Formula 1 Offseason Media Roundtable

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2016

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 12:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks with members of the media in the paddock during previews for the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 12, 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula One preseason testing starts in Spain on Monday, but before the craziness of the new season begins, we caught up with a group of F1 journalists to get some insight on their jobs and their views on the state of the sport (as well as some recent airport horror stories).

The panel includes:

  • Kate Walker, a freelance contributor to ESPN F1 and Motorsport.com.
  • Jeff Pappone, a freelance contributor to Canada's Globe and Mail.
  • Dieter Rencken, a journalist focusing on the political and business side of F1 for Autosport and F1 Racing.
  • Brad Spurgeon, F1 correspondent for the New York Times.
  • Daniel Johnson, F1 correspondent for the Telegraph.
  • Joe Saward, a freelance journalist and co-founder of the e-magazine Grand Prix+.

Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

  

Bleacher Report: Drivers are pretty sheltered these days, but who among the current crop do you find the most accessible and forthcoming when you are trying to track down a story?  

Kate Walker: I don't really do the sort of work where I track down drivers—my coverage is more political, so I'm more likely to spend my time chasing after team principals and the like. When I do need to speak with a driver it's usually promotional—I do the driver interviews for the official race programmes, so I get easy access via the team PR.

There are some drivers who are happy to have the odd casual chat about anything and everything, but I think that's because they know I'm not in it for a story—it's more just shooting the breeze.

Jeff Pappone: I would have to say that the driver I enjoy speaking with most in the F1 paddock these days is Jenson Button. He always has something significant to say and doesn't sound like he's offering up pre-approved media lines. Then again, I always try to catch him away from the racetrack at events rather than in the paddock. A close second would be Daniel Ricciardo.

Dieter Rencken: It used to be Mark Webber, but now it is Daniel Ricciardo—so it must be something in [the] Australian water. That said, drivers are seldom much in the political loop, which is my speciality, so I tend to hit on team principals. 

Brad Spurgeon: I don't know if it is my imagination, but it feels like today all the drivers are very similar in opening up or not to the media. In the long distant past, I could always count on certain drivers as being more open, sharper-tongued or more honest and less automaton than others. I'm thinking of people like Eddie Irvine, Jacques Villeneuve, Mark Webber and Juan Pablo Montoya. Today, I think pretty much all of the drivers are so professional that they are all equally present to respond but just as careful not to say something too negative.

Perhaps age makes a difference. Perhaps I could say that Felipe Massa might be one of those who is more ready to say what he feels. What I have noticed, though, is that in general, world champion drivers have always been the readiest to talk, the most articulate and the most professional and open in their dealings. Oh, sorry, there is one exception to that: Kimi Raikkonen tends to not be very verbal.

Daniel Johnson: Access generally is very controlled, and unfortunately, because they live in their own financial world of the super rich, it is fairly uncommon to bump into drivers out of the paddock in a relaxed setting. But among the friendliest are probably Romain Grosjean, Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Jenson Button. 

Joe Saward: To be fair, I don't have troubles with many of them. The biggest stars have more to do, so they are not so easy. The others are all pretty good, although my demand for them is not the same as some other journalists as I tend to do more on business and politics.

Daniel Ricciardo at a media session in Hungary.
Daniel Ricciardo at a media session in Hungary.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

B/R: Is there a common misconception about F1 that you hear repeatedly and would like to debunk?

Walker: That it's glamorous! Truth is, it's bloody hard work. Yes, you do get the odd event where champagne flows like water, but that's not unusual for media in general—journalists writing about fashion and beauty get the same at PR events and launches, while politicos spend their lives at embassy soirees. Most of the time, F1 is setting an early alarm, working a 14-hour day and then doing it all over again, all the while with chronic jet lag. It's a brilliant life, and I wouldn't change it, but glamorous it's not.

Pappone: The most common misconception is that racing drivers are not athletes. I can't count the number of times I've heard sports fans say that F1 drivers sit on a seat the whole time and just turn a steering wheel, [so] how hard can that be?

A few years ago, Dr. Steve Olvey did research on the recorded the oxygen intake of several drivers in IndyCar in the cockpit. The amount of oxygen needed reflects the physical demands on the body. He found the oxygen consumption was similar to a competitive 1,500-metre swimmer and a marathon runner. So you don't think those two are athletes [if] racing drivers aren't either! Remember that Jenson Button runs triathlons as a hobby!

Rencken: That personal wealth is a prerequisite to becoming world champion. Of course, there are some rich kids on the grid, but the true champions either come from disadvantaged or normal backgrounds.

Going back to the 1980s, about the only F1 world champions who came from privileged families were Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, and all three met massive parental opposition en route to the top. The rest all needed to scrape to get by, with their families making enormous sacrifices just to get them on a karting grid. Where wealth was involved that driver generally played second fiddle to a battler.      

Spurgeon: That Formula One races have become boring and lost their interest compared to the past. The racing is probably more exciting and more interesting now than it has ever been. Formula One has always been a series where one team dominates, where there is not a massive amount of overtaking [and] where the excitement comes, precisely, from those amazing moves, amazing results, spread between predictable ones.

Just look online at some of the races from the 1990s, 1980s [and] 1970s, and you will see processions. Formula One is not NASCAR. It is about different things, and one of the things is it has always been difficult to overtake. There has always been a dominant driver or team. Check it out! The number of times I remember that we have had five astounding races in a row, and then suddenly, suddenly, there is a race where no overtaking occurs and the entire world says: F1 is boring.

No. F1 is F1. Like it or leave it. No sooner will that boring race happen than there will be another amazing one.

Johnson: People often whinge about a driver only winning because they are in the best car, but that misses the point that almost without fail the best drivers end up in the best cars. There's a reason Nico Hulkenberg has not yet been given a top drive, for instance. 

Saward: That it is sexist. It is not. Absolutely not.

B/R: What is something that would surprise most fans about the life of an F1 journalist?

Walker: How much time is spent waiting. Waiting for media sessions and interviews to start (debriefs, mean drivers are often late), waiting for the Internet to start working again, waiting for planes, waiting in traffic, for dinner or for your friend to finish their piece/lap of the track so you can head home in the car you're sharing. Then there's all the attentive waiting that takes place in practice sessions—you have to pay attention to write about it, but there can also be a lot of dead time on track.

Pappone: It really isn't as glamorous as it seems. I always like to tell the story that I have been to Mexico City many times for races and have yet to see the pyramids that are a few minutes outside the city.

Essentially, we arrive on a race weekend on [a] Thursday or Friday morning, and the rest of the weekend consists of going to the track and an ungodly early hour and then going back to the hotel at an ungodly late hour. Time for dinner is usually a treat. When it's all done most leave either Sunday night or early Monday morning.

Rencken: Despite the fact that they benefit greatly from our endeavours, we enjoy absolutely zero financial support from the sport's commercial masters—if anything, we are disadvantaged by the fact that hotel and travel costs spiral upward during grand prix weekends and all too often pay the promoters for our Internet access. 

Spurgeon: That it involves massive amounts of work. It may be something more satisfying than digging ditches—depending on where you find your personal satisfaction—but there is a great deal of work. And stress. Probably more work-related stress than in digging ditches. But you do this work in a fabulous environment. 

Saward: We don't earn a lot of money, and there is not some extraterrestrial power that pays our expenses.

B/R: There is a lot of negativity swirling around F1 these days, but what aspects of the sport—aside from safety, the obvious one—have changed for the better since you first started covering it?

Walker: One thing that's really been noticeably different since I started covering F1 in 2010 is the diversity of the press room. When I first started, you were basically looking at a room of white men. There were different generational groups, but basically 95 percent of the press room was white and male. You've still got a lot more men than women, but there's a much broader international representation.

Where once it was Europeans, Brazilians and Japanese, we've now got journalists from the Indian subcontinent, China [and] the Middle East. All of those countries where we've been putting on races—whether successful or not—we've been picking up new journalists, new representation. A big part of the diversity has also come from the FIA's openness to online media—specialised motorsport journos are providing mother-tongue coverage to new markets, and that's fantastic.

Pappone: While I believe the sport still has a long way to go when it comes to openness, I think the way that some of the teams have embraced social media is a huge plus for the fans and will only push more of the same. Mercedes and Lotus, now Renault F1, in particular do a fantastic job bringing the drivers closer to fans and making the sport less snobby. I wrote about it last year.

Rencken: Without wishing to sound cynical, I cannot think of a single aspect that is better now than in 1997, when I first started covering F1 full time. Sad, but that is my honest opinion after scratching to find a single improved aspect.

Spurgeon: Almost everything has changed for the better since I started covering F1 in the early 1990s. If there is negativity swirling around F1, that is simply because of questions of fad. Negativity, in the case of F1, is a question of fad. It comes and goes. But F1 has remained the same yet better. The teams are bigger, the technology better, the drivers still exceptional, the motor homes bigger than ever [and] the races more exciting than ever.

The only negative thing I can think of is that it used to be available for the public to see on free-to-air television everywhere. Pay television creates big problems in that it limits the audience and limits the number of people who will discover the series in the future due to just happening upon a race one day or night as they flick through the channels.

Johnson: They have been very slow to it and are still miles behind, but FOM finally seem to have woken up to social media and online content. There is still a long way to go, though.

Saward: Everything has changed for the better because the sport has scaled up. The downside of that access is not as easy and it is much more structured than before. Some teams are ridiculous in this respect, notably Ferrari, which is useless with all kinds of access.

B/R: OK, now for the negativity: If you could change just one thing about F1, what would it be and how would you do it?

Walker: I think the bulk of F1's problems come from two related issues: a lack of promotion and the inequitable distribution of the spoils. Much has been said about legacy payments, etc., and I won't cover that ground again here, but in an ideal world, F1 would take 10 percent of the pot and spend that on promoting the championship internationally (part adverts, part social media and part supporting circuits' own promotional activitie) and then divide the rest of the spoils equally.

If there is to be an unfair division, the bottom 20 percent of the grid should receive an extra 20 percent on top of their rivals (I'm just making up numbers). Basically, give the backmarkers a chance of becoming competitive and the midfield a backward threat.

Pappone: It may be odd to say, but I think F1 is way too easy these days. Now, this doesn't mean the drivers don't have skill or talent, but technology has taken over too much and delivered cars that have gone too much away from the pureness that is racing. That said, it's not just an F1 problem, but grand prix racing has taken it to a whole new level. So I cheat a little bit and say the sport needs to go back to basics.

I had a chat with Gil de Ferran last year about technology and racing, and his take is sort of similar to mine. He said that when you got into a CART car back in the late 1990s, that had huge rear tires, 1,000-horsepower, not a lot of downforce, it scared you a little bit every time you pulled out of the pit lane and you had huge respect for the car because it was like riding a bucking bronco.

Rencken: Reverse that incomprehensible commercial-rights deal that saw the Max Mosley administration award F1's commercial rights to the family trust of Bernie Ecclestone, which in turn sold the sports rights to venture capitalists. Every issue in the paddock since the turn of the millennium can be somehow linked back to that deal.

Spurgeon: Make sure it is available on free-to-air television everywhere. This could be done, perhaps, by returning to some of the methods used in the past, not selling it for a fortune in order to ensure a general distribution that will result in higher revenues elsewhere—i.e., sponsorship and advertising.

Johnson: The ridiculous distribution of prize money. It discourages closer competition between teams rather than encourage it. The solution would be to move to something akin to the Premier League model, but it's very hard to see that happening.

Saward: I would get rid of CVC Capital Partners. They bring nothing to the sport except arrogance and take away far too much. If I could find the backing, I'd buy them out.

B/R: Of all the stories you have written in your career, which one are you most proud of? Anything interesting about the reporting or writing process you'd like to share? 

Walker: I've written too many pieces to even begin to be able to remember them all! One thing I was particularly proud of was less the piece itself than the title I came up with. I'm a massive fan of terrible puns, so I did a column on the forthcoming Azeri grand prix and called it "Baku life, Baku reality". Yes, that will be stuck in your head all day. Sorry not sorry.

Pappone: I had a long conversation with Jacques Villeneuve about his father on the eve of the 25th anniversary of Gilles' death in Zolder in 1982. It went in a very different direction than I thought it would, as Jacques was always very reticent to talk about his father when he was in F1. Instead, we spoke for a long time and I tried to craft a nice piece about growing up in the shadow of a driver who many feel was one of the greatest.

As for the reporting and writing process, I think the story above kind of illustrates the interesting part. You always have to be looking for the unexpected or at least try to seize it when it happens. Sometimes the story takes you on a path that you never expected and those days are the best ones.

Rencken: "Future Kid" for Autosport.com, which three years ago anticipated a massive swing away from the motor car—and by extension, motorsport—by the Millennial Generation.

Spurgeon: This is a trap question. If I were to say that it was a story I wrote 15 years ago, then a critic would be correct in asking, "What have you been doing all these years since then?" So I will use a cliche and say that it is my next story. But alright, let me just add that the stories where I have been given a free hand to explore deeply, range wide, interview many different people and touch on the series in its most universal form, those are the ones I like the most. I’ve managed to do some. [Author's note: Here's one of my favourites, an interview with 1950s and 1960s F1 reporter Robert Daley.]

Johnson: [It] would be far too self-indulgent to answer this one. One thing to remember—there are plenty of F1 specialist websites that claim to be in the paddock but never are and simply steal the work of other journalists! [Author's note: Since Johnson is too modest, I'll nominate one I wish I'd written: "Forget the 'good old days'—the sport has never been better".]

Saward: I have been proud of a lot of stories, and there really isn't one that stands out. The most rewarding are when you have to do things on deadline and the result is perfect. That is a thrill. [Author's note: A lot of Saward's best work is in his e-magazine, Grand Prix+, so I'll just link there.]

B/R: When was the last time you got really angry or frustrated in an airport? Why?

Walker: Oh, God! I am angry every time I walk into an airport! I don't know what it is about them as buildings that means normally reasonable people lose all sense of spatial awareness, but when I rule the world I'm having separate airports for frequent flyers. The whole process is just so much more efficient when everyone knows what they're doing, and given the amount of my life I spend in airports, anything that can be done to speed up the process is a win in my book.

Pappone: Perhaps you should have asked the last time I didn't get frustrated in an airport! I have long thought that all airports were definitely designed by people who never fly.

Rencken: En route from Brussels to Houston with Lufthansa for last year’s USGP. I had intended [on] booking premium economy but saw that an extra-legroom seat was available at a fraction of the cost and booked accordingly. On checking in, I was told that due to "operational reasons" the seat was no longer available—and that by then all prime eco seats were filled.

Thus, for 12 hours I sat cooped up behind a passenger who insisted on reclining all the way, making it impossible to work—which had been the original intention. Worse, the refund process required many frustrating emails and phonecalls and took almost three months to process. My next Lufthansa flight (to Brazil) was cancelled due to a strike—resulting in my missing a grand prix for the first time in seven years. Needless to say, I have not included Lufthansa on my 2016 schedule.

Spurgeon: When I arrived in Singapore for the race to discover that my acoustic guitar that I take to every race had a gaping hole in the top of it thanks to being roughed up in either the airport or the flight.

I am allowed to take the guitar in the cabin on a flight to about 99.9 percent of my flights, and there is always enough space for it. But for about that one percent of the time, some really nice person at check-in will create a scandal and insist that the guitar be put in the hold because it will never fit in the cabin, as the flight is full (almost all of the flights are full, and the guitar fits).

I did manage to get the guitar fixed. It has been around the world seven times now, to every race since the beginning of 2009, and [it] went into the hold against my will about three times.

Johnson: Regularly. Last time was probably Abu Dhabi last year. Every year they know how many extra people will be coming through immigration, yet they never seem to bother putting on more staff. 

Saward: I try to avoid it because Professor Sid Watkins always used to say that the stress of travelling was the worst thing for the health of those in F1. In 2014, I was in Washington and travelling on an Air Canada flight to Montreal (or so I thought). In fact it was a United flight, with a codeshare.

United is so bad an airline that I refuse to travel with them, and the travel agent is asked not to book any flights with them. Sure enough, the flight went wrong and I was going to have to spend the night in Washington and trust United to get it right the next day. It didn’t. So I rented a car and drove to Montreal (actually, it was two cars because I had to have a pit stop in Albany, New York, to change cars as they don’t like hire cars crossing borders unless the agency is near the frontier). I drove through the night and was in Montreal in the morning despite one or two accidental detours because I didn’t have a satnav.

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