PARIS – Today I stumbled on a recording I did in Abu Dhabi exactly 10 years ago and I wanted to post it again to mark the occasion. It was one of my musical adventures following the Formula One season as a journalist, and that year, 2012, I had set myself the goal of recording a song with a local musician in every one of the 20 or so countries that I visited. The idea was a real challenge, and I think I succeeded in my goal, but unfortunately the sound quality of the recordings was not of CD-level quality. But what a treasure to find this one of a star oud player and musician living in Abu Dhabi named Layth Aldaene, who is an Iraqi, and who is still playing around the area and farther afield, including recently with a symphony orchestra. I decided to post this today because this weekend is also that of the season-finale 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Formula One, so it seemed a great moment to post.
This recording took place in the House of Oud, which was a community center and workshop for building ouds, teaching the oud, spreading oud culture and everything else oud that you can imagine. I suggest you check out Layth Aldaene’s web site, as it has lots of his amazing music on it, and some cool videos.
I chose as a song to play my song “Let Me Know,” which I always felt had a middle eastern sound to it. In fact, I had written it purposefully with a middle eastern sound – although the guitar chord progression had itself been given to me by Laurent Guillaume, with whom I recorded the song on my CD.
PARIS – The point of this blog for me is usually to write about things happening right now in my life. For more than a year now, I have kept quiet here about one of the biggest things that happened in my life during most of the Covid period we are still living through. I was so busy first doing it – and keeping my mouth closed and fingers crossed about it – and then once finished, talking about it everywhere except for here, with one published interview or review after another – I will run a list of links of those at the end of this post – that I simply did not find the moment to talk about it here! In short, I am referring to the book that I had the opportunity to write about the 100 great, extraordinary, “impossible” moments in Formula One history, since the series began in 1950 and up to the end of last season. The first 70 years of the world’s most popular auto racing series summed up in words and extraordinary images and published by Assouline, one of the world’s top luxury book publishers. So, I am coming late to it here, but since I also see this blog as a personal record of important moments in my life, I have decided that it is better late than never to talk about it!
This book project was offered to me in August 2020, when I was in Sicily and like everyone, found myself in that momentary lull between waves of the biggest pandemic to hit humankind in a century. And, as many readers of this blog will know and be able to relate to themselves, I had one part of my life absolutely wiped out by the pandemic: Performing music and doing my other theatre-related activities in public. The performing arts, as everyone knows, were amongst the worst hit – well, of course, not to mention the restaurant industry, the travel industry, airlines and airports, etc. – since to perform in public was one of the easiest and most natural things to ban. And rightly so.
But that left me, like so many musicians and actors and performers, feeling as if we might not be able to breathe if we came down with Covid, but we were not able to breathe without our moments on stage, either! Fortunately for me, I had spent decades of my life devoted exclusively to my other passion of being closed up in my room – or a media center or newspaper office – and writing. Living through words. Living in the mind and not in the outside world or on a stage.
So when in August 2020 I was offered this opportunity of writing a book about Formula One for Assouline’s most prestigious collection – the Ultimate – in the series known as “The Impossible Collection,” I didn’t just jump at it, I instantly stopped feeling any regret, pain or other horror for losing that other aspect of my life, consisting in performing on stage. Here was a fabulous project offered to me by Assouline that thrived off the lockdown isolation as it required intense concentration, research and writing at just the very moment that the second wave of the pandemic came to hit us.
First Hungarian Grand Prix 1986. Photo Credit: Bernard Asset
Suddenly, I came entirely back to life thanks to this project. I also felt a huge sense of responsibility: The task was much bigger than I expected when I said yes. I had to come up with the 100 greatest, iconic, most important, “impossible” moments of Formula One over 70 years. I had been hired for my experience of more than 20 years covering the series for the International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times, and I realized that I had a responsibility for a big book that would sell for 920 euros, and/or $995, not just for an article on a piece of paper that would be used to wrap up fish the next day! My choices of moments have to be as close to perfect as possible.
Responsibility of Choosing the Impossible Moments for Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
It’s not that I doubted my ability to choose those moments. But I knew that Formula One is a series that has millions of fans who are not only passionate, but are often just as knowledgable as many of the journalists who cover it their whole lives. I also knew that any choice for a great moment that I made would also leave out several other possibilities that some other journalist or fan might feel very passionate about and cry foul!
“HOW could you not put in THIS moment!” they might say.
But that is also when I decided that, in any case, any list of 100 moments over 71 seasons that anyone made would have to have an element of personal preference or style to it, and I would have to assume that. Still, it took months to make the final choice of 100 great moments. I narrowed an initial selection down to 150, and then began eliminating, or at the suggestion of my editors at Assouline, in some cases, joining moments together – such as when I did only one moment for the two times that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost crashed into each other at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka in 1989 and 1990, thus drawing their championship duel to a close.
McLaren Technology Centre team factory. Photo Credit: McLaren F1 Team
I also said to myself that it would be absolutely necessary in a series like Formula One to include in the great moments not just sporting moments, but technical ones – the introduction of the Ford DFV engine in the 60s that would dominate for so many years, or the first rear-engine victory, etc. – as well as business advances or reversals, new venues, etc. Formula One has so many different aspects to it, that it would be impossible to do it justice while focusing on just one part of it.
While it was easy to make my first list – I started by working off the top of my head, then I went through several histories, timelines, collections of statistics, etc., to make sure I missed nothing that I might have overlooked – the most difficult thing was really what to cut out of the list. So many things had to go at some point. It was with great regret, for instance, that I did not include Jean Alesi’s sole victory in the series when he drove his Ferrari to win the Canadian Grand Prix in 1995 after Michael Schumacher, who led all but the last 11 laps of the 68-lap race, had to make a pit stop to change his steering wheel, and could not engage the gear, and so handed the lead to Alesi, who kept it until the checkered flag. It was a hugely dramatic moment during a season dominated by Schumacher, and involving the two teams that would exchange those same two drivers for the following year. (Schumacher went to Ferrari the following year, while Alesi and his Ferrari teammate, Gerhard Berger, both went to Benetton.)
Michael Schumacher’s first win for Ferrari in the wet in Spain in 1996. Photo credit: Agence de Presse ARC/Mario Luini
There were countless moments like this that I loved, that were big, important, but it was impossible to use them all. One of the ways that I chose moments, in fact, was to try to choose them for their larger effect on the series. That applied especially, for instance, with the moments that involved fatalities. The early years were so full of fatalities, and each was as tragic as the other. As time went on and safety improved, there were fewer and fewer. But still, while I did not mention the death of Elio De Angelis in 1986 after a testing accident, I could not, clearly, avoid talking about the moment involving the death of Ayrton Senna (with Roland Ratzenberger having died the previous day) at Imola in 1994. Nor could I avoid talking about the death of Wolfgang von Trips and the 15 spectators at Monza in September 1961.
I could not, either, avoid moments that included the great records, Schumacher’s equalling Juan Manuel Fangio’s 5 world titles in 2002, and then beating that record. And how satisfying and beautiful it was for the book to end on the note of Lewis Hamilton equalling Schumacher’s record of seven titles – and beating his number of victories – in the final season that the book covered, 2020, which was unfolding as I wrote it.
Catharsis in Writing the Introduction to Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
It was the work on the moments, both selecting them and writing them – in all their minute detail – that would make up the biggest part of the job. When I took on the project, I had thought it would be the writing of what became a 65-page introduction – with lots of photos – that would be the hardest part. In fact, the introduction was probably the most fun part to do, as I saw it as an opportunity to sum up and focus all of my knowledge about Formula One accumulated over a lifetime of being a fan – the first race I attended was the first Canadian Grand Prix, at Mosport in 1967 – and nearly a quarter century of writing about it professionally. So in a way, the introduction – that even went into the previous era of Grand Prix racing, starting with the precursor auto races sponsored by the founder of my former IHT newspaper, James Gordon Bennett Jr. – was even cathartic, in a way.
It was an incredible bit of unexpected icing on the cake when after I submitted the completed book to the editors, I learned that both Jean Todt, the president of the International Automobile Federation, and Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Formula One, had written forewords to the book. What an honor. (But just as great an honor was my having been the writer that Jean Todt recommended to do the book when Assouline asked for his advice on who to call.)
When Formula 1: The Impossible Collection Finally Arrives
Me at home with my advance copy of the Formula 1: The Impossible Collection book. Photo Credit: Ornella Bonventre
But the day my advance copy of the book arrived – all nearly 10 kilograms of it – that was when I saw the reality that I could never truly have imagined for a book that is an absolute “bijou” as the French say for a jewel, and I could see immediately not only why it was being sold for 920 euros, but that it seemed worth much more than that in the paper and hand craftsmanship alone. Printed at a luxury quality printer in Milan (called Grafiche Milani, a favourite of Jimmy Page) and many of the photographs – the photographic research job, as well as many of the photos themselves, was done by Bernard Asset, a top F1 photographer, while the final choices of photos and images was done by Martine Assouline, of the husband and wife team that own the company – were separately glued to the pages. The cover had a soft feel to it, and a wafting sent of the printer’s workshop came emanating from the box when I opened the book package. Astounding!
By the time the book was completed, and published in May, I had begun to think about playing music again, and I was, in fact, able to do so at a few places, as the pandemic died out a little where I live, and the vaccination process began – I got my second one at the end of May – and then I returned to Sicily, where I was able to perform a couple of times, as I have done back home in France since then.
On the other hand, I have also been working all out on another book project in recent months, which I will also only announce when the time is appropriate! (I’m entering a virtuous cycle here!) And again, I can thank this new project for taking me through the third wave!!!
Great Press Coverage of Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
Actually, I said the cherry on the cake were the two forewords, but there was another aspect to doing the book that I had not expected to this degree, and that was great coverage by some of the world’s top magazines, some of which involved several interviews with me…that once again showed me how difficult it can be to be on the other side of the journalistic table, as the subject of the interview rather than the interviewer!
Here is a list of links to a few of the major interviews and reviews of the book, so you can click on any one of them to read the review or interview:
The book was reviewed or promoted in many, many other parts of the internet, on many different kinds of sites, making me realize there is a landscape out there for talking about books and products of a size and kind that I had never even suspected existed (the landscape I mean, not the size of the books!). And so it was a fun, learning experience all over to have been blessed with this not impossible dream of writing a book about Formula One’s impossible moments for Assouline.
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, 1st position, celebrates on the podium with his trophy. Photo Credit: McLaren/LAT Images
PARIS – Several of my lives and passions came together over the last three days resulting in a personally imposed lock-down thanks to the victory by Daniel Ricciardo at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Italy on Sunday. Now if that sentence full of facts gets your head spinning to sort it all out, how about checking out the result of all that passion, which is the video I put together for a song in tribute to Ricciardo, written and performed by a couple of Aussie expats in France who I met during my open mic wanderings: “I Can Take Anybody Down,” by Chris Kenna and Melissa Cox:
The situation, it turned out, was actually linked to the previous post in this blog, about Elliott Murphy. Melissa Cox and I, who had met at performances of Kenna and Cox a few years ago, got in touch because it turned out that she not only plays violin with Kenna, but she is also part of the regular band playing with Elliott Murphy! So those two worlds suddenly joined.
Kenna and Cox
But whenever I had met Chris Kenna in the past in bars around Paris, where he is a mainstay of the Paris music scene, we had always spoken about his love of Formula One – which, of course, has been central to my own life and livelihood. And another passion of mine that then joined up in these last few days.
Well, when I heard this fabulous song for Ricciardo, and Melissa asked for photos, of course, another passion took hold: Making videos, mostly those involving music…but this time, with Formula One as a theme. And so, another passion suddenly joined up here, and little by little I got hooked on making this video.
Of course, time pressed as it seemed this thing should come out as close to Daniel Ricciardo’s victory as possible, while his many millions of fans are hot on the story. So that is where all these merging passions came together to force me into a personal lock-down and finish this thing. It would never have been possible, of course, had I not many friends, colleagues and acquaintances in Formula One who kindly helped me out, including especially Bernard Asset, who is one of the series’ best and most respected photographers – and who I worked with on my book about Formula One published at Assouline (which will be spoken of more in a future blog post), who incredibly selflessly allowed me to use a lot of his photos and even chose a selection, treated them and sent them very quickly. And there was the McLaren team’s media staff as well, who gave me access to their collection and videos; and Steven Tee, who is another of the great F1 photographers, and whose LAT Images is probably the biggest, best database of F1 photos there is.
The Extraordinary Musical Pedigree of Kenna and Cox
It was especially great fun to be able to make a music video for someone else from the Paris music scene, as I have made many for my own songs, but few for other people. And Kenna and Cox are no ordinary other musicians based in Paris. Kenna was a farm boy from south-western Victoria state in Australia, who grew up milking cows and trapping rabbits with his brother before dreaming of being a rock star. He may not be a household name, but got a lot of big tastes of that life and world as in Australia he opened for bands like Midnight Oil, Men at Work, The Church and Ian Moss (Cold Chisel), and then when he later moved to France – for the love of a woman – he not only has lived off his own gigs in small venues and bars ever since, but he occasionally supported big names here too, including for Jeff Beck, Peter Green and Tommy Emmanuel.
Kenna and Cox
He has now been playing with Cox for more than a decade, when the two Australians ran into each other at a gig, and he asked her to play a tune with him. She is from Sydney, where she studied classical violin since the age of 10, but then later got discovered jazz, blues, folk, rock and world music. Although her dream had always been to live in Paris, she first tasted a bit of the rest of the world. To quote from her bio: “Under the name Black Sesame, she released an album of electro-pop songs in between residencies as a jazz singer in Tokyo and Guangzhou. But it was Paris she dreamed of; and an invitation to study film composition at L’Ecole Normale de Musique saw the dream become reality.”
So she got to Paris, and has never left – or rather, the two now live in a remote village and commute for gigs, recording, etc.!
As I write these words in closing, I think about how amazing life is when one thing leads to another in an organic manner that you could never have predicted between the moment of one action – for instance, Ricciardo’s victory, or Kenna and Cox meeting at that gig, me writing the Elliott Murphy item leading to Cox contacting me about the song – and the string of events that it sets in motion! And speaking of motion, and e-motion, check out the video and song now because there is LOTS of motion, locomotion and emotion in this “I Can Take Anybody Down” cry of victory for Daniel Ricciardo and his fans!
This blog item feels more and more like liner notes, and no liner notes are complete without the lyrics to the album (well, that’s arguable!), so here I am also going to post the lyrics to this song (which you can also find at Chris Kenna’s bandcamp page, with the song:
They call me the honey badger
And I hail from the west,
I’m an animal behind the wheel –
It’s the thing that I do best.
Nothin’ gets me higher,
Higher than the moon,
(Than) when I’m trippin’ major nutsack
On a Sunday afternoon.
When I’m thirsty for a shoey
Then I hardly use the brakes;
If someone holds me back,
Well I just pounce on their mistakes.
When they see that number 3,
With Lando by my side,
Well they know their race is over
So they take the corner wide.
I can take anybody,
I can take anybody down.
I can take anybody (passion and commitment)
I can take anybody down.
The boys in orange hold their breath
Until their faces all turn blue,
Well I’ll get them on the podium
If it’s the last thing that I do.
All the stallions and the toros
They’re all chafing at the bit,
(And) Mr Hamilton is arguing
With the boss down in the pit.
I can take anybody, (passion and commitment)
I can take anybody down.
I can take anybody, (passion and commitment)
I can take anybody down.
[Uh, watch your back, we’ve got the McLaren on turn 20]
Here comes Danny Ric
[We need to go faster otherwise we let the McLaren pass]
Here comes Danny Ric
Coming up behind you
[Keep pushing – mate, you need to go now]
It’s Danny Ric, oh yeah
Coming up beside you
[Oh shit, he’s got you]
It’s Danny Ric!
I can take anybody (passion and commitment)
I can take anybody down
Last Friday, 6 December 2019, marked the exact anniversary date three years ago that I finished working in my job reporting about Formula One for The New York Times (based in Paris, but writing for both its international and U.S. editions). It was also the day that I was invited to attend the International Automobile Federation‘s prize giving ceremony press conference at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, where Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes team received their trophy for winning the Formula One titles this year, along with the other F.I.A. champions from other series. So with that personal synchronicity in mind, and as a fan of the series, I attended the press conference, wondering how I would feel about my past life re-emerging on that timely date.
Before I say more about my feelings on that, I want to mention the other synchronicity – the next day, or rather, at around 1:38 AM that same night/next morning: Saturday, 7 December. That day is my birthday – which my brother, Scott, likes to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt on regarding the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy” – and in France’s Journal Officiel dated 7 December 2019 published around 1:38 AM that day, I found the decree that said I had become a French citizen. I had been fighting for that honor for 3 1/2 years – ie, since the Brexit referendum – and that it should fall on my birthday, and precisely three years after ending my career as an NYT journalist, was beautiful – and felt full of significance.
So the whole weekend was a blessed time. Despite having to battle my way through a French transport strike and rain, arriving at the Louvre drenched in both sweat and precipitation (from running through the rain for the last 40 minutes of the journey), the visit to the prize giving was an extraordinary moment. It was the first time I found myself involved in an F.I.A. press conference while no longer reporting for my newspaper. While I did decide that I would do a few tweets and write something about it on this blog – thereby making it a legitimate invitation – my biggest reason for attending was to see the world in which I had lived for more than two decades from my new point of view as a fan only.
I was delighted to meet up again with so many of my former paddock friends and colleagues: Journalists like Joe Saward, Jonathan Noble of Autosport, Frédéric Ferret of L’Equipe, Alain Pernot of Sport-Auto and other publications, and Andrea Cremonesi of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Tom Clarkson, who interviewed the drivers for the F.I.A., or Dieter Rencken, the South African journalist; team press officers like Bradley Lord of Mercedes (who has been press officer in teams that have now won the title 8 times (Renault and Mercedes), and his boss Toto Wolff. And of the drivers, there was Jean-Eric Vergne, the Formula E champion whom I have known since he was 15; Fernando Alonso; and, of course, Lewis Hamilton. And finally, Jean Todt, the president of the F.I.A., whom I first met as the Ferrari team director in 1997, who was also present as the organizer and key officiator of the event, of course.
I guess the word best to describe the experience would be: Flashback! But for the first time attending a press conference, I felt no pressure to produce any reports.
It was, though, very strange to hear the same kinds of questions being asked in the same way by the same people to the same people. It made me wonder how it feels for the drivers and teams to confront the same members of the media year after year, decade after decade. This, of course, is the same situation we find in any media circus: at the White House, the Olympic Games, soccer or even in coverage of show business, fashion or even science, no doubt.
But I thought about how surreal it must feel sometimes for the stars, such as Hamilton and Alonso, (and even for the not as successful drivers who must sit next to these stars and be ignored by the media while all the questions go to the stars, as happened in Alonso’s World Endurance Championship racing team, as the Spaniard received all the questions from the media). How surreal it must be to see the same inquisitors asking the same questions year after year.
And I am not here criticizing the work of my former colleagues or of the F.I.A., all of whom are doing a fabulous job. This is just the nature of the beast. But having been away from it all for so long, it felt strange to find myself plopped right back into the paradigm, as if time had stopped, and all that I had done for the last three years had never existed, and I was again reporting on Formula One and other car racing series.
It was a little like how it felt a few months ago when I visited The National Theatre in London where I had worked 42 years ago as a bartender, and I found the place unchanged. And I thought, had I stayed there and made a career of it, I would have been in a world unchanged, rather than having felt as if I have lived a full, adventurous life since then….
It certainly comes down to our passions: Probably most of the people who have and will spend their lives in Formula One – or at the National Theatre – cannot imagine a life they would love better than that, cannot imagine a life without that environment. I spent 33 years employed by the International Herald Tribune and its successor, the International New York Times. While I would have happily continued, I am even happier that I have been able to transform my life into something else since then – working in the TAC Teatro theater company (back to the past?!), playing my music, writing on other subjects, avoiding much travel, and making films – while remaining a fan of racing.
These observations are probably obvious to most people, and probably I had many of them to a slightly lesser degree while in the thick of reporting on Formula One. But during such an emotional couple of days, it was all perfectly timed: The world DOES change. If we choose to make it change. I no longer cover Formula One as I used to. I still watch every session and race, and I still love it. But I am no longer part of the circus – or perhaps never really was. I am now French, after 36 years living in this country, and while I may feel like that is a fabulous consecration, I suppose that in many ways I have been French for decades.
But no wonder that the thing I found most interesting about the press conference was hearing Hamilton and Alonso talking about their life-changes, about the different worlds they live in, not just Formula One. I managed to film a bit of that, and I am putting it up here on the blog – in my role as a journalist attending a Formula One press conference again….
The sudden death at age 66 in Melbourne of Charlie Whiting, the Formula One race director, official race starter, rules-writer and rock-solid leader in many other roles in the world’s premier racing series, hit me and anyone else who knew him even marginally as a complete shock. It also came in a dramatic manner the day before the new season’s first track action at the Australian Grand Prix, and while the series itself continues to pass through a transition from its old management – that of Bernie Ecclestone – to its new owners, Liberty Media. That Liberty Media asked Whiting three years ago to remain in the series just when he was contemplating retirement after a 40-year career in the series, and at the same time Liberty were preparing to fire Ecclestone, speaks volumes about the importance of this man to the smooth operation of the series.
But probably the thing that most comes to mind in all of the tributes from friends and colleagues around the world since his death last night is Whiting’s simplicity, kindness, sweetness and fairness as a human being. He was much loved by almost everyone in the series, despite having probably the most difficult job of all: to act at least in part as a rules enforcer and referee during both technical and human racing disputes. Whiting was one of the rare people in high positions who had no airs of self-importance, and he was hugely respected by the drivers – with whom he performed pre-race briefings at each event – and with the media and team personnel.
I had a wild first meeting with Whiting at the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1998 on the morning of the race. But it was wild for just about every external reason – later that day Formula One had the biggest multi-car pile-up in its history with 13 cars crashing in the first corner – rather than my interaction with Whiting himself being wild. I felt slightly nervous conducting this first interview with the race director – then in his second season in the role – but very quickly as I sat in his small office off the side of the paddock with the rain pounding down outside, I started to ask myself: “Does he appear to be more nervous than I am about our interview?” His manner put me quickly at ease.
I would conclude over the years that, no, he was not likely nervous during our interview. He simply had a very human, very natural way of speaking to a reporter, or a whole media center full of reporters, that felt very unlikely for a man of his power within the series. It was the same as he spoke to anyone in any circumstance, it seemed. There were no external facades put on to persuade anyone of anything. He had a balanced, calm, cool way of dealing with the problems at hand, and seemed so perfectly suited to being the dispute-defuser that he was, that it was clear to see why Ecclestone – and the International Automobile Federation – had trusted him from Whiting’s early days in the series working as a mechanic at Ecclestone’s Brabham team in the 1980s right up until today over his more than 20 years in his race director role.
Whiting, left, at press conference
As one paddock person after another (journalists, drivers, co-workers, and other related F1 people) have said today in their outpourings of grief, Whiting had time for everyone, and could be counted on. It is difficult to imagine how Formula One will cope in the coming season – or even beyond – without him.
In order to give some idea of the kind of life Charlie Whiting lived in his daily working life, I have decided to re-print on my blog the article I wrote outlining that weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1998 when I met him. Before our meeting on the morning of the race, I had also been invited to spend the Friday practice session in the race control tower watching how Whiting and his team worked during the race action. That, too, turned out to be something of an historic, frantic session, as the cocky young reigning world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, decided to test his manliness by taking the series’ most wicked dangerous corner at full speed, and he paid the price with a spectacular accident into the barriers.
The story, which follows here, appeared in the International Herald Tribune on 11 Sept. 1998 as the race preview of the following race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza:
The atmosphere will be tense at this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, not only in the battle between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher for the drivers’ title but also because it is the 20th anniversary at the Monza track of a 10-car pile-up that seriously injured two drivers and took the life of a third, Ronnie Peterson.
That anniversary might have passed unnoticed were it not for a stark reminder Aug. 30 at the Belgian Grand Prix when 13 cars were destroyed in one of the sport’s worst pile-ups. The fact that no driver was injured is partly a tribute to the strict safety rules now applied to the cars’ cockpits, which are much more solidly constructed than they were in 1978. But it is also due to luck.
Nowhere will the off-track tension be higher Friday in Monza than in the race control tower, where the most important safety decisions are made. During the Friday practice session in Belgium, this reporter was invited to watch the scene in what is normally the privileged domain of a handful of officials who have the best seat at the track. The 20 officials sat in deep concentration watching 39 television monitors in their room high above the track, in what looks like a cross between a TV station and NASA’s Mission Control.
When a car suddenly spun off sideways into a tire safety barrier at nearly 300 kilometers an hour (185 mph) , the silent watchers sprang to their feet and spoke into walkie-talkies and cellular telephones. ”Red flag! Red flag!” called out Charlie Whiting, the race director, to stop the practice session. ”Send the break-down truck,” another official barked. ”Go to the site,” ordered another, as Whiting put on his windbreaker to go to inspect the scene of the accident.
Jacques Villeneuve, the car’s driver, climbed out of the wreck and teetered like a boxer after absorbing an effective uppercut. But within 20 seconds, Sid Watkins, the track doctor, was by his side, having been dispatched to ”corner 3” by the control tower. Fortunately, Villeneuve was not hurt, and the session continued after a 15-minute track cleanup, done by the track-side workers following directions from the control tower.
The control tower is manned mostly by local officials, the most senior of whom is the so-called clerk of the course. They communicate with about 300 officials around the track. Whiting, who represents the International Automobile Federation, the sport’s governing body, oversees them all. As race director, he ensures that the locals do things the same way in every country. He is also the official race starter, which can turn the best seat in the house into the hottest seat.
Both the Monza accident 20 years ago and the recent accident in Belgium occurred on the first lap. Two hours before the Belgian race, while the rain fell in sheets across the track, David Coulthard, the British driver, pleaded with Whiting to start the race behind the safety car.
A safety car leads the racing cars, in their grid order, around the track until it drives off, allowing the race to start in earnest. This kind of rolling start – rather than a standing start – can reduce danger of cars fighting for places at the first corner through poor visibility on a slippery track.
”We’d like you to use the safety car because otherwise a lot of us are going to go off the track,” Coulthard said, ”and I’ll probably be one of them.”
But Whiting, at noon, could not give Coulthard a definitive answer for the race that would begin at 2 P.M. He was nervous about the treacherous conditions, but said he would decide only just before the race.
”You have to address every problem individually,” he said. ”The weather can change.”
By 2 o’clock it had cleared a little but the track was still wet under a light drizzle. The safety car was not used and Coulthard’s words proved strangely prophetic: He was the first to slide off the track at the start, setting off the chain-reaction pileup.
After the race Villeneuve said the use of the safety car wouldn’t have made a difference, while Alexander Wurz said the safety car should have been used. Whiting said that the safety decisions are always ”a human thing as opposed to a machine.”
PARIS – A 102 year old chapter of history ended on Thursday with the death of David Douglas Duncan, one of the world’s greatest photojournalists, a man who had started his career with a photo of the gangster John Dillinger in 1934, before documenting several wars and many iconic historic events, while also making a sideline career of photographing his friend Picasso from 1956 to the artist’s death in the 1970s. It was also the end of a five-year long chapter in my own life, from when I first learned that Duncan was a fan of Formula One racing, read my coverage of the series in the International Herald Tribune and wanted to talk.
Meeting DDD – as he was often called – in 2013 and maintaining a relationship occasionally over the telephone since then was the most satisfying consequence of my 25-year Formula One writing career. It also kept me humble to think that stories I wrote would be read by a man of this stature. But it was learning from the example of the man himself that was the most important aspect of having known DDD.
You might expect a man who had met and photographed Gandhi, dined with Khrushchev, befriended Picasso, and been in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War among countless other jobs and experiences would be somewhat unapproachable, full of himself and perhaps haughty. But I don’t think I ever met a man as humble, genuine, simple in his personal approach to people, and gifted with an ability to make people who met him feel great about themselves. In fact, I was reminded again and again of a quote I had once noted in my youth by G.K. Chesterton: “There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.”
I could not believe my good fortune in having known Duncan. I learned through a common friend in Formula One that he wanted to contact me about a story I had written, which he wanted to use as the preface to a book of photos of Formula One that he had taken off the Monaco Grand Prix on the television. I got in touch at the end of 2012, and found it was a story I had written in 2000, which he still remembered the details of! It turned out also to be the most unexpected revenge – in my mind only – against an editor at the newspaper who had pulled the story from the page before publication, as he thought it was not worthy of the newspaper. (Another editor defended it, and it was published the next day.) I got a copy of the story to DDD, and then with great pride again, I watched as he prepared the book and ran my story as the preface.
David Douglas Duncan Soldier
I then went to meet him, and his wife Sheila, at their home near Grasse, in the south of France. While there, I asked him if I could do an interview with him, as just meeting him had given me the idea of running a regular column of interviews with famous Formula One fans. He said I could, and told me just to call when I was ready. He was just days away from turning 97, and quite honestly, I was very worried that at that age, I could lose my opportunity, as he might die any day. In fact, while he walked most of the time with a cane after a broken hip, he was still going around his home up and down a hugely steep and narrow stone staircase with no railing – another reason I feared for the future – and was in fact in such incredible health that, yes, he would go on to live more than five years more.
DDD’s first Picasso photo
I cherished every time we spoke – the last time was in February – even though our typical exchanges would be quite short, as he seemed not to want to intrude! So I was instantly plunged into shock and remorse yesterday when I saw the headline about his death while reading my daily New York Times.
Duncan was truly a great man, and the greatest part was what he gave to others. I recall asking him what his favourite subject to photograph had been in his life, and while I had expected to hear any of the usual things – Picasso, a war, a great leader or the jewels of the Kremlin – he said it had been one of his most beloved dogs. He had even made a book of photos of the dog. It was the genuine response of one of the most genuine people I have ever met.
PARIS – Sunday night I suddenly discovered that one of the coolest jam joints in Paris, the Carré jam of Thursday nights, run by Olivier Domengie, had decided recently to try out a singer-songwriter night, at least once a month. So I thought this a perfect moment to get back to the street-level barroom of the legendary Don Camilo cabaret in the Latin Quarter, to play my own songs, in a completely different environment. And two days later, I ended up doing a hugely satisfying private moment at a reception in Paul Ricard’s offices off the Champs Elysées in honor of a book launch before the French Grand Prix, of an oeuvre dedicated to the Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France. A crazy fabulous couple of moments….
I was hugely surprised and delighted to see that Olivier Domengie was using the Don Camilo room where I attended the jam a few weeks ago to host a singer-songwriter night. That meant not having to do cover songs, going into the same environment and doing something completely different, and depending only on my guitar and voice – as with everyone else – to communicate with this great audience and room. (Which, I remind readers, is located just around the corner from Serge Gainsbourg’s old home….)
As it turned out, everyone was invited to do two songs, and there was still a second round to do another two. By then, I had been preceded by a cool little band on its first public appearance – that’s what I think it was – and I was so bothered by their level and use of guitar, keyboards, vocal and bass, that I jumped at the opportunity to have this other guy play along with me on my second set. He had the coolest, strangest, instrument that sounded variously like a saxophone or a flute, and was, yes, some kind of synthesised “wind” instrument.
Anyway, there were lots of cool musicians, the usual neat vibe of this unique place that has been around for half a century or so, and a thoroughly agreeable evening. I hope they continue this singer-songwriter night (and don’t clash with the neighbourhood’s other such night, at the Tennessee with Paddy Sherlock).
The book, called, “Circuit Paul Ricard: Les Seigneurs de la F1” traces the story of the circuit, as well as Paul Ricard – the man who created the “vrai Pastis de Marseilles,” a wonderfully refreshing alcoholic drink à la anis. The book covers in text an photos, the whole history, in an entertaining and highly readable and visually beautiful manner. (Photos by my former colleagues Bernard Asset and Bernard-Henri Cahier, or the latter’s father, Bernard.)
Anyway, when I accepted the invitation to the event, much to my surprise and satisfaction, Daniel invited me to bring my guitar, as well. He knew about my adventures around the world playing music at all the open mics and jams in the cities of the Formula One race, and he thought it could be fun to have me there to play a mini-set. I was kind of worried, and a little modest, as this was, after all, taking place at the Salon Paul Ricard, at the posh offices and reception area in a building off the Champs-Elysées.
But Daniel’s invitation looked genuine. So I went with my guitar, and ended up doing exactly the mini-set he suggested, and it turned out to be a fabulous moment, and a great evening with many former colleagues and other interesting people from French motorsport, including the former director of the Paul Ricard Circuit, Gerard Neveu, who is now the C.E.O. of the World Endurance Racing series.
So, could I have possibly had two different kinds of musical moments and locales in Paris? Probably not – nor two equally fabulous moments either.
Oh, of course, my nerves had a bit of help last night with the imbibing of a 51 Picard before I played….
They were the big, daring stars with a halo of danger surrounding them, a sense of not knowing what might be going through their minds for driving at speeds of 300 kph and more in a sport where death was a regular occurrence. Their series was the highest level of its kind, both technologically and in human skill. They travelled from country to country, including in far-flung places away from their home base. They feted their victories in posh parties. And when they lost their racing jobs, they became journalists commentating on the series – and as such were given less respect, or were considered like hyenas smelling blood.
Watching John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film “Grand Prix,” for perhaps the fifth or sixth time last night, I was not only struck more than ever by how little the underlying ethos and image of Formula One has really changed in the 51 years since the film was made, but for the first time I also found myself loving the human story that I had always thought was the film’s weak point. And it was really only while watching it yesterday that I suddenly began to do the math and to discover another human story not stated in the film that gives the tale an even deeper feeling of gravitas.
The human story, mixing the racer’s competitive urge and taste for taking risks and the way it affected their personal lives, as well as the technological story and the presentation of the series itself all work in lock-step to produce the greatness of this film. Until Ron Howard’s film “Rush” in 2013, it was commonly felt that there had only been one good film made about the Formula One series, and that was “Grand Prix.” But watching “Grand Prix” with the perspective now of having “Rush” – the story of the 1976 battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt for the world title – there is another layer that may be added to the 1966 film. The scene in which the driver named Scott Stoddart, who is played by Brian Bedford, tries to recover from his horrible accident and injuries could be seen as a model for the even more horrendous Niki Lauda recovery scenes in “Rush” were it not that the Lauda scenes were based on the true story of Lauda’s life, whereas “Grand Prix” is fiction.
Yves Montand in Grand Prix
And yet “Grand Prix” also uses history to weave its tragic tale, including in the parallels to the death of Wolfgang von Trips at Monza in 1961 during a race that should have brought him the World Drivers’ title. Instead, he crashed, killing himself and 15 spectators, while the world title then went to his teammate, Phil Hill, the American driver at Ferrari (who also appears in the film). In “Grand Prix,” it is Jean-Pierre Sarti, the Yves Montand character, who was heading for the title at Monza, who crashes and dies, and so gives the title to the American driver, Pete Aron, played by James Garner, who drives for a Japanese team.
So How Has it Changed as Formula One Returns to Malaysia for its Final Race outside Kuala Lumpur?
As Formula One prepares this weekend to run its final race in Malaysia, after nearly 20 years at the venue outside Kuala Lumpur, our memory in sport remains very short. Watching “Grand Prix” can remind those who like to criticize the series for not being what it once was, that little in the ethos has changed. Malaysia was one of the many circuits that so-called “purists” liked to say had no place on the calendar of a series that was born in Europe, since the Southeast Asian nation had no racing culture, no car culture, no fans…. But in the film, the series already travelled to Mexico, and in another 10 years it would go to Japan. In fact, a Japanese manufacturer was involved in the film – as was Honda in reality – trying to win races after a couple of seasons without success, and seeking the best driver and having undergone far too much humiliation through losing. Echoes of Honda in the series now.
Too much money linked with Formula One today? In 1966, the tracks around Europe had sponsors plastered everywhere, but they were mostly car-related sponsors – Champion spark plugs, Castrol Oil, Goodyear Tires, etc. Today, it is watch companies like Rolex, Hublot, IWC and many others, or alcohol companies, technology companies, and dozens of other non-racing companies.
Grand Prix film crash
It is commonly said that Bernie Ecclestone built up Formula One from a kind of gentlemen’s club in that period to the global business it is today. And while it is true that he organized it and made it into a very powerful global sport – one of the most-watched behind the Olympics and World Cup soccer – it can be seen in some ways as a natural progression as our whole world has progressed for what was ALWAYS the pinnacle of automobile racing. It has just expanded, developed, organized and become much MORE of what it was, building on what it was, as well as diversifying.
Very few of the underlying narratives have actually changed, and even most of the circuits from the film are still part of the series, but built up and vastly improved: Spa, Monza, the Nurburgring (although it was not the same circuit), Mexico and Monaco. The glitzy after-party in Monaco still goes on today.
The cars of the day were beautiful objects, and while they are primitive by today’s standards, they were the highest expression of the technology of the day, as with today’s cars.
Nearly Half of the Real Racing Drivers in the Film Would Die Violent Racing-Linked Deaths
But the most shocking part of the film is something we do not see, or we only see if we know the history of what followed. And that brings me back to that bit of mathematical counting I started to do while watching the film. Just over 30 of the drivers of the day were used in the film in small roles, as extras or just on camera as they raced. It was a brilliant blending in of the star actors with the fictional drivers. The most obvious ones being people like Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt or Jim Clark. But knowing what fate held for them is a hugely poignant thing.
Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier, with James Garner and Yves Montand, in Grand Prix film
Of those 30 or so drivers, 13 would eventually die in racing accidents – or, as in the case of Graham Hill, while flying his airplane in poor weather returning from a racing test session; or in the case of Giuseppe Farina, after running his car into a telegraph pole while driving to the French Grand Prix of 1966, when he was acting as the double and adviser to Yves Montand in the film.
Also in the film, where Stoddart suffers a huge crash near the harbor in Monaco, the following year, at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, Lorenzo Bandini, who was also in the film, was killed in a fiery accident also by the harbor.
And here is the point: While Formula One remains a deadly series, as the death of Jules Bianchi two years ago from injuries in an accident the previous year at the Japanese Grand Prix has shown, it has incontestably become safer than it was. The series depicted by “Grand Prix,” while so similar – or perhaps “familiar” is a better word – in so many other ways to today’s series, no longer, thank goodness, takes the lives of some of its drivers nearly every year.
No, Formula One is not entirely what it was. It is better.
What is wrong with these Formula One fans and pundits who have been criticising the series for decades about its global expansion, and loss of “traditional” circuits in Europe? Sure, there is only one race in Italy, one in Spain, one in Germany (sometimes), and for years no race in France – soon to be rectified. Hold it, do we need more than one in each country? In fact, for me the Singapore Grand Prix not only always lived up to its expectations, but it went far beyond them to become one of the top races in the series. So no wonder that Formula One has been able to extend the deal in the city state for another four years of the race, as announced yesterday. For me, the Singapore race, the third practice of which is taking place as I write these words, is simply one of the best, most exciting and interesting races of the season – one of the hottest, in every way….
I do not recall a single time being able to walk from the MRT station closest to the circuit to the media center of the circuit without having worked up a full-body sweat that led to me adopting the habit of wearing a T-Shirt to go there, and bringing a fresh change of shirt to start the day – or afternoon, rather, since it is a night race. It is a long-haul from Europe to Singapore, and the country is so small and without a long tradition of top auto racing culture; but how can a series that calls itself the pinnacle of racing in the world pretend to be anything like that without actually racing all around the world? For me, the global expansion is both necessary and enriching, for the series, for the fans and for the participants. What a fabulous adventure. And, of course, I personally always enjoyed the discovery of the musical culture, as with my wonderful encounters in the open mics, jams and gigs of Singapore – like the time I met “the Dean Martin of Singapore.”
Chase Carey of Liberty Media at Singapore GP 2016. Photo: Brad Spurgeon
This weekend marks the 10th edition of the Singapore Grand Prix, the first running of which took place in 2008, as Formula One’s first ever night race. As it happened, that first edition would take place just as the world financial markets began to fall apart in the beginning of the financial crisis the effects of which we are still feeling today. I recall the strange atmosphere in the paddock perfectly: We were gathered in the financial hub of Southeast Asia in the slickest racing environment in a downtown setting that we had ever seen, and basking in the paddock in an atmosphere of wealth and luxury. While all the talk was about the underpinnings of that wealth and luxury falling apart around us – banks going bust, the global financial system sinking into an apparent abyss, and with it, the prospect of so many of the series’ sponsors pulling out and leaving Formula One adrift in a series that survives on begging for money.
As the series continues to negotiate for a new contract with Singapore, and in a season in which a new company has taken over the running of the series – the U.S.-based Liberty Media – I thought it would be a great time to look back at a couple of the stories that I wrote in the past, as well as to start a new auto racing section on this blog. Today I am running what I feel is the biggest story I wrote about Formula One as almost classical theater, a big, world story of glamour, glitz and drama. This was a Page 1 story in the International Herald Tribune, and later ran in the New York Times, and summed up the state of Formula One at the time, at its biggest race of the season: The Monaco Grand Prix. Read the story and tell me if the series is the same today 15 years later?
Tomorrow, I will run my preview for the first ever Singapore Grand Prix, and talk a little more about how the weekends go in Singapore.
By the way, while we all thought the first night race and the collapsing financial markets were the biggest story of the weekend in 2008, it turned out that there was a much, much bigger sporting story going on behind the scenes. But that scandal would only be revealed a year later when Nelson Piquet Jr. told the world that he (and his team directors) had staged a fake crash in order to help his teammate at Renault, Fernando Alonso, with his race strategy. The help would lead to Alonso’s first victory that season, and a year later, to the banning of two of the team’s directors from the series in one of the sport’s worst cheating scandals. Last year also marked the beginning of the Liberty Media story, as the announcement of the takeover of Formula One had just been made at the beginning of the month and Chase Carey, the new boss, visited the Singapore paddock – his first ever visit to a Formula One Grand Prix.