Thursday, 29 March 2012

Starting out in commentary - my story

I am often asked how I got into commentary in the first place, and it is a tale I have told, in varying degrees of detail, on many occasions. As I explained a while ago, (here) I first went to a motor race when I was ten years old, with my parents. As I grew up and became more independent, I began to take myself along: at first on public transport, which was a nightmare, with Sunday bus and train schedules and the remoteness of most circuits making visits to anywhere except Crystal Palace a near-impossibility. I did make it to Brands Hatch a couple of times, but once I was old enough and more importantly, able to drive, then having my own car opened up a world of possibilities.

Through the late seventies then, I drove all over the country to watch Formula 3, Formula 2, Touring Cars, Sports cars, and of course, Formula 1 - I would attend not only the British Grand Prix, but also any other F1 race that might take place within these shores. By the time the British Grand Prix came around in 1980, I had been to Silverstone, Mallory Park, Thruxton, Oulton Park and Donington; as well as Monaco, Monza and the Österreichring.

As far as possible, I would always position myself as close to a loudspeaker as I could - and I would always keep a lap chart, in order to keep on top of what was going on. I nearly always attended race meetings on my own - so the commentator came to be my friend. One of the first things that I would do on buying the programme would be to look to find out who the commentator was. So if I did not know the faces of Brian Jones, Norman Greenway, Neville Hay or Peter Scott-Russell, I certainly knew their voices. The presence of Anthony Marsh meant that it was a major meeting, and if Jean-Charles Laurens was there, to inform the “French-speaking spectators”, then of course that added a very exotic, foreign flavour and you knew you were at a truly International Event.

So it came that at the British Grand Prix (at Brands Hatch) in 1980, I became increasingly irritated with Brian Jones as he failed to provide the information that I wanted. So irritated did I become, that I decided to put pen to paper and write to him. (On a whim, I also sent a copy to Motoring News, which published it in the week following the Grand Prix.)

All credit to Brian, then, as he replied within a week or so to my letter - defending himself in some areas, and admitting fault in others - and trying to explain the complexity and pressure of his job. He also invited me to see him, in the commentary box, at some point when next I would be at Brands.

As things turned out, I didn’t go back to Brands for the rest of 1980, but in May 1981, I phoned up in order to try and organise a corporate event at the Motor Racing Stables skid pan. In those days, Brian’s day job was taken up running Motor Racing Stables, and I of course instantly recognised his voice as we talked about how and when we might be able to organise something. We agreed that he would send me some information, and he asked for my name and address.

“Paul Truswell,” I said.

“Paul…, wait a minute,” Brian replied and in my mind’s eye I could see his pen pause in mid-air. “Weren’t you the chap who wrote me that snotty letter after the Grand Prix last year?”

“Yes, that was me,” I replied.

“And I sent you a reply, didn’t I?” Brian went on.

“You did,” I said.

“I invited you to come and see me in the commentary box, didn’t I?” Brian said.

“Yes, I know,” I said, “but there just hasn’t been the opportunity since.”

“Well, what are you doing this weekend?” asked Brian.

“Coming to Brands Hatch?” I suggested. Before the deal was fully done, I had to undertake to make myself useful, doing lap charts, helping sort out paperwork and so on, and as a result, Brian organised that passes be sent to me, and graciously allowed me to spend the whole day in the commentary box with him. We got on extremely well - having spent the better part of ten years listening to him commentate, I knew instinctively what he was about to say, and tried to provide him with the appropriate piece of paper at the appropriate time, in order that he might not be left with an unfinished sentence. For more than a year, I helped out with lap charts and so on, without having any ambition to pick up the microphone myself.

However, the layout of the box at Brands Hatch meant that the commentator had to descend a ladder, walk through the timekeepers’ box, and then go down a further two flights of stairs, to interview the winners after each race. Brian thought it would be a good idea if I could “fill in” for him, while he was out of the box, by reading out the result of the previous race, or reading out the grid positions for the next race. As the absence of any such information being read out over the PA had been one of the reasons for my letter the previous year, I was happy to do so, on the understanding that by the time the next race started, Brian would have got his breath back and be ready to talk again.

Brian had other ideas though, and encouraged me to keep the headset on and commentate on a race on my own. Gradually I began to do more: either he and I would share a meeting between us, commentating on alternate races; or I would go out to Westfield Bend and commentate from there when the Grand Prix circuit was in use. But at the bigger meetings, when a more experienced commentator went out to Westfield, then I would return to lap-charting duties. As my circle of contacts increased, so I found myself more work, and started doing lap charts at Silverstone, for Ian Titchmarsh.

I must admit, I was inspired to a certain degree by Jeremy Shaw, who proved to me that it was possible to do a “block” lap chart at a long-distance race, provided there was someone else helping by doing a “running” chart. In the days before electronic timing, and computer screens providing the positions in real-time, an up-to-date lap chart was the only chance for the commentator to be able to follow what was going on in the six hour, 1000km races - even into the mid-1980’s.

When Jeremy emigrated to the USA, I was one of very few who was prepared to take on the challenge of a long-distance lap-chart, and I even managed to ‘sell’ a couple of them to Quentin Spurring, to assist him in writing his race report for Autosport.

Ian and Brian are very different types of commentator, with very different ways of working, but I learnt a lot from both of them, and received a huge amount of help and encouragement too. After Keith Douglas retired from commentating, I took over at Stowe Corner for Silverstone Grand Prix circuit meetings. I also worked a lot with Robin Bradford, who at that time was organising a good deal of motor racing commentary in the UK.

When Radio Le Mans started looking for experienced voices to cover the twenty-four hours, it was a logical choice to use Ian Titchmarsh and me as a double-act - by that stage we would cover nearly all the endurance sportscar races in the UK - Ian with volumes of paper and reference books to complement his encyclopaedic knowledge, and me with my stop-watch, exercise book and lap charts.

So thanks, then to all those I have named above - for encouragement, advice and inspiration. It was never an ambition for me to do what I do - rather I just stepped in, listened and did what I felt needed doing. I think it was all worthwhile - and I hope you agree!

Postscript - on the subject of thanks, there are two others who deserve mention: firstly John Hindhaugh, who has continued to invite me to participate in Radio Le Mans broadcasts; and secondly my wife, who has allowed me to continue to indulge in my hobby despite the increased responsibilities brought about by household and family!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

24hours - One team. One target.

A film by Tim and Nick Hahne, presented by Stereoscreen.

I recently came across this DVD, and I am so glad I did. First and foremost, there are so few films about the Nürburgring 24 hours, and with the ever-increasing profile of this race, it is about time someone stepped in to fill the void. The trouble is that Tim and Nick Hahne’s film sets the bar at a pretty high level and I fear it might discourage others from trying.

The film tells the story of the Schnitzer BMW team, as it faces its big target: winning the 24 hours at the Nürburgring in 2011. Having won the race the previous year, expectations are high, and without wanting to spoil the plot for you, it was always going to be a big challenge for Charly Lamm’s team in the face of the competition from Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes and Audi.

The film follows the team through its preparation: testing at Imola, in the workshops at Freilassing and finally at the Nürburgring for qualifying and the race. We get ‘at home’ glimpses of life with the Priaulx family in Guernsey, see Jörg Müller and Augusto Farfus tearing up the streets of Monaco on their scooters and hear Dirk Adorf explaining his passion for the race as he prepares his tea.

Best supporting actor is race engineer Jacques Hendrikse; the Dutchman playing a role of which Jack Nicholson would be proud - grumpy, but wise; a father figure in whose hands the team can safely place its trust.

The Oscar performance though, comes from Charly Lamm. A familiar face, but beneath his craggy visage are a love and passion for endurance racing (proper racing) that shines out from the screen like xenon headlights piercing the dark of the Eifel forests. I defy you to watch to the end without a lump in your throat, if not a tear in your eye.

Musical accompaniment comes from Toussaint, supplemented by the vocal talent of Sara Lugo, which certainly adds to the atmosphere. Personally, though, I found the complexity of the score a little obtrusive and at times distracting; but that could have a lot to do with my own musical preferences, and certainly doesn’t devalue the quality of the show.

You can watch either with English or German narration, but in either case, you probably need to have the subtitles switched on, as so much of the film is spent with the likes of Lamm or Priaulx speaking their native languages. But it works far better to hear them speaking than to have their voices dubbed - to understand fully what they are saying you need to hear the excitement and emotion in their voices.

I have only one real warning and that is that the film is very light on technical detail - the depth of emotional content comes at that price. You are not really told at any point what the team is doing, or why. But this is not a film to give away any engineering or strategic secrets - rather it gets to the heart and soul of endurance racing in general and the Nürburgring in particular.

If your video and DVD collection contains too many Le Mans films (like mine does) then this is a wonderful addition to it. It may not be the best film you’ve ever bought (that is anyway a matter for lively debate) but I would be surprised if you don’t go back and watch it over and over again.

Find it on Amazon, or It is also available on Blu-ray if you are so equipped.

When you've watched it, let me know what you think below.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Heroes and winners.

A couple of things in this month’s Motor Sport got me thinking. The first was in Nigel Roebuck’s column: “Who was your personal hero?” he posed to drivers, in an attempt to find out more about the character of his interviewees. His underlying theme was that, these days, few drivers had personal heroes; instead they spent their formative years focussing purely on karting and the learning of their craft. As a consequence, they often lose sight of the bigger picture - and lack a knowledge of the history of the stage on which they perform.

It got me to ask myself the same question, though, and I couldn’t really find anyone in particular; certainly not one that inspired me beyond all others to acquire a lifelong interest in this sport. Probably just as well really, as with his passing, I would hate to think that I might not want to follow motor racing any more.

There are many candidates: stars of the motor-racing world while I was growing up and getting to know motor sport. I’m not sure that Jim Clark quite made it onto my list - he was killed when I was 11 - and unfortunately he wasn't at either of the Formula One races that I saw before that day in April 1968. But somehow he never really inspired me, not until later in life when I found out more about him. The problem for me as a “pre-teen” (not sure that was a term that had been invented then), was that Clark was too good. If other things were equal, then Clark would win; and where was the fun in that?

I was a big fan of the Lotus 72 when it appeared in 1970, and having seen Jochen Rindt triumph (somewhat fortuitously, I’ll admit) in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, I was devastated when he was killed at Monza later that year. I’d seen Rindt in Formula Two races at Crystal Palace, where he was of course king, and had read of his supremacy in the category. To my simple teenage mind, that he would win a world championship in such a marvellous car as the Lotus 72 was only right and proper.

Emerson Fittipaldi was another of my first heroes. Having seen him race through Formula Ford and Formula Three at Crystal Palace in 1969, to have him seal Jochen’s championship by winning at Watkins Glen in what was only his fourth Grand Prix - that was wonderful. And it was in a Lotus. There was always something special about Lotus. Much more so than Ferrari. And at least one could realistically aspire to owning a Lotus. And so I did, later. I'm still saving up for my first Ferrari.

Inevitably, then, many of the heroes of my youth were Lotus drivers: after Rindt and Fittipaldi came Peterson, Ickx, Andretti: winners every one of them. I never really took to Mansell though, nor Hunt before him - my Englishness did not extend to jingoism. Then there was Senna. Ah, yes, Senna. By the time Senna arrived in the UK, I had already started my journey in the world of commentary, which provided me with greater opportunities to get to know the man behind the helmet; to see my heroes as human beings, that one could actually talk to... I did speak with Ayrton, several times, and he remained a hero - albeit not one without flaws: maybe genius would be a better term.

And as I got involved in the sport, so the people that I got to know became my heroes. Drivers that weren’t such household names, but ones that I could have a beer with and respect. People whose skill and craft I could understand: Gerry Marshall, Barrie Williams, Tony Lanfranchi, Karl Jones, Patrick Watts. As my knowledge deepened, so my taste for the history developed, and I found out more about Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Tazio Nuvolari, Jean-Pierre Wimille. Somehow the term ‘hero’ seemed far more appropriate referring to drivers of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. Martin Brundle (also in this month’s Motor Sport) says “…the (Formula 1) cars (of today) are too … easy to drive…” To my mind, to be a hero, you have to overcome adversity, and somehow Schumacher, Alonso, Hamilton et al have all had it too easy. Like many of today’s celebrities, whatever their heights of achievement, they have not truly had to struggle.

And in that light, my own personal heroes shine less brightly. Motor racing is sometimes a small and insignificant world.

The other bit of Motor Sport this month that caught my eye was the letter from historic racer Malcolm Ricketts, in which he quotes the late John Dawson-Damer: “the better guys will always win, but the winners are those who can run their cars well, look good, sound good, enjoy themselves and be an entertainment to those who come to have a look. It is not racing, it is motor sport, and that is the difference.”

It’s an interesting thought, and I value it for its depth - for it is not obvious, and not, it seems to me, a view that many will agree with; today the perceived wisdom is that winning is everything and learning how to lose gracefully doesn’t seem to be a highly-prized virtue.

I believe it should not only be applied in the field of historic motor sport, but also to the contemporary scene. It goes at least part of the way to explaining why folk compete in an HRT or a Norma. There is something a bit special about the very activity of driving a car fast that starts the adrenaline - like going on a roller-coaster ride, you don’t necessarily have to win to get a rush from the activity. It’s the attitude of not giving up in an endurance race when you lose an hour repairing something and then go out and drive like crazy for the rest of the race in order to finish sixteenth. Or something like that. You don’t have to finish first in order to be a winner.