Late night, our thoughts collided down the BT wire. ‘Doesn’t he,’ gushed my pal ‘have terrific sidies?’ 

Absolutely. On Carlton’s Sport In Question, Damon Hill faced up to Jimmy Greaves, Ian St John, John Fashanu and The Sun’s Colin Hart, wearing a blue Canon Williams polo shirt and two slabs of superbly delineated facial hair. 

Each dropped to about lobe level, then crawled forward a long way. The topside was an angled fin which nudged back to the verticals. My pal claimed that one sidie was a smidge longer than t’other, suggesting a combination of poor lighting and awkward mirror placement in the Hills’ bathroom, but I thought Hill solid enough on symmetry.

They looked aerodynamic. Not bristly. Not grunge. But well mown, self-consciously sharp. But not, as yet, totally there. 

Damon Hill’s burns have been a major topic of discussion in my house this summer. This began when scanning the post-race press conference at the French Grand Prix: he was cool, eloquent and considered — and there were faint traces of tonsorial activity on his cheeks. A week later, after Silverstone, Hill was interviewed again. The sidies were still there — but, curiously, less fulsome than in France. What happened? 

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My guess is that on the Monday or Tuesday following the French race, Damon couldn’t be bothered with the critical hand-eye co-ordination required to keep his new sidies in shape. He was 100-percent focused on winning on the weekend. Precision shaving was an irrelevance, a distraction. So he chiselled the fuzzies right off his face. And then, giddy in the hype and the hustle before his home event, Hill’s understandable keening for a decent set of ‘boards returned. So he boldly resumed the growth programme for Silverstone. 

By Hockenheim he had texture, but not definition. By the time he was trading quippery with Saint Greavsie and Fash, Dame’s — in such relentlessly abbreviated company he would have to be Dame wouldn’t he? — facial addenda were well up to speed. 

After the British Grand Prix, a hackette called me. She was profiling Hill and wanted to pick my brains. (She mentioned a research fee and got my attention PDQ.) I gave her my views and expounded my theories on the man’s beard-growth strategy. The indecision before Silverstone. Those scary moments impotent before a steamy mirror, razor held high, thinking should-I-shouldn’t-I-what-to-do? 

She said she was going to use this stuff in her story. Oh God. I can see it now. 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. 

I admire Hill’s sideburns, frankly. They make him look like a decently cool thirty-something London guy. Which is what he is. Which is to say, of course, that he now looks completely out of place in grand prix racing, well known as the last refuge of the dreadful barnet in global TV sport. 

Damon Hill, 1993

Only Ayrton Senna, when he goes floppy over the collar, and Michael Schumacher, sporting a ’93-spec, low-drag, off-the-neck, clippered rug, specify Formula One haircuts which are more than just functional. 

The great Cobra Formula One fanzine once charted the career of Alain Prost through his haircuts and arrived at a chilling verdict: Prost favours a perm. 

Back in his Formula Three days, Prost was discreetly wavy. Through the ’80s he became suspiciously curly, on occasions appearing to visit the same coiffeur-house as Kevin Keegan a decade earlier. He then pared those corkscrews back a little to win three world championships. Prost is not a sidie kind of chap. Yet having thickets of cheek hair is not a handicap when it comes to snaring world championships. Hill has evidently twigged this. 

Look at photos of Jackie Stewart in 1973. He appeared to have a pair of carpet tiles affixed to his face during his final championship season. A year previously, Emerson Fittipaldi went even more triangular than Dame does today, but viciously upped the bristle-factor, too. 

It’s amazing to think that Emmo ever managed to peel off his flameproof balaclava — perhaps the idea for Velcro was born inside Fittipaldi’s crash helmet. 

Nigel Mansell has always devoted most of his facial-hair resources to garnishing his upper lip, but even he has had moments of face-fuzz indecision. In mid-1988, Mansell’s ‘tache went AWOL. But this wasn’t due to vanity, nor even aimed at increasing nostril airflow during that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix. No, Nige was as phlegmatic as ever: he had chickenpox, so the moustache was canned. 

Back to full fitness in Portugal, the moustache was flourishing once more. Since then, it has become a speedy, hirsute icon around the world, working to equally devastating effect in both Formula One and now Indycars. 

And, of course, Damon’s dad virtually defined what an English racing driver should be in the ’60s: raffish, witty and cheekily elegant. Graham Hill’s upper lip never saw sunshine yet, when running his own team, Hill senior continued to investigate the sartorial potential inherent in sidies and collar-swatting hair. 

That may be the key. Damon Hill isn’t just cultivating the best pair of sideburns in contemporary Formula One, he’s also upholding an important family tradition — being quick on the track and totally fearless when it comes to creative stubble-topiary. 

Perhaps heavy duty sidies are just the start and soon he will be plying hairy things about his upper lip, too. If so, I’ll be waiting for the phone to ring once more.

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000