Graham and I have known each other for a long time. I became aware of him at Le Mans in 1990, when he first worked officially as a ‘spotter’ for Radio Le Mans. He would go off into the countryside to sit beside the track with a walkie-talkie radio and send in messages about cars with problems, or in qualifying he would spot which cars were about to set a fast time. He’d first gone to Le Mans in 1980 (the year before me) and inevitably, been bitten by the bug. When Radio Le Mans arrived in 1987, Graham would make a point of listening, and periodically would pop into the studio caravan with a piece of paper with various notes that he’d made - many of which would answer questions that had been posed on the radio - in those days without wall-to-wall TV coverage, no in-car cameras and little in the way of media information, piecing together what was happening on a minute-by-minute basis was far from simple.
As a result of that contact, I asked him to assist me doing lap charts when I was doing circuit commentaries, not just for endurance races, but also for plenty of other meetings - including the British Grand Prix - not only Silverstone, but also at Brands Hatch, Donington and elsewhere. At lap charts, as with almost everything that he undertook, he was thorough and meticulous - not to mention jolly good company.
Over time, Graham and I became good friends. He had his priorities well-sorted, and having spent so long in the background of Radio Le Mans, I was pleased when he stepped forward to become one of Radio Le Mans pit lane commentators in 2002. Memorably, his first interview on raceday was with Jacky Ickx and any nerves - on either side - were not apparent; Graham’s naturally engaging character was well-suited for talking with drivers and other personalities. His style is easy-going, but he never shies away from ‘the big interview’ and is invariably in the thick of the media scrum that surrounds the winners at the end of the race.
There are times though, when he surprises me. Graham thinks carefully about what he does, but that doesn’t stop him from taking what may sometimes seem to be spontaneous decisions when his dreams beckon. I didn’t expect him to embrace the opportunities for travel that first the ALMS, then the FIA GT series offered him. Indeed, I will admit to some twinges of jealousy as I focussed on my own life and my new family while Graham was travelling to races in far-off and exotic places.
In addition to the ALMS, he covered the FIA GT series for TV, forming a popular double act with Richard Nichols between 2005 and 2008.
And he surprised me again last week, with an email announcing that he would not be part of the Radio Le Mans team for 2012. “It hasn’t been an easy decision,” he wrote, “but I truly do feel it’s the right one.” So when I rang him and asked him what I could do to make him change his mind, I already knew what his answer would be.
“If I can’t give of my best, then I’d sooner open the door to someone new who can.” Well, the purpose of this article is not to open a discussion about who that should be, but rather to give a little respect to someone who has done an outstanding job for Radio Le Mans in the past twenty years.
I’ve tried to get to the bottom of Graham’s decision - and it is not any one thing in particular. Partly, it is because Le Mans is not what it once was, neither the race nor the place. The changes to the track and its surroundings have undoubtedly been necessary, but they have changed the character of the place. Safety regulations being what they are, there is a tendency for circuits to become more and more homogenised. In Graham’s own words: “I reached the point where Le Mans didn’t feel magical any more, […] that’s what Le Mans should be - magic.”
Graham hasn’t quite embraced the new breed of prototype, either. “The diesels, though fantastically efficient, are about as exciting to listen to as my little Vauxhall Corsa, and that hideous dorsal fin now proscribed for all of them on safety grounds, simply destroys what would otherwise be a deliciously swooping profile on almost any chassis you care to name. In short, somehow they just don’t stir my soul, which racing cars really should,” he says.
In some ways, I can understand his decision, although for my own part I am not about to make a similar one. I’m hoping that he will take a year or two away, find that he misses it all dreadfully, and then makes a return. It would seem that for 2012 at least, his approach, insight and understanding will not be a part of the Radio Le Mans broadcast - which is a shame, don’t you agree?