Hope

Jules Bianchi Singapore GP 2014 c/o James Moy Photography

Jules Bianchi
Singapore GP 2014
c/o James Moy Photography

Last night I received a comment to this blog which I found so moving and so full of hope, I wanted to share it with you. With its author’s permission, here it is:

Dear Will

I think of Jules nearly every day and pray for his full recovery. My first introduction to Jules was your excellent interview with him that aired the evening before the Japanese Grand Prix. I was very impressed with Jules character and humility, and of course his skill and promising future as an F1 racing driver. Because of your connection with Jules and his Family, I thought of sharing this information with you, and you may choose, if you feel it provides relevant encouragement, to share this with Jules family. They need positive encouragement to keep the faith and continue to believe in the possibility of a full recovery for Jules.

Our story is a long and painful one, as with Jules, our son Mike (age 26 at the time of his injuries) was seriously injured (nearly fatal) in a car wreck. His diagnosis was Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), specifically Diffuse Axonal Injury (DAI). Mike’s prognosis was 90% death or if he survived then his medical prognosis was life in a Permanent Vegetative State.

I am writing to you because, for our family, among the most encouraging times during Mike’s recovery was first hand news and knowledge of others who survived the dreaded DAI diagnosis. I realize from firsthand experience that every TBI is different and the miraculous recovery for our son Mike may be an exception to the “rule”. But the encouragement of this possibility is what Jules’ family needs to persist through Jules long recovery process.

Mike’s story, 6 years post injury now, has evolved into a beautiful story of full recovery, marriage on the one year anniversary of the accident, his graduation with a Master’s degree in business (MBA) two years after the wreck, and a wonderfully productive life now that defies the original dreaded DAI – Permanent Vegetative State prognosis.

Today is Thanksgiving Day, November 27th in the US, and our family is celebrating our thankful blessings. Top on our list is Mike’s full recovery, and our family prays for Jules and his family, and most importantly for Jules full and complete recovery.

Respectfully,

Mike’s dad,

Michael Marion

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For a glimpse into the public view of Mike’s recovery, visit this website: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/mikemarion

The Contenders – Lewis Hamilton

GP2 Testing, February 2006 GP2 Media Service

GP2 Testing, February 2006
GP2 Media Service

I’d expected him to look older. I suppose its only natural with someone you’d been reading about for years, but he’d been such a constant part of the motorsport landscape for such a long time that I’d imagined he’d already be the finished article. He’d been a mini-megastar in England since his karting days. Even as a child I remember seeing his face on TV, on the news, on ITV’s karting show with DJ David ‘Kid’ Jensen, Blue Peter, through the pages of Autosport and Motoring News. He was a future world champion. That’s what we’d always been told. That’s what we’d always believed. And here he was, this future F1 superstar. I’d expected him to be taller. I’d expected him to be broader… I’d expected him to look older.

But there he stood on the pitwall in his ASM F3 overalls, a black fleece three sizes too large wrapped around him, his curly mini-afro blowing in the wind. He walked back towards the garage, hunched over to hide from the cold Mistral wind. An acknowledgement of someone new, a hand outstretched, a warm shake, friendly smile, brief introduction, a nice to meet you, and he was off into the engineering room at the back of the impeccable facilities.

I first met Lewis Hamilton at a cold, wintery Circuit Paul Ricard shortly after his 21st birthday, on his testing debut for inaugural GP2 champions ART Grand Prix. The F3 Euro Series champion would be taking over the chassis which had taken Nico Rosberg to GP2’s first drivers’ title and already there was a buzz surrounding his arrival in the paddock. To anyone who followed junior series racing, there was a universal belief that the McLaren junior was going to be very special.

To be a member of an F1 team’s youth programme really meant something a decade ago. It wasn’t just about getting to wear a team shirt or getting to put the logo on your overalls, train in the team’s gym or jump on the simulator for a few laps every six months (decent sims were in their infancy back then)… if you were a McLaren junior, in the RDD, Honda Young Driver scheme, a Red Bull junior or in that Mercedes stable it meant you were going places. You had people behind you who believed in you and who would back you. And, most importantly, you had a real shot at making it into a Formula 1 seat. The young drivers on F1 programmes really were the chosen few. I think back to the Renault programme and the drivers it spawned: Kovalainen, Lopez, di Grassi, Maldonado, Kubica, van der Garde, Duval, d’Ambrosio, Grosjean… it was an astonishing pool of talent.

McLaren’s list was small by comparison. Hamilton was the team’s great, and only, hope. And yet there was no arrogance, no sense of self-importance to the man… the boy. He arrived at every test and race with his father Anthony, step-Mum Linda and little brother Nicholas. They were a tight family unit, not too dissimilar from how I imagine they were during the karting years. To them, it seemed, there was no need to change. This was how they’d always done things.

He was impressive from the off, although hot headed at times too. He was disqualified in Imola on his second weekend in the championship for overtaking the safety car, something he would go on to repeat four years later in F1 at the European Grand Prix in Valencia. But my God, he was fast. His racecraft was so beautiful that at times it seemed choreographed… pre-ordained.

His two races at Silverstone were outstanding. Passing both Piquet and Piccione at Maggotts remains one of the greatest overtaking moves in the history of GP2. But then his fight through the field on Sunday to take the win announced him to the British faithful. Passing the leading Campos of Felix Porteiro was the only time I ever heard 26 V8 GP2 engines drowned out by cheering. All weekend he’d been impossible to find in the paddock. As I later discovered, he’d been standing at the fence at the back of the GP2 enclosure signing autographs for everyone who passed. He hadn’t been asked to. He’d just wanted to.

Hamilton's season fell apart in Hungary GP2 Media Service

Hamilton’s season fell apart in Hungary
GP2 Media Service

For me, the Istanbul GP2 weekend will always be where Lewis Hamilton truly arrived to those in the F1 paddock who hadn’t yet figured out how brilliant he was. I remember it so vividly. The Turkey weekend came off the back of the Briton’s worst event of the whole season. His championship rival Nelson Piquet Jr had thrown down the first perfect weekend in GP2 history in Budapest, taking pole position, both race wins and both fastest laps. Istanbul was the penultimate race weekend of the championship. Hamilton had to take the initiative back. But it was Piquet who again took pole and again took the race win and fastest lap… by half a second.

Hamilton, for a moment, seemed lost. His emotions had got the better of him in Hungary, something which can still blight his momentum today, and in Turkey all those years ago it looked set to derail his championship charge.

He knew he had to do something and so, overnight, he asked ART to trim all the wing off the car they could and put it basically into Monza spec. The team thought he was crazy, warning him he’d spin without the downforce. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened at the start of Sunday’s sprint race, sending Hamilton out of the top 20 and leaving his championship hopes severely dented. What followed, however, was mesmerizing. I stood, alongside my girlfriend in the Super Aguri garage, watching in awe. One by one every engineer, every mechanic stopped what they were doing and stared at the screen agog. They applauded every lap that followed. It was a scene replicated up and down the F1 pitlane.

In spinning so early, Hamilton had learned where the limit of adhesion lay. It was a mark he would not overstep again. With substantially less downforce than his rivals, he blasted past them on the straights, and somehow held it all together through the corners. Time and again through the multi-apex Turn 8 he’d start to lose the rear but would emerge on opposite lock, almost drifting the ART through the corner. He made up every position bar the top step of the podium. In a 23-lap contest in a spec championship, without pitstops, he had overtaken almost the entire field. His fastest lap was set on the final lap and was 0.854 faster than any other driver had managed that day.

Many put that drive down to Lewis Hamilton’s guts. Most, put it down to his superior driving feel… that natural ability that had always set him out as a special and unique talent. But very few put it down his intelligence, first in going against the team in choosing the low downforce option and second in adapting his driving-style within a lap to suit a set-up he had not tested.

Turkey Race 2, 2006 GP2 Media Service

Turkey Race 2, 2006
GP2 Media Service

A lot has always been made of Hamilton’s “natural” gift and ability, and it is something that has stuck with him and formed the basis of his reputation throughout his career. But as a result of that, there’s a preconceived idea that he is a seat-of-the-pants racer who can wring the neck of a racing car like few other men on earth but who lacks any real ability to use his brain. It is a reputation that could not be further from the truth.

Early in his GP2 career, Lewis contacted me (via MySpace as I recall) and asked how I had learned to speak French. I told him it was a combination of living in Switzerland and watching Cartoon Network in French, and listening to the Michel Thomas educational CDs. He asked for a favour, and so I packed them up and sent them to him. Why? Because he felt it was important to learn the language in which his team and engineers spoke.

This, at the age of 21, was not a request born of someone without the mental capacity to deal with more than he was being given credit for. Yes, I had been in awe of the multi-lingual Nico Rosberg, but for someone of Hamilton’s age to want to learn a new language from scratch in the midst of what was to be one of the most intense seasons of competition of his life, I found a desperately impressive measure of the man.

Perhaps the “natural ability” angle is one Hamilton himself is perfectly fine with accepting. A huge Ayrton Senna fan, he revels in the comparisons to his hero. But deep down, I think there’s an underlying sub-plot in doing so. For to propagate the myth, to give it credence, only serves to draw attention away from the fact that his natural gift behind the wheel is just one of the weapons in his armory. To make people think he isn’t as smart as his rivals is to hide perhaps his greatest strength.

Hamilton Vs Rosberg has been billed as Senna Vs Prost II. But it’s not. These two drivers are completely unique and should take their own billing. Yes, there are shared similarities in personality and perceived strengths, but it isn’t as simple as all that. And yet, in simplifying it so much, the general opinion has been formed that Rosberg, as the Prost character, was always the more likely to prosper under the 2014 regulations. His superior intellect, so everyone had been led to believe, would carry him. His incredible mind would allow him to work with the complex cars, use the brakes, the energy harvesting, look after the tyres and moderate his fuel usage.

In The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal Kint comes out with the immortal line: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I think of this line every time I hear somebody tell me that Hamilton isn’t as intelligent as Rosberg, or doesn’t have the capability to understand the cars.

Because, for me, the greatest trick that Lewis Hamilton ever pulled, was convincing the world that he wasn’t smart.

Driving to victory in Sochi James Moy Photography

Driving to victory in Sochi
James Moy Photography

Think about it. His fuel usage has regularly been better than almost anyone in the field. Man to man versus Rosberg, I can’t recall a single race this year where in the same machinery Hamilton’s fuel usage has been higher. He has made his tyres last. He has had to fight from the back of the field time and again (think Germany, think Hungary) and yet he hasn’t overworked his tyres, he hasn’t used too much fuel. He has learned how to drive these new cars, and to extract the most from them using the least.

After the Brazilian Grand Prix, where he had made up the seven seconds he lost in his pre-pitstop slide, he commented to us on US television that he was proud of a race like the one he’d pulled in Interlagos, because it had shown, once again, that despite the prevailing conception, he could preserve his tyres, he could look after his fuel, and still be faster than his team-mate. Far from the unintelligent chancer many paint Hamilton to be, he is proving to be the intellectual match of his team-mate, and the better racer to boot.

Perceived wisdom stated that Lewis Hamilton, more than any other driver in Formula 1, would be asked the greatest questions by the new rules. His answer, has thus been an emphatic exclamation mark.

Very often this season, Hamilton has spoken about his desire for the title. He has stated time and again that for him 2014 feels like his first run in for a championship, so different a person is he to the driver who took the plaudits in 2008. And in so many aspects I can see why. The Lewis Hamilton of 2014 is so different to the man who ran in for his first title in 2007 and took the crown in 2008. In public, he is every bit the megastar. He has his own private jet, lives in Monaco and LA with his popstar girlfriend. He can call Will Smith when he’s in town to have dinner with the Fresh Prince.

We laughed about this earlier in the year. About the insanity of life, where the sport had taken him and what lay before him in his career and his ultimate destiny. It wasn’t real. He knew that. And because of it, he wanted to make the most of it all. Because beyond everything that you see, beyond the big pimpin, diamante encrusted bling wearing magazine cover star lies that very same kid I first met at a cold and windy Ricard, surrounded by his family. When I sat down to interview him last in a one-on-one situation in Hockenheim, his first question was not for me, my crew, what we were filming or why… it was for Sophie, my daughter; how she was doing, how old she was now, how school was going and his own desire for a family one day.

That’s the man he is. Thoughtful. Sincere. Genuine.

Those who choose to paint a picture of an artificial or conceited character do not see this side of Lewis Hamilton. They don’t see him out the front of the garage on pitlane walkabout, talking and actually listening to his fans. When he turned up in New York for a two minute appearance on the Today Show, he arrived two hours early and spent every spare moment engaged with his fans. Just as he had done that GP2 weekend at Silverstone.

Earlier in the season, in Monaco, we’d spent a morning driving around town filming an interview for NBC. We looked back to the GP2 days, a simpler time before money and fame. We spoke of when McLaren dropped him and he almost signed for BMW. We spoke of family, of friends, of fear and of pressure. Such overwhelming pressure.

This is a driver who has never had the opportunity to fail. He has never been able to be anything but the best. Imagine the pressure placed upon a child who at 11 years of age plucks up the courage to ask Ron Dennis for his patronage and is then tasked with fulfilling an almost impossible destiny each and every year. As I mentioned, and as Lewis and I discussed earlier this year, McLaren did actually drop Hamilton at the tail end of 2004. Lewis was on the verge of signing for BMW, but only Hamilton’s own result at the Bahrain Superprix subsequently renewed Dennis’ interest enough to bring him back onboard at McLaren.

The pressure, therefore, has rested on Hamilton’s shoulders since his first lap in an F1 car. He has been the poster boy and at the same time the dartboard for the British media ever since that day. A hero at his best, a villain at his worst, he has lived his entire Formula 1 career in the glare of the brightest spotlight.

It is probably worth remembering that Hamilton has done what few F1 drivers have achieved in their careers… if, and I’m not going to pretend that I know off hand how many, any have: he has won at least one race in every season of his F1 career.

But he has had to live and evolve in that spotlight. And his period of growth has been far from smooth.

Singapore, 2012 James Moy Photography

Singapore, 2012
James Moy Photography

The years following his title were ones of tremendous turmoil. He wrestled with the sport, with his team, but most of all with himself. He ditched his family, he brought in new management, he bounced from blissful happiness with his girlfriend to absolute solitary singledom. None of it made him happy. None of it gave the satisfaction he craved.

The tone had been set in the latter half of that 2006 season, as soon as it become clear that his future lay with McLaren in Formula 1 in 2007. Gone went the curly hair, replaced by a shaved head. It was a small thing at the time, but an outward signal of the beginning of a strict regime which would stifle Lewis Hamilton’s personality and ultimately lead to him needing to flee the team which had been responsible for taking him to the very top.

For me, 2011 was his lowest point. I remember seeing him in Korea. He cut a lonely figure. No team of family and friends around him like Jenson. Nobody to fall back to. Nobody to talk to. Nobody with whom to even take dinner. He’d never seemed more alone. Never seemed more lost. Bizarrely enough, that weekend I’d got into an email exchange with one of my own childhood heroes, the wrestler The Ultimate Warrior. A fairly controversial figure, in later life he had become a motivational speaker and artist and had sent me over some of his perceived words of wisdom, some self-penned, others taken from historical figures. I have one framed at home. One, however, I printed out and handed to Lewis that Saturday afternoon. I figured if anyone could use it, then it was him.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 04.55.24

It was the only non Red Bull pole position of the entire season. He walked out the back of the FIA garage, glanced up and caught my eye. He smiled for the briefest moment and gave a relieved thumbs up. We agreed we’d go for dinner later in the season. We never did, as life and work overtook us both.

Something changed in Lewis going into 2012, as the realisation dawned that if he was ever to emerge from his internal turmoil, he needed a change of environment. He needed to move away from a relationship which had gone toxic, and in 2013 his new home at Mercedes allowed Lewis the freedom to be the driver he had always wanted to be. Some say he has matured hugely over the past two seasons. I’d say that the freedom afforded to him by Mercedes has allowed him to get back to being who he truly is. In either case, what is undeniable is that the change in him is so marked that when he says this feels like the run in for his first world championship I truly believe him.

And yet, the misconceptions from his early years remain as true today as they ever were. Perhaps because he’s allowed them to fester. Perhaps because many don’t see the true man that exists behind the visor.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the most naturally gifted drivers of his generation. But he’s also one of the most intelligent, considered and thoughtful. A ruthless, aggressive, instinctive operator wheel-to-wheel, but mature, measured and mindful too, Lewis Hamilton is reaching the level of becoming the complete driver.

He has dropped his flashy management and surrounded himself once again with his family. His father attends races once more, his step-Mum Linda never far away. When he can drag himself away from his own racing exploits, Nic comes along too.

For all the trappings of fame, Lewis never looks anything but awkward posing in front of his jet, wearing the big gold chains or hanging with celeb friends. Its in family photos that he looks happiest and most content. Or shopping at Waitrose with his missus. Or relaxing at home with Roscoe.

Because deep down, he’s still that awkward kid from Stevenage, with a MySpace page and a profile photo with a fro-comb in his hair.

Like his one time karting team-mate and now F1 championship rival, Lewis Hamilton has changed so much over the past decade. But really, he hasn’t changed at all.

Lewis Hamilton 2014 Formula 1 World Champion? James Moy Photography

Lewis Hamilton
2014 Formula 1 World Champion?
James Moy Photography

The Contenders – Nico Rosberg

Rosberg leads Hamilton Brazilian Grand Prix 2014 James Moy Photography

Rosberg leads Hamilton
Brazilian Grand Prix 2014
James Moy Photography

There is an element of destiny about the 2014 Formula 1 world championship and that it should have come to be decided at the final round of the season, this weekend in Abu Dhabi. Ever since that first pre-season test and we were first given concrete evidence to support the rumours of the brilliance of the W05 hybrid’s package, through the ups and downs of reliability and team politics, somehow its always seemed likely to come to this.

Forget double points. When it comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter all that much. Had the gap been 26 points or more, then yes one might have reason to argue that it was all desperately unfair. But if you think about it, double points hasn’t really done a thing… yet. The championship would always have gone to the final race. The grand plan to keep the interest of the viewing public piqued until the last race has been accomplished more by the 2014 technical regulations and the Mercedes Petronas AMG team’s decision to allow its drivers to race, than by a ridiculous gimmick dreamt up in a boardroom.

From a personal perspective, that it should all come down to Abu Dhabi creates something of a perfect exclamation point for me, too. This weekend will be my last as GP2 commentator, and at the conclusion of the championship’s tenth season of competition it seems appropriate that one of its first two champions will be crowned Formula 1 champion on Sunday. I PRd them both. I have no favourite. I believe there have been virtues and accomplishments in both of their 2014 seasons.

At the base of it, we have two of the most gifted drivers of their generation gunning for a world title in the very best car of the year. It is absolutely as it should be. Both have transformed themselves remarkably since those formative years. And yet neither seems to have changed at all from the slightly awkward young men I first met 10 years ago.

So here are some personal recollections of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, and why, to my mind, either man would be a worthy world champion come Sunday.

Nico

Nico Rosberg ART Grand Prix 2005 GP2 Media Service

Nico Rosberg
ART Grand Prix 2005
GP2 Media Service

I can’t recall the first time I met Nico Rosberg. All I remember is that I despised him, everything he was and all he represented: the cock-sure, entitled, bolshy son of a world champion. No grace, no humility. Wafting in, a blur of blonde hair and arrogance. A Formula BMW champion yes, but only a few F3 wins and just three years in single seaters gave what I held to be little foundation for such seeming conceit. I disliked him intensely. It got to the point where I held such disdain for him that I would actively seek for our paths to not cross… which was fairly hard given I was PRing the championship in which he was racing. I’d simply ask someone else to grab his quotes for me. They always seemed to be able to pull more out of him anyway.

But after a slow start his major results started to come, fittingly enough beginning at his “home” race of Monaco. In 2005 we only ran one race in the Principality, and he ended up on the podium. It gave him the confidence he needed. His first win wasn’t far away and as soon as it came, the championship charge really began. While the early pace-setters and championship favourites Heikki Kovalainen and Arden plateaued, Rosberg and ART improved with each passing race.

I never lost sight of the irony, however, that ART had never been the first option for him. On the basis of the 2004 F3000 season, the most coveted seats were at Arden and BCN. BCN had been Rosberg’s preferred and hoped-for destination, until a perfect sales pitch by Nicolas Todt and Fred Vasseur saw them lure the German to their new outfit. How fortuitous for Rosberg, that while BCN floundered and eventually folded, ART should become, on the back of the tremendous foundation laid in the guise as ASM, the class of junior series racing over that year and the following decade.

Nico Rosberg had been quick from the outset, and watching his racecraft develop as the season went on became a growing point of emotional turmoil for me. He was so impressive; seemingly effortlessly rapid and blessed with a precision that was metronomic. But I just couldn’t like him. I wished he’d been a good guy, one I could get excited about. But instead I felt huge sadness that such a wonderful talent had been given to a guy who was apparently such a Class A prat.

Nico speaks with his ART engineer Gaetan Bahrain 2005 GP2 Media Service

Nico speaks with his ART engineer Gaetan
Bahrain 2005
GP2 Media Service

I recall the low point only too well. He was breezing past on his way to dinner. His team-mate Alexandre Premat had topped qualifying, and I’d used the staggeringly unoriginal press release headline of “Premat Powers to Pole.”

“Why don’t I ever “power” to anything?” he pointedly sneered as he walked past.

I looked up, trying to figure out what he was talking about. Then it hit, and I wondered why he was being so petty. The headline was simple alliteration. I had probably or would probably use “Rosberg Reigns” at some point of the season on the back of one of his wins. It was just Nico being typical Nico.

“Dick!” I whispered under my breath, just loud enough for him to hear.

Later that night, I needed to talk to his then-PR guy Karsten Streng and hopped into the ART truck to find him.

“Karsten, can we have a chat?”

Out from behind his race overalls jumped Nico.

“Oh, so you don’t want to speak to me then? Huh? What’s that all about? You’d rather speak to Karsten than to me?”

I turned on my heels and walked out.

Karsten ran after me.

“Will, man, you can’t let that get to you. You know he’s only joking, right? Just fire it straight back at him. He’ll love it. He’s really a fun guy… honestly. But if you don’t give it back to him he’ll think he’s got the high ground. He loves a challenge.”

The next day Nico sent some pithy comment my way, so I turned around, flipped him the bird and winked. “Fuck you Rosberg.”

He looked taken aback. I broke out in a cold sweat. This was not behavior becoming of the championship’s press officer. Had I just managed to ruin any relationship I might have had with the man destined to be our first champion?

A smile broke across his face, and we never had a cross word again. Indeed, we started to get on really well. At the end of the season I received a package to my home, from Monaco. In it was an ART team shirt, signed by Nico, thanking me for my support. I had it framed, and it remains one of my most treasured pieces of memorabilia from my career in racing.

GP2 Series Champion 2005 GP2 Media Service

GP2 Series Champion 2005
GP2 Media Service

Nico was the most savvy driver I ever worked with. Stepping down from the podium after winning the GP2 title, he spoke to the awaiting press in turn, each in their own language. I’d only ever seen him in individual language press briefings, and to see him utilise such cool and calm intelligence so soon after the elation of what was at the time the most meaningful moment of his career left me astounded.

But therein lies the deepest issue with Nico Rosberg. He isn’t just smart. He’s the sort of smart that makes the rest of us question if we’re quite as clever as we thought we were. And at times it can be his undoing.

I’d seen his intelligence and need for the high ground cause him trouble time and time again in interviews, even in the GP2 days. The interviewer would sit down, all smiles, ready to start the conversation. But Nico, fearful of being on the back foot, would fire retorts and wrestle control of the interview back into his own hands. He would put the interviewer at ill ease in order to make himself feel more comfortable with the situation. What resulted was a terrible interview, and the prevailing opinion of Rosberg being precisely the one I’d drawn when first we met: that he was cocky and arrogant. When I came back to journalism in 2008 I had booked a sit down with him at Williams and for the first 2 minutes of the interview, that’s exactly how he was: back against the wall, stand-offish, arrogant, unlikable. I switched off the Dictaphone and asked him if he was going to carry on being a prick or if we could do this properly. He looked sheepish, apologised, and we picked back up with what ended up being a great interview.

But his pace… his pace has always been undeniable. In his debut F1 race, at the scene of his GP2 title win, he had to take a new front wing at the end of the first lap but fought through the field in an unfancied Williams and scored points. He sat on the second row in only his second F1 weekend in Malaysia. But after a while, all of that burgeoning incredible pace and talent seemed to stagnate. Folk within Williams would talk about Nico “switching off” or “going to sleep” in the middle of races. Just when they needed him to be on it, he wouldn’t be. That infamous moment in Singapore 2008 when he crossed the pit exit line denied him and the team a possible win. But his pace that weekend had already caused many to ask if the German hadn’t indeed been holding back all season, and that it was only there in Singapore, when he allowed that veil to slip, that we’d seen the real pace of the car. Of course, he’d already been on the podium with his old karting team-mate and soon-to-be F1 team-mate Lewis Hamilton at the season opener in Melbourne. Their embrace still sticks in the memory. But then the pace of the car just disappeared. Why?

When Rosberg joined Mercedes, the eagle-eyed will have spotted that the regular gaps Nico stood ahead of his new team-mate, statistically the greatest driver who ever lived, were not so different to the advantage he held over his one-time Williams co-pilot Kazuki Nakajima. Are we to infer from that the seemingly incongruous suggestion that Kazuki Nakajima was as fast as Michael Schumacher? Or do we draw what can surely be the only realistic conclusion? Namely, that Rosberg was holding back in the Williams in an attempt to display to the world a huge talent going to waste in an under-par car.

Nico leads Michael... as he often did Korea 2012 James Moy Photography

Nico leads Michael… as he often did
Korea 2012
James Moy Photography

All of which led to a question often asked: is Nico Rosberg too smart for his own good?

It’s a question that has come back again this year.

Many will point to Monaco as a stand-out point of the season. I always felt Rosberg was smart enough to pull off that stunt in qualifying, but I never believed he was that cynical or cold. To be a world champion takes more than intelligence and speed. As I argued over Multi-21 last year, while we may hate to admit it, what marks the champions out from the also-rans is the ability to be a complete bastard when the moment arrives. In Monaco, Nico was the bastard and turned that qualifying controversy into a race win that had the ability to completely shift the tide of the season.

That it didn’t, however, is his own doing.

Lewis Hamilton is widely regarded as one of the best qualifiers in modern Formula 1. And yet, with a dominantly fast car at his disposal, he has lost the Pole Trophy to Nico Rosberg, the German amassing 10 poles to Hamilton’s seven. That metronomic precision has played into the Rosberg’s hands on many occasions this season, and more often than not it has given him the upper hand going into the race. On Saturdays at least, Rosberg has proved beyond doubt that he has the pace. But he hasn’t turned that Saturday pace on regularly enough in Sunday’s race.

Mentally, what happened in Budapest was also a tremendous shock. Hungary should never have affected him as much as it did. Perhaps it all comes down to how much brain capacity we consider Nico Rosberg as having, but that August break should have been used to move on from what he perceived as injustice, and start the second half of the season fresh and with total clarity of mind. Rosberg used all of that mindfulness, however, to focus on the negatives and came back to Spa with it still playing on his mind.

Lap 2, Belgian GP 2014 James Moy Photography

Lap 2, Belgian GP 2014
James Moy Photography

That incident on lap 2 of the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix has been poured over to frankly ridiculous degrees. To me, it was a nothing moment. Rosberg could have backed out, Hamilton could have given more room. That both went into it so pathetically ultimately resulted in the damage it did. If Rosberg had truly wanted to teach Hamilton a lesson then he should have gone in hard. That he didn’t is the only reason that Hamilton’s tyre was sliced. Any intent, and Rosberg would have snapped his front wing, bouncing it off the side of the Briton’s tyre. Hamilton would have stormed off into the distance while Rosberg was forced to switch his wing.

I argued at the time that Rosberg needed to embrace one side or the other. He needed to be a hero or a villain, because if he was neither, he risked becoming nothing. And so it emerged after the race that he had told Hamiton he had allowed the impact to happen. A step towards becoming that villain? Perhaps, but it wasn’t enough. And that’s the big sadness of his season. He has been so fast and so consistent, but his inability to pick a side and his attempts at being all things to all people has led to him being left wide open to attack from all sides.

Rosberg talks to the Press James Moy Photography

Rosberg talks to the Press
James Moy Photography

The way he interacts with broadcast crews is an incredible illustration of this. In Monza, in speaking with me on American television he spoke in confident and unashamed tones despite his apparent dressing down by the team over Spa. With the Germans he was the same… almost bullish. And then to the British TV and radio crews, his shoulders slumped forward, his head bowed down, his tone was full of contrition and regret. What he was saying was no different to what he had told the German or international crews, but the way it was said was at total odds with how he had been just 10 seconds before.

Just as in Bahrain at that GP2 finale 10 years ago, I stood in awe. So savvy, so intelligent to his audience… but perhaps, in this instance, a reflection of him trying to be just that little bit too smart.

The thing is, he can be so charming too. He has a dry and sarcastic wit, which can sometimes be played out with a deft finesse. In America and Brazil, he started to have a very subtle jab at his championship rival by adopting Lewis Hamilton’s apparent mot du jour. In almost every interview, Rosberg would drop in a little comment about how “blessed” he felt. Shrewd. Subtle. At times, however, he can be a total child. In Hungary this year I was running from my commentary position to the GP3 podium to conduct the post race interviews. Time is tight at the best of times, but when I arrived at the swipe gates I felt an arm around my waist pulling me back. At first I thought it was an over-zealous security guard. But no. It was Nico, giggling away with a huge grin plastered across his face.

Playing the fool Hungary 2014

Playing the fool
Hungary 2014

Nico Rosberg’s victories have been well won in 2014, Brazil standing as a perfect example of just how wonderfully he can put a weekend together when he puts his mind to it. I would put his ability to nurse his car home in Canada as one of his stand-out moments of the season. But they have been too infrequent. Just five wins from ten pole positions does not reflect well on the German. In wheel to wheel combat with his team-mate, he is yet to come out on top. He was roundly beaten in Bahrain when it was he that was on the optimal strategy and on the better tyres. He choked in Monza. He choked in Russia. He claimed that in Austin he just “wasn’t on it,” which I still hold to be one of the most shocking admissions I’ve ever heard from a man in the midst of the fight for something to which he has dedicated his entire life.

Overall, there have been times this year when it has seemed that the Nico Rosberg of 2014 has been that same Nico Rosberg of the Williams years… doing just enough, perhaps hoping that consistency will hand him the title in the event that the unreliability which took the very first race away from his team-mate and placed it before him, may just repeat at the very final race to put that world championship into his hands. As many have pointed out, given that his old man managed to win the crown with just one race win to his name why should Nico regard winning a championship via consistency to be anything other than virtuous? It’s a fair question.

Should he be crowned 2014 Formula 1 world champion, be it through double points or, let’s hope, a barn-storming wheel-to-wheel thriller, some will still argue that Nico Rosberg does not deserve to be world champion. With them, however, I would disagree. Lest we forget, this is the only man who, over the course of a full Formula 1 season, finished ahead of Michael Schumacher as a team-mate. As if to reinforce the point, Rosberg achieved this giant toppling feat not once, but thrice.

His out-and-out pace in qualifying this year has been insurmountable. That he has won the inaugural Pole Trophy is evidence of that. So we know he has the pace, we know he has the temperament to win races, and we know that on occasion he can embrace his inner bastard and drive with the ruthlessness that sets world champions apart.

Nico Rosberg has shown repeatedly in 2014 that he possesses the attributes shared by the best of the best. We should not deny him his glory should he be confirmed as such on Sunday.

Nico Rosberg 2014 Formula 1 World Champion? James Moy Photography

Nico Rosberg
2014 Formula 1 World Champion?
James Moy Photography

Tomorrow… Lewis Hamilton.

A very warm goodbye

Pre-season testing 2005, with Hiroki Yoshimoto

Pre-season testing 2005, with Hiroki Yoshimoto

Ten years ago, I was given an opportunity that completely transformed my career and my life. Joining the GP2 Series at its birth as Press Officer, and later becoming Director of Communications, I spent three of my happiest years in motorsport living and working in Switzerland for Bruno Michel, Laurence Eckle and with the wonderful Marco Codello and Didier Perrin, Philippe and Riton, the engineering genius of Bernard Dudot and ably assisted on weekends by the sanity-ensuring calmness of David Cameron.

After those first three years I found myself in a position of having to make a tough choice, but ultimately followed my passion for journalism and stepped back to the other side of the fence. GP2 stayed in my heart, the press office now run by the brilliant Alexa Quintin, and I began covering the series alongside F1 until one day a phonecall from FOM saw me pick up a microphone and begin a television career that I never dared to dream I would have.

Learning on the job... Portimao 2009.

Learning on the job… Portimao 2009.

It has been a joy to be a part of the series, to get to know the drivers and teams and to publicise, report on, and eventually commentate the incredible races GP2 has always created.

But after dedicating a decade of my life to GP2 and latterly also to GP3, racing championships which I will always adore, I feel the time is right to bring an end to my active participation and to pass on the microphone. Abu Dhabi will be my last race weekend as world feed commentator for the championships I love.

Just as every GP2 and GP3 driver hopes that his or her exploits in the championships will lead to a full-time ride in F1, so my commentary in the feeder series led to my being picked up as a Formula 1 pit reporter, first for SPEED in the USA and now with NBCSN. My work in America has increased over the years to the point where I feel I am no longer able to divide my time effectively between three championships. By concentrating solely on Formula 1, I hope that I will be able to improve the quality of the content I bring to the burgeoning American audience, and help to grow the sport Stateside.

It is a decision with which I have toiled and has been one of the hardest of my professional career to make.

But all things must pass, and I feel that now is the right time to move on.

Spa podium, 2012

Spa podium, 2012

I still believe that GP2 is the best one-make championship in the world. And there is little chance I won’t be glued to the television watching every lap of the 2015 championship. It just won’t be my voice getting excited over the top of it.

I want to thank Stephane Samson for believing in me at the outset, to Bruno Michel for giving me the shot and a job when I had absolutely nothing a decade ago and to all the drivers, teams and individuals I’ve worked with in the series over the years. I will never be able to properly thank FOM and Jonathan Nicholas for giving me the chance to hold a microphone and go crazy about the sport and the series I love, nor to explain how in awe I am of the amazing job that everyone behind the scenes of the production does… from the cameramen trackside to Dean, Phil, Paul and everyone in “Bakersville”.

My many co-commentators over the years have provided insight, humour and tremendous friendship. To Karun, Jerome, Dani, Alexander, Alex, Antonio, Davide, Gary and Luca, I extend my unending gratitude and will forever cherish the sharing of so many happy memories.

I never received or asked for any training. What you got was me… pure and unadulterated. Every word I broadcast was spoken from my heart. Sometimes it got me into trouble. But it was always honest. It was always me.

It has been the greatest honour and privilege. But it is one I must now, with a heavy heart, pass on.

Thank you all.

And a very warm goodbye

GP2 grid, Monza 2007

GP2 grid, Monza 2007

Nothing Lasts Forever

Marussia V Caterham Italian GP 2014 c/o James Moy Photography

Marussia V Caterham
Italian GP 2014
c/o James Moy Photography

The plight of the Caterham and Marussia F1 teams is a sorry state of affairs. That two teams should reportedly be placed into administration within a month of each other is deeply troubling even if it is not, in all honesty, a tremendous surprise. It is very sad for the team’s hard working employees and for their many fans. But for anyone to pretend that this is some new phenomenon and that it should not be permitted to happen is utterly absurd. If success is the barometer against which all racing entities are judged, then failure is inherent in the very DNA of the sport.

In the 64 year history of Formula 1, 164 teams have existed. Today, including Caterham and Marussia, 11 survive. 153 teams have thus failed within that time period. That’s an average of a little over two teams (2.390) failing each season. While unfortunate, the demise of the sport’s two slowest and most poorly funded teams is well within acceptable and statistical, if slightly Darwinian, limits.

Only one team, Scuderia Ferrari, has competed in every year of the championship. Even looking back a decade to the grid of 2004 highlights the fact that just four teams survived to take their place on the grid in 2014. That’s 60% of the 2004 grid that either withdrew, folded, or sold up and shipped out over the last decade.

There are no guarantees in this sport. There never have been and there never will be. For the uncompetitive, both sportingly and financially, life in Formula 1’s state of nature has always fallen under Thomas Hobbes’ most famed principle of social contract theory. Namely, that it is nasty, brutish and short.

Back in 2003, I remember well a conversation I had with then Minardi boss Paul Stoddart at European Aviation’s base just outside Ledbury, England. Stoddy was a battler, and either a bastard or a hero depending on which side of the fence one wished to sit. Constantly at loggerheads with fellow team owners and the FIA, he preached that without the small teams Formula 1 would die. His reasoning was simple. Without a Minardi or a Jordan occupying the final rows of the grid, those final positions would be taken by a major motor manufacturer. Said manufacturer would then have to explain to the board why hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent on this folly, only to be seen as slow and weak. The manufacturer would thus pull out, leaving another manufacturer on the back row. And so the unravelling effect would build speed until just one manufacturer was left and the sport was dead.

But while Stoddy sold up to Red Bull, turning Minardi into Scuderia Toro Rosso, and while teams folded all around, the sport didn’t die. It evolved. The Ferrari empire collapsed and the Red Bull empire was built. The great garagistes peaked and troughed. Big manufacturers withdrew. And in 2010, three new teams were welcomed into the fold.

Today, it is this process to which one must now give serious attention if we are to truly understand the situation the sport now finds itself in. Questions have always been asked but now answers must be given as to the true story behind a selection process that saw the seemingly worthy applications of Epsilon Euskadi, N Technology, Prodrive and Lola, amongst others, overlooked in favour of Campos (which became HRT), Lightspeed (which became Lotus/Caterham), USF1 (which never even made a race), and Manor Racing (which became Virgin and then Marussia.)

Each entry was sold on the promise of a budget cap which was never realised. Not one made the first race of the 2010 F1 season in the guise in which it had applied for and been awarded an entry. Only one scored an F1 point, and all four have now failed.

With the exception of Manor, a team with tremendous junior formula pedigree, and to a lesser extent Campos which itself had success at sub-F1 levels, answers must be given by the FIA as to how and why the teams were chosen in the 2010 process. As maligned as they now are in F1 circles, without the likes of Branson and Fernandes, and one must not forget Kolles’ role for HRT, the Lightspeed, Manor and Campos projects might well have proven to be as stillborn as was USF1. That they survived as long as they did is testament to the tenacity and hard work of those that will be hit hardest by all this – the staff.

Graeme Lowdon and Bernie Ecclestone Russian GP 2014 c/o James Moy Photography

Graeme Lowdon and Bernie Ecclestone
Russian GP 2014
c/o James Moy Photography

So how do we progress? And can the teams be saved? Quite simply, in the cases of Caterham and Marussia, while administration will allow a chance for a buyer to be found, one would now sadly not place any serious amount of money on seeing either team on the grid in Melbourne next season. But while their demise is a perfectly natural part of the dog-eat-dog world of Formula 1, it does not mean that one should not learn from the problems the teams have encountered, and strive to find solutions for the future.

Bernie Ecclestone has today reignited the debate on the potential for teams to run third cars in Formula 1. But rather than the top teams running their own third cars, he has suggested something altogether different…

“They would supply a third car to someone else so if, for example, Sauber disappeared, a team could do a deal with Sauber. Ferrari could say, ”we will give you a car, all that goes with it, and we want you to put this sponsor on it. You have your own sponsors but we want you to include this one as well and we want you to take this driver”. The team wouldn’t have to go under then would they? If Red Bull decided they would give a car to Caterham for example that could solve their problem,” he told The Mail in an article written by Christian Sylt.

The issue with this is that it doesn’t solve the issue. Not for anyone. Except perhaps Ecclestone himself.

In order to qualify for payments as a Formula 1 constructor a team must be a bona fide “constructor.” As such, running another team’s third car would mean that it was, in effect, running a customer car and would thus forfeit its rights, rewards and obligations under Concorde. Let’s not even get into the concept of a team simply “giving” a car away to another squad and the cost implications implicit in this. At its very base, the idea negates a team’s position as a constructor and far from saving it, would merely condemn it.

What it does do, however, is keep the grid filled. And this, as the sport’s Commercial Rights Holder, is Ecclestone’s only real concern. Bernie has created deals with racing circuits, promoters and the world’s television networks worth hundreds of millions of dollars per annum on the basis that he and CVC will provide a Formula 1 World Championship… that means every driver and, of course, every team. Crucially, there is understood to be a clause in these contracts which designates a full grid as being composed of 16 cars. Austin will feature just two above this number. Should Sauber, which is also believed to be in financial peril, fold, Ecclestone has a real problem on his hands.

Ecclestone’s concept of third cars run by smaller teams is a short term stop gap, seemingly to save CVC and the sport from defaulting on its contracts promising full grids of a certain size. What it will not do is save the teams under pressure, let alone those who have already placed themselves in administration.

Would Gene Haas benefit from Customer Cars? c/o James Moy Photogrpahy

Would Gene Haas benefit from Customer Cars?
c/o James Moy Photogrpahy

I have long argued the benefits of customer cars and today, as the last of the 2010 entrants admits defeat and enters its final weeks, I feel its potential importance to be greater than ever. It will not help those who are already failing, but it could be a solution for the future. Those who are regular readers of my blog will know my concept. For those that are new I will outline it in very simple terms.

Any new team entering Formula 1 may purchase and use an old (previous year or older) customer chassis for the first two years of competition in the sport. It is permitted to make its own upgrades to this car and to develop it up to the point where, starting at the first race of the third year of competition, it must field a car of its own design. A budget for the chassis of each team will be set by the FIA on a sliding scale whereby the bottom ranked team’s car is the cheapest up to the champion’s being the most expensive. As such, there is a higher chance of mid-grid to lower ranked teams receiving the benefit of a cash injection from the new squads, at a sensible level of affordability for the new entrant.

It is the principle which Super Aguri ran in its short F1 lifetime, and used to such effect to take a knackered Honda and start taking the fight not only to its big sister team, but to the established order on occasion. The car that Aguri would have fielded for the 2009 season it never saw, the first of its own design, actually went on to form the basis of the Brawn BGP001 which won the championship. Had Aguri had better financing, there is every reason to suspect that in just its third year of competition, it could have truly been a contender.

It is a simple concept, and one which I believe would help new teams. It gives them a step up to be able to compete, but it doesn’t hand them success on a plate. It must still be achieved by hard work and ingenuity.

What the last four years has taught us, however, is that talent alone is not enough. The teams can do their very best Emperor Nero impersonation, but if they want the sport to survive and if they want new blood to stand a chance, as they proclaim they do, then this small allowance must be permitted. I still find it beyond reason that Williams should be one of the chief voices against the return of customer cars, when Sir Frank himself began his F1 team running Piers Courage in a purchased Brabham in 1969. But that’s by the by.

Because, at the root of much of the discontent in the sport, is the simple fact that the teams have too much power. You want to blame someone for double points? Blame the Strategy Group. Engine Unfreeze? Strategy Group. That initial Team radio ban? Strategy Group.

I’ve said it once and I will say it again. You cannot expect competing entities to legislate for the furtherance of the sport. They will always be driven by their own agendas, be they sporting or financial. The teams will sit and crow that the demise of Caterham and Marussia is terribly sad and something should have been done to save them, but the truth of the matter is that the sport exists today in a political mess where only the teams have the ability to truly save themselves. That they have let two of their own destroy themselves is their responsibility. But it is a responsibility they should not have.

Time for the President to step up c/o James Moy Photography

Time for the President to step up
c/o James Moy Photography

It has been reported that Jean Todt became so incensed with the teams’ inability to agree on something as simple as the enlargement of driver numbers that he realised early in his tenure that an agreement on a budget cap would be impossible. If that truly is the case then it is up to the President of this sport’s Governing Body to do what his job entails and to actually govern. If he cannot then he should move aside and an election should be held to find a leader of suitable conviction to take this sport by the neck and save it from itself.

The financial structure of the sport is also in desperate need of an overhaul. The very concept that certain teams should be given windfalls purely for being part of the sport, coupled with the unjust structuring of payments from top to bottom, would make any sane businessman walk away from the sport before he even began due diligence into the project. For while in principle all teams are equal, Formula 1 falls only too easily into the Orwellian nightmare that some are more equal than others.

That Gene Haas believes he can make a success of the sport, without the promise of a budget cap or customer cars, is bold. Some might say it is brave. Some might say it’s bloody stupid. One thing, however, seems certain. As things stand, his team might well be assured a top 10 constructors’ position in its debut season. And that, in itself, is why the sport must get on top of its issues. If there is no pressure to perform, no carrot of payments to dangle, then there is no need to develop and advance. While the financial structure does at least have this element correct, the precise payments and the structure of percentage increases per position is in need of a serious overhaul.

33 years ago, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley led a revolution in the sport. The Concorde Agreement, which signaled the end of hostilities, remains today in a fairly similar form to the treaty that was drawn up more than three decades ago. The world has changed. The sport has changed. But its governance has altered little.

The time has come to rewrite this ageing document and reform our sport’s constitution. I do not have the answers as to what the solution should be, but one cannot operate a sport where competing entities have the absolute say on regulation, where the governing body sits impotent to the desires of those over which it was elected to govern, and where the finances of the operation and restrictions of regulation for the newcomers make it impossible to nurture the green shoots of a promising newcomer.

Caterham and Marussia will be missed. Their names will be logged alongside the other 153, many of whom achieved far more than 2010’s minnows. Race winners. Championship takers. No team is impervious to failure. None must ever become so.

But all should be given a fair chance to succeed. Sadly Caterham and Marussia, like HRT and USF1 before them, were seemingly doomed from the start.

Sunday in Suzuka…

Jules Bianchi c/o James Moy Photography

Jules Bianchi
Singapore GP 2014
c/o James Moy Photography

Sunday in Suzuka was one of those days you always have in the back of your mind as a motor racing journalist. The danger, the risk… it’s why the thrill is so high. It’s why the rewards are so great. It’s why the fear is so real.

You are always aware that something can go wrong. You just have to live in the hope that it doesn’t.

But when it does, and it will, there is a responsibility incumbent upon those with the privilege and distinction of being granted access to the paddock, and credentials to report on such a situation, to do so carefully and diligently. For the most part, it was an honour to class myself an F1 journalist alongside my colleagues on Sunday. For the most part.

The circumstances surrounding Jules Bianchi’s accident were confusing on the ground. We’d seen Adrian Sutil’s accident and knew that he was out of the car and safe. But then the safety and medical cars both emerged and concern began to creep in. It was the announce crew on NBCSN who, in my immediate arena, picked it up first, suggesting that it appeared something was underneath the crane carrying Sutil’s stricken Sauber. At first I worried we had a repeat of Canada 2013 on our hands.

But then came the realisation. Bianchi’s timing data showed he had stopped in the same sector as Sutil. The glimpses of red and black livery against the crane, the frantic reaction of the marshals and the refusal of the cameras to zoom in tight on the scene started to give clarity to suggestion.

I moved towards the Marussia hospitality unit, from whence worried faces emerged, just as the images of the ashen faces of their colleagues on the pitwall were broadcast to a global audience. But nobody could or would tell us anything.

The combination of these factors allows you the information you require. My producer, Jason, and I discussed it and drew the only conclusion we could at this point. It was something gravely serious.

You speak to who you can. You find your trusted sources. You find someone who you know, knows. But in a situation like this, until it is official you cannot state the things you know to be true, as fact.

The words you use when reporting must be chosen carefully. “I understand,” “I believe,” “it appears.” In truth, you can only really deal in fact as it has been officially transmitted through official channels. The rest is supposition and in cases like this, immensely dangerous.

And so the pieces of the puzzle are built, and the full picture starts to emerge.

The TV pen was moved inside for the typhoon c/o James Moy Photography

The TV pen was moved inside for the typhoon
c/o James Moy Photography

I have no idea how other broadcasters handled the situation, but I was incredibly proud of the way NBCSN reacted on Sunday. In the post-race interview pen, which had been moved inside the FIA hospitality unit on account of the weather, I was also tremendously proud of my fellow TV crews from around the world. Every now and then, in search of the all important quotes, it can become a brawl. Elbows out, animal instincts setting in, only the need to be first with the words that will form the headlines the next day.

But pretty much all of those inside that media pen have been around a while. We all knew what we were looking at. Despite its smaller than usual nature, I’ve never seen an interview pen conducted with more respect. There was no jostling. Room was made for everyone. There was no crowding. Questions to drivers were kept to a minimum. Speculation had no place. There were no inappropriate enquiries. Certainly, that was true of the group in which I placed myself.

Perhaps it is because we look these guys in the eye everyday. We have one on one access to each of them four times a weekend. With some of them, you could see it in their eyes. You could hear it in their voices. Regardless of professionalism, regardless of consideration for the incident, as a compassionate human being you should be able to recognise a person’s emotions and act accordingly. I hope we did so.

Matteo Bonciani FIA Head of Communications and F1 Media Delegate c/o James Moy Photography

Matteo Bonciani
FIA Head of Communications and F1 Media Delegate
c/o James Moy Photography

The FIA’s Head of Communications and F1 Media Delegate Matteo Bonciani entered the room and gave us a short statement. We repeated it on-air verbatim.

Jules Bianchi had been taken, unconscious, to the local Mie University Hospital by ambulance, as the weather conditions were considered too poor for the helicopter to take off.

In situations such as this where information is so limited, it is critical that whatever official information is given is completely accurate. In this case there were two small but, given the importance placed on every word when so few have been given, crucial inaccuracies.

The first was the hospital itself, as Bianchi had in fact been taken to Mie General Hospital / Medical Centre in Yokkaichi. The second, and of vital importance, was the reason for the use of the ambulance. As Bonciani gave the statement, the medical helicopter was taking off behind him, thus immediately calling into question the very statement given.

In actual fact the ambulance, we now understand, had been used for medical reasons rather than for any meteorological factor. Had this one simple fact been corrected immediately, a lot of the confusion and fallout post race would have been eliminated. The press who chose to dwell on the use or otherwise of the helicopter might instead have been lauding the fact that the time between the point of impact and Bianchi’s admission to hospital was, I believe, less than 45 minutes.

As we went off air, the paddock had one of the strangest vibes I’ve ever experienced. The pack-up was in full swing as the expectation that the typhoon would hit remained in clear focus. With no news on the condition of their beloved Jules, the Marussia boys walked around trance-like. TV crews tried to make sense of the situation. Interviews were conducted.

There was no hysteria. Just shock. And hugs.

I walked around the paddock, bumping into people who seemed to just want to talk. Drivers, ex and current. Officials. Team members. Everyone was numb and yet needed to talk, compartmentalising the many aspects, trying to make sense of it all. Eventually we went back to the media centre. What more could we do? Some, at the behest of their editors, had the unenviable task of acting as ambulance chasers and were already en-route to Yokkaichi to sit and wait for news outside the hospital. But we sat tight and waited at the track.

Night falls in Suzuka c/o James Moy Photography

Night falls in Suzuka
c/o James Moy Photography

Eventually the news came in the form of a statement, carefully worded by Bonciani and Marussia’s Head of Communications Tracy Novak who stood, staring straight ahead, her mind no doubt cast back to Duxford and poor Maria. It was read out once for print media and once for television crews. It stated Bianchi had suffered a serious head injury and was undergoing surgery before he would be moved to intensive care. All further updates would come from the team.

But already voices were being raised. A small group at the back of the media centre rounded on Bonciani demanding Race Director Charlie Whiting give a press conference. There were questions that needed answering, they jabbed. There was responsibility to be apportioned. And when would they be allowed to see the incident? When would a replay be shown? It was vital that they see it. Their haughty tones wafted down from their ivory towers, built upon the sandy pillars of arrogance and inexperience. Care and compassion in the search of the truth had been replaced for the vocal, selfish few with sensationalism and ego.

Those of us who have been in this game for more than two minutes are only too aware of the reason replays are not shown of incidents such as this. More pressingly, at this juncture, we are also only too aware that the issue of responsibility comes later. Much later. After detailed analysis. This was the wrong time to be picking this particular fight. And all for a small number of outlets who, given the time difference, weren’t even on deadline.

So why the urgency? Why the need for answers?

To assuage the thirst to be first. To please their twitter followers. To get that scoop on social media and claim the plaudits for the counting seconds until the next shred of information is released. It’s something of which I sit here and admit with deep embarrassment I have been guilty myself in the past. Sometimes, we just need to take a step back.

Sunday was a lesson in the responsibility inherent in being one of the lucky few to be granted a credential to report on this sport. It is a privilege, not a right. And the onus should be on the search of truth. Because, particularly in moments such as we experienced on Sunday, and despite living in a modern world where social media has led to an overwhelming clamour for news NOW… being right is more important than being first.

Could the media management have been handled better? Of course. And lessons will have been learned. But when you are a team of one man, responsible for communicating to print, web, TV and radio, perhaps the FIA should permit their Head of Communications a larger team.

With time, the clamour for answers over the incident itself will become more appropriate than it was on Sunday night. Indeed, it is understood that Charlie Whiting has been tasked to conduct a thorough investigation by FIA President Jean Todt. We must allow him to do his work.

For the here and now, because I know I will be asked, I must say I side with Lauda and Mosley in their belief that procedures were followed correctly. But as Jacques Villeneuve argued, that does not mean that those procedures do not need to be looked into and that the sport must make itself open and amenable to change. Full course yellows, safety cars for every incident… there is now a very clear argument for this to become the norm, as it is in many other forms of motorsport. Do I think a canopy would have helped? No I do not. In fact, in this instance, and from what I have seen and been told, it might even have hindered Bianchi’s extraction.

These arguments will come and they will be heard… in time.

Answers are being sought and answers will be given.

But right now, the only people with any right to ask for them are the family of Jules Bianchi.

#ForzaJules

#ForzaJules

Garlic Bread

Prost drives through the shadows c/o FIA Formula E

Prost drives through the shadows
c/o FIA Formula E

So, the inaugural Formula E e-prix has been and gone. I’d expected to hate every cringe-worthy second of it. That high-pitched shriek of the car, setting my teeth on edge and forcing my spine to contort at acute angles in a reaction normally reserved for the sound of nails scraping down a chalkboard. I was prepared to despise the hastily planned and built street track that wouldn’t allow any overtaking, if the cars even got that close given the disparity expected between racing machines. And I didn’t expect more than a handful to limp over the finish line with the dregs of battery left in them, the Duracell bunny doing his very best to keep running inside that wheel that powered the engine, or however the hell they worked.

In short, ever since that video of Lucas di Grassi pulling “donuts” in a Las Vegas carpark emerged however long ago it was, I expected complete and utter farce.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I saw today in Beijing got me massively excited for the future of our sport. Was it perfect? No. But was it racing? Was it wheel to wheel, was it gutsy, did I jump out of my seat shouting at the TV? To every question, a resounding YES. It surprised me. And I’m so glad it did.

Are there issues, well yes of course, but what I think is vitally important to take into consideration is the fact that this was the first weekend of a new championship that has been rushed into existence by a governing body and President determined to show it is aware of the need for the sport to show its 21st Century credentials and to prove that it can remain relevant into the modern era and long after we have run out of dinosaur gloop to power our cars.

In Alejandro (Oui Monsieur President, Alejandro, not Alessandro as you managed to call him on the grid) Agag, Formula E has at its helm a businessman, politician and race team owner who isn’t used to failure. What he has achieved in even getting this championship to its first race must be commended because, if we are being brutally honest, this technology is nowhere near ready to be able to showcase what the future really could be.

I have long believed that until such a time as future tech can do the job of current tech, it simply isn’t a viable alternative let alone replacement. As such, seeing the test times come in from Donington had many in the motorsport community scoffing. The Formula E cars were barely over Formula Ford pace and were losing about 10% of their power per lap, meaning with in and out laps included, drivers would only get about 8 timed laps. They were never going to last a full race distance.

And so to the biggest issue the championship has: that of swapping cars mid-race. I don’t think it matters if you are a motorsport purist, a fan of 50 years, a fan of 5 years or someone whose first experience of a motor race was today in Beijing… it just doesn’t work. We are supposed to be living in economical times. The keyword is Austerity. And yet here we are, looking at a situation in which when a car runs out of power, rather than filling it up, we’re told it’s fine to just unbuckle and jump into a new one. It doesn’t and it can’t sit well with… well, frankly, anyone.

Factor in also the green credentials. Forget, for the moment, the fact that it is quite possible the worst advertisement for electric cars that the industry could possibly hope for and let’s instead focus on the bizarre situation in which each team has to double their freight in order to take two cars per driver to every single race. Cars which are flown internationally by DHL. In big, gas guzzling, airplanes.

The concept of the stops themselves are scrappy and ill thought through. They occur in individual garages which are relatively private and almost impossible to cover successfully on television without 20 unique RF cameras and multi split-screen. A minimum time erases some advantage a quick stop holds, and is too arbitrary in a closely fought race as we saw today when mere tenths split the top 6 coming in for their first stops.

I’ve got to say though, that overall I felt this was the only real major issue with the championship. It was rather nice to be sat at home watching from afar, and so half as a fan and half watching on with a critical eye, here are my takes on a few of what will no doubt be talking points over the coming days and weeks.

The inaugural race mid-flow c/o FIA Formula E

The inaugural race mid-flow
c/o FIA Formula E

Sound

Thought I’d hate it, actually really liked it. The only problem for me was it wasn’t loud enough. Those at the track say they’re actually far louder in real life than on TV. Ring any bells, F1 fans? The Formula E car sounds like something out of an early 2000s sci-fi futuristic racing game. At least it would if they positioned the mics better and pumped up the volume. I tweeted during the race, and in hinsight it is the one thing that has stuck with me throughout the day, but there were times when I was transported back to playing F-Zero X on the Nintendo N64, or Wipeout on the Playstation. It was high pitched whooshes and whirrs, chattering around corners… with added tyre squeal. I loved it!

Ahhh yes, many of you will say, but what about that god awful music? Again… and perhaps I’ve played too many computer games in my life, but I enjoyed this aspect of the product too. The musical selection was in the hands of the, let’s say interestingly dubbed “EJ” instead of DJ. You can insert your own witty line about controversial noise here. Suffice to say there weren’t any coloured shirts and wild theories on display, just a dude at some decks wearing a helmet that made him look like the bastard lovechild of Dedmau5 and Daft Punk, trying to find the right tunes to suit the mood.

The music was used sparingly and, at least on the ITV4 broadcast we had in the UK, was at the right level in the mix so as not to drown out the cars nor the great commentary team of Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti. We had a nice build of musical anticipation from the grid all around the formation lap to a crescendo at lights out. Then we had nothing but race sound until the safety car came out, at which point the music returned. And I’ve got to say that, from my perspective, it really worked. The safety car periods are a moment at which the race is effectively paused, and as such it did feel like we were going back to a menu screen or hitting that pause button on a computer game. Then back to the racing and the sound of the cars until, with two laps to go, in crept that music again. And as the music built over those last two laps, so did the anticipation right to the flag.

It was a great idea and, for this championship at least, I felt it worked really well.

Speed

Cars that don’t sound fast don’t look fast. It is a very simple equation. This equation does, however, have factors that can influence the result. And they’re all to do with camerawork. The long, wide shots of the cars, the overhead down the start-finish stretch, all played out to show the real speed of the cars. And they looked as slow as they are.

But sitting onboard on a street track (as all the circuits will be), using the trackside cams either on a static or quickly panning with the cars, gave an increased sensitivity and an exaggerated feeling of speed.

The solution to this is quite simple. Improve the sound of the cars via better positioning of microphones and simply making them louder in the mix on the world feed and then again in comparative levels to commentators and, when it is used, the music. Cut down the number of wide angle long shots, and keep the action close and engaging.

No, on the straights they didn’t look great. But in the corners and under braking, they looked mega. Particularly side by side, engaged in battle.

As the technology improves so will energy storage capacity, so will speed. If and when this championship takes off, one hopes the regs will be opened up and car manufacturers will enter to showcase their electric credentials, and then we will see the real development race and the true advancement of this technology.

A huge achievement c/o FIA Formula E

A huge achievement
c/o FIA Formula E

Circuit

It reminded me tremendously of an Indycar style street circuit. I didn’t think we would see any overtaking, and yet we did on almost every lap. It might not have been for the lead (until the very end) but Montagny’s incredible ascent through the field and Piquet and Sato’s many dices were just a few of the fights that kept us enthralled and entertained. When those first damned stops arrived, the top six were split by a handful of car lengths… on a street track! It was incredibly close.

Bear in mind also that this was a brand new championship at its first event. Not only did the organisers have the running of 20 cars to contend with and a global audience ready to mock a single failure, they also had responsibility for the complete infrastructure of the track. That means facilities (from media centre to medical centre, pitlane buildings to toilets, fencing and safety barriers, timing loops, television cables, satellites. This was an absolutely massive effort.

When the lights went out I was reminded of my own nerves as Press Officer at the very first GP2 race at Imola in 2005. It was bedlam. The electronics had all gone to hell on the cars in practice. Our pole sitter’s engine had gone on the way to the grid for the first race. And then everyone’s brakes started exploding. And that was just the car. The organisation had its own issues, but we had just simply turned up and tagged onto the side of an F1 weekend. It was, comparatively, easy.

Formula E ran its own weekend. Everything that is taken for granted at a race weekend had to be done from scratch by an organization that, while all experienced in their own fields, had never worked together and had no idea if this concept would work. They were trying to do it all in a country that isn’t the easiest to work in, and for a championship that relies on social media they were making their debut in a country where Twitter is outlawed.

The safety car seemed incredibly slow as did the reaction to Heidfeld’s crash. Marshals need to be aware of what they can and can’t do in terms of touching these incredibly dangerous cars in the event of an accident, and if they can’t go near the things then safety crews need to be more numerous and dotted around the track to be on the scene faster, with someone trained in earthing these things in every car.

Overall, Formula E did an unbelievable job. If this was the start, the following rounds should be incredible.

Lucas di Grassi celebrates his win c/o FIA Formula E

Lucas di Grassi celebrates his win
c/o FIA Formula E

Drivers

If the script had landed on a Hollywood director’s desk, he’d have laughed and thrown it in the bin.

Son of one of the all-time greats of Formula 1 is leading the first race of the championship of the future from pole position. On his tail, the perennial underdog, the nearly man, at the wheel of a car owned by a Hollywood megastar, himself the nearly man of the Oscars. They are team-mates in a separate championship, and friends. On the final corner of the final lap they collide, ending both their races in a massive accident.

Pulling through the carnage to win is the driver in whose hands as test driver the championship was taken from concept to reality and without whom the cars would likely not have been close to being race ready. Behind him, the car run by the most famous name in American racing, Andretti. And completing the podium, after a post race penalty nonetheless, the car owned by Sir Richard Branson.

If you were a cynic you’d say it was all scripted. But the quality of the field and the interest in the championship that has led so many interesting people to enter teams has led to such stories simply occurring no matter what result Formula E ends up with. For the most part the racing was hard and fair, and surprisingly so on such a tight track.

Prost was handed a ten-place grid-penalty for the next race for his moment of utter madness with Heidfeld. Frankly, he’s got off lightly. His move was idiotic at best, callous and downright life-threatening at worst. The angle Heidfeld went into the barrier left me with one of those thankfully all too rare lump-in-your-throat moments where everything goes very quiet until you see that movement that lets you know the guy is OK. That Prost didn’t even go and check on his “friend” spoke volumes, and his immediate comments left a sour taste. His later contrition may well have something to do with the fact that, having written as its mantra its social media engagement, Formula E’s new fans had already judged and sentenced the Frenchman before he’d returned to the pits.

Fans are engaged. Their continued faith in the series is crucial. I’m still no fan of the “fan boost” system, particularly if there is no way of showing the folks at home when it is being used, but if it gets people invested in the championship then so be it.

What that crash gave Formula E however was a calling card. That incident has got it onto every news bulletin and every newspaper in the world today. A simple electric race wouldn’t have done that. It’s brilliant publicity!

The Future

Just how far could this go? Screengrab - Wipeout HD

Just how far could this go?
Screengrab – Wipeout HD

The thing I’ve kept thinking about today, is just how good this could be. This championship should never have started in 2014. The technology is not ready. But the fact that it has started, and the fact it has started so positively is a tremendous achievement and must make us incredibly excited for the future. The racing of cars utilizing the internal combustion engine did not become what it is overnight. It took over a century. Formula E has taken the first very small step of what could be an amazing future for electric racing.

There is already talk that in the future, tracks will feature charging lanes so as to completely eradicate the need for the car swap mid race. Indeed, Formula E’s safety car is already fitted with wireless charging capabilities thanks to series partner Qualcomm. On hearing that, my thoughts again fly back to those computer games. Those futuristic vehicles, flying through high-tech cities, picking up extra power, using it to boost. I used to love those games. They seemed so fantastic. Totally at odds to the clunky, blocky graphics of the F1 games of the time, Wipeout and F-Zero X were a vision of the future.

And today, perhaps, we took the first step towards that. If that sounds stupid, do you really think those crazy folks who raced those early motorcars from Paris to Rouen in 1894 ever imagined that over 100 years later there would exist the sheer number of car racing championships in the world, from Formula 1 to NASCAR, from WEC to karting, the WRC to Indycar. Why then, is it so silly to think that in 100 years time, those fantastical computer games of my youth might not become reality? And all because of what we saw today.

Electric racing. I’ve tasted it. And it might just be the future.

Georges Lemaître (peugeot 3hp) Winner of the Paris-Rouen 1894

Georges Lemaître (peugeot 3hp)
Winner of the Paris-Rouen 1894