This weekend the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be my 500th working World Championship race. I did a few other F1 races before I started as a journalist, but I don’t count them. I’d like to say it was my 500th consecutive race, but that’s not strictly true, because I note from my records that I did 11 races before the Spanish GP of 1988, but then missed Jerez, because on October 2 1988, I was at “The Mountain” at Bathurst, reporting on the Tooheys 1000. Since then I have done them all. I have missed a couple of Fridays for one reason or another. There was one occasion when I had pneumonia and was forbidden to fly, and so I took the train to Barcelona. There was another occasion when the planes all went wrong and I was 36 hours late arriving, and another when I drove from Washington DC to Montreal to get over a plane mess, but I only missed the Friday morning session on that occasion.
It is rare these days that fulltime F1 reporters do races other than Grands Prix, but back then we used to do a lot of different stuff. I was 26 and obviously had boundless energy (left) because it seems like I hardly ever went home. I have no complaints about that because that was the path I had chosen and I never really have any regrets. It’s been a blast. It is not an easy life. We live with chronic jet-lag and don’t spend enough time with our families, but kids who grow up with a father who is a road warrior don’t know any different and just accept the fact that their dad disappears all the time.
The fact that 500 races have passed is not in itself that important to me. I am not a great believer in long service medals and I am still a long way behind the likes of Herbie Blash, who is now at about 760 races, but I am still relatively young – and feel that way. These days 55 seems to be the new 40, so I can see myself doing this job for 20 years more, at least if I can find a way to pay for it. I am not good at mathematics, but 20 years with 25 races (which is what the new owners seem to want) and I will be in four figures!
Being an F1 reporter was my only real ambition and when you get there you are kind of stuck because the only way from F1 is down. I am not a PR man (sadly, because some of them earn daft amounts of money) but I still find F1 fascinating, as I always have. And that keeps me fresh. The difference between now and when I started is that today I understand a lot more about how it all works. I find F1 to be a constantly variable world, with new places, new ideas and new people. It does not have the variety of race reporting that I had back in 1988, but I don’t really need that. While writing this post I started to look back at 1988 and it is fascinating to see what I was doing at the time. The season began, for example, with a British Formula 3 race at Thruxton (dead glamorous!). It was won by a young JJ Lehto, who beat a field which included Damon Hill, Martin Donnelly and Eddie Irvine. I went to Monza a fortnight later for the Monza 500 European Touring Car Championship race and then was at Donington for a similar event in mid-April. I then did the San Marino GP at Imola, the Indy 500 (plus a dirt car race and a SuperVee event) and then back-to-back 24 Hour races at Le Mans and the old Nurburgring. Then it was back to the F1 beat full-time, although I snuck in the Spa 24 Hours between Germany and Hungary and the Silverstone TT between the Belgian and Italian GPs. Then it was off to Portugal and then Bathurst. This was the kind of lifestyle that resulted in someone naming my Autosport column Globetrotter.
Autumn in the Antipodes was a regular thing in those days because there were various big races in the Asia-Pacific region and I used to do all of them. After Bathurst in 1988, I went to New Zealand for the Wellington 500 street race, although there is a gap there and I suspect that I was on holiday in Fiji because I definitely went there two years running and I know the first was during a 1987 coup état. I then went up to Japan for the Japanese GP, then back to Adelaide for the last F1 race and then went to Melbourne for the final World Endurance Championship race at Sandown Park.
I didn’t do Macau that year, but I was back in the UK for only a few weeks before I was off on the Paris-Dakar Rally (left), where I first met Jean Todt and, soon afterwards, had a big row with him after he decided to settle the result of the rally by tossing a coin…
The funny thing is that after 1988 the number of non-F1 races that I have attended has been relatively small. I do the occasional French national hillclimb, I did a Formula E race in Paris not long ago, but over the years there are not that many: a Le Mans, a visit to Paramatta City Speedway, a 500 Mile race at Eastern Creek, a couple of Pau GPs and a Formula 3000 at Nogaro. Today, F1 really is fulltime job, with 21 races a year all over the world. Back in 1988 it was only 16 and most were in Europe. It was easier then…
Formula 1 people are a funny bunch. We are a mobile village that moves from place to place and all manner of amazing people come and go and we have a lot of very strange and interesting experiences. Everyone who passes through is unusual in some way or another. You don’t fall into jobs like F1, you have to go out and grab them. A lot of people are rather selfish but often one is surprised by how generous and kind they are when they want to be. I don’t much like the constant antipathy that exists between the teams, carefully nurtured by those who stand to gain from it, and I would much prefer a world where there is friendlier competition on the track and sensible cooperation off it. I think the sport could gain so much from that, just as I think it would gain hugely if the accredited media was allowed to engage more with fans using modern media techniques. The great characters that we have in F1 do not always come across on TV but we are not allowed, for example, to film anything inside the Paddock. It wouldn’t detract from the TV shows that exist and in many respects it would help draw more people in – the whole thing is just plain silly.
There are only a few people who have crossed me over the years and for whom I have no time at all, but usually I find that the bad eggs (and there are some bad ones) drop out of the game quite quickly. I get on with most of the folk in the paddock, although the sport has grown so much that inevitably one knows a smaller percentage than used to be the case. There is also less time to get to know people because we are all much busier. We don’t always agree on everything – and why should we? In F1 we live for the present and for the future and, while it is a bit of a shame when people do not learn from the past and make the same mistakes that have been made before, the sport makes progress all the time. It can always be better.
Today my ambition is to see my book The Grand Prix Saboteurs made into a movie, as it would be nice to have more financial security. The future of the written word is anything but certain. The future seems to be in moving images, but getting jobs in that world is not easy if you do not scream as commentators scream and all the analysts are (quite rightly) ex-drivers. Still, explaining the wild complexities of the sport is not easy and so there are always opportunities.
Onward and upward…