Monday, 10 December 2012

1990 - Debut on Eurosport!

Some readers may be aware that I spent three years of my life, between 1989 and 1992, living in the USA. Initially, my employers had suggested that it would be for a period of up to six months, but as usual, it took me much longer to do what they wanted me to do than it should have.
At the time, my work as a commentator in the UK was taking off nicely, and I was faced with a choice: either to give it all up and try to start to make contacts in the motor-racing world in the USA; or to accept the fact that I would have to spend some of my (admittedly quite good) salary on transatlantic flights and continue to commentate at Silverstone, Snetterton and Brands Hatch.
I opted for the latter, but also used the fact that I was in the States to broaden my experience of racing by visiting NASCAR, Indycar and suchlike. And it was in the vein of reaching out that I contacted Eurosport, and found myself the job of English language commentator for their coverage of the World Sports-Prototype Championship at Montreal in 1990. I wasn’t required to perform any kind of audition and although I was told that they wouldn’t pay me very much, they did undertake to pay the costs of my flight from New York to Montreal and to provide me hotel accommodation for the duration of my stay.
No email in those days, so everything was arranged over the phone. I was given a reservation number at ‘Le Grand Hotel des Gouverneurs’ in downtown Montreal, from which a shuttle bus would take me to and from the circuit, just over the river, about half-an-hour away.
The hotel was indeed a grand place. And I was especially surprised on checking in to find that I had been upgraded to a suite on the top floor. Well, it wasn’t quite the top floor, as once I got to the penultimate floor, I discovered that the suite had a further flight of stairs inside, which led to the bedroom.

It seemed something of a waste that I was alone in this marvellous room, (in a rather nice city), and that there was no-one to share it with. They obviously spotted that I was Billy No-Mates when they decided to upgrade me - I clearly wasn't the type to invite loads of ne’er-do-wells and trash the place.

It was first time that I had been in Montreal, although I had visited Toronto a number of times. I was struck by the ‘French-ness’ of it all. My attempts to speak French were warmly welcomed, in stark contrast to my experiences speaking French in France, which were so often ridiculed. As I only arrived on the Friday evening, and was due to return on Sunday night, there wasn't much time for any sightseeing, but I did wander out on Saturday evening, found a pleasant restaurant nearby, and felt confident enough to try speaking my best French. I thought I was doing pretty well, especially when the waitress beamed at me: ‘You’re not American, are you Dutch?’

Despite this, I found Montreal an enchanting city, one that I vowed to return to; and indeed, one that I would dearly like to visit again sometime.

The races in 1990 were 480kms and had a maximum duration of three and a half hours and the plan for the race was that I would have a co-commentator in the shape of John Watson. The snag was that he was sharing one of the works Toyotas in the race with Geoff Lees. The idea was that he would drive the middle stint and then come and join me to cover the final third of the race. I was slightly concerned that this plan was flawed, not least because the TV compound, where the commentary boxes were situated, was on the opposite side of the track from the paddock, and about a mile away from the pits. I've extracted the circuit map from the Media Guide that we were issued with - the commentary position was between the infield lake and the Bronze 32 grandstand.
I remember between practice sessions, on the day before the race, going to find Wattie, partly to introduce myself and partly to get a feeling for what was going to happen. I was very keen to make a good impression, not just on John, but also in my role as a TV commentator, in the knowledge that my audience would be far larger than I was used to – even compared to a British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
In particular, I wondered, how was Wattie going to get up to speed with what was happening in the race? If he’d been driving, he would be able to bring great insight to that element of the race, but might somehow be missing the bigger picture of the battle at the front (as it was expected) between Mercedes and Jaguar. Then there was the first public appearance of the new Peugeot 905, in the hands of Keke Rosberg, prior to a full onslaught on the Championship in 1991. If that was in and out of the pits, would Watson even have seen it?
I was eager to ensure that we did a good job and didn’t appear unprofessional. Watson surprised me, being very off-hand about the whole performance: “it’s only Eurosport, nothing important,” was his opinion on matters. “Don't worry, I'll get over with you when I can.”
I have already mentioned that the positioning of the TV commentary boxes was not ideal. The view of the track was minimal, and at that point the cars were travelling at very high speed indeed. My normal practice of keeping a lap chart running was virtually impossible: the high speed combined with a very narrow field of view meant that I watched the largest portion of the race on the TV monitor. In addition to live TV pictures, I also had a timing screen and a small monitor with a fixed view of cars going into (or occasionally being worked on) in the pits.
What I had not quite worked out at that stage in my ‘commentary career’, though, was the need to talk only about what was happening on the pictures. I felt it was far more important to tell viewers the other things that were happening – after all, they could see the pictures, what they must want was to know what else was going on, surely?
My other big mistake was not to introduce the ad breaks properly; as the producer counted down to the break, I would merely reach a natural pause in the commentary, and wait for him to go to the break. All the while, he was waiting for me to say something like “don’t go away, we’ll be right back in just a couple of minutes”.
Of course the race itself was something of a fiasco; despite being the venue for the Canadian Grand Prix, somehow the World Sports-Prototype Championship didn’t carry the same weight, and in the end the race had to be halted prematurely after Jesus Pareja in the Brun Porsche 962 met a fiery end when a man-hole cover crashed through the windscreen having been lifted by a car he was following. Lucky to avoid being hit in the face by the flying disc, he was luckier still to escape unscathed from the ensuing fire.
Unfortunately, the TV cameras caught none of the action and I was left wondering what was going on as eventually the pictures cut to a burnt-out shell of the Porsche. The race was finally stopped after a brief period behind the safety car, and despite initial information being that there would be a re-start and a two-part race, it eventually became clear that, having dodged one bullet (almost literally) no-one wanted to take any more risks.
With little information coming through from the race organisation, and lots of talkback from the Eurosport producer in London, I was stood down with 49 of the scheduled 110 laps remaining. So I took a taxi back to the airport and was never asked to work for Eurosport again. Shame really, as had things turned out differently, I might have made a better job of it and managed to get my foot in the door.
What I didn’t know, was that my parents, who were holidaying in Andorra at the time, happened to be visiting a local cafĂ© which had Eurosport on the TV in the corner. Mum wouldn’t believe it was me commentating until my name appeared on the screen, despite my Dad’s assertions. And until very recently, when it came to my attention that the race is now on YouTube (isn’t everything?) I had never, ever seen the results of my efforts!
The amended entry list (click to enlarge)

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