Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Reflections on my Friday and Saturday Synchronicities: From Formula One to French Nationality

December 11, 2019
bradspurgeon

Lewis Hamilton head butts Tom Clarkson at F.I.A. prize giving (not really).  ©Photo Brad Spurgeon

Lewis Hamilton head butts Tom Clarkson at F.I.A. prize giving (not really). ©Photo Brad Spurgeon

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.

Lewis Hamilton talking about his fashion line at the F.I.A. prize giving in Paris

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….

Fernando Alonso talking about his experiences as a multiple world champion in different disciplines

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….

A bientôt!

The Sudden, Tragic Loss of Formula One’s Calm Anchor: Charlie Whiting (1952 – 2019)

March 14, 2019
bradspurgeon

Charlie Whiting

Charlie Whiting

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

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.”

David Douglas Duncan, a Great Photographer, and an Equally Great Man, Dies

June 9, 2018
bradspurgeon

Duncan and Picasso

Duncan and Picasso

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

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

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.

I am today posting on this blog the interview that I did with Duncan that day in January 2013, and in future I hope to perhaps create a kind of video of his photos and the sound recording of the actual and full interview I did with him, which was at least an hour long. But for the moment, here is the interview with David Douglas Duncan as it appeared in the International Herald Tribune, and New York Times in 2013.

From the Don Camilo to a Paul Ricard Room Near the Champs Elysées, a Couple of Bits of Playing to Remember

June 6, 2018
bradspurgeon

Circuit Paul Ricard book

Circuit Paul Ricard book

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).

But the real surprise and satisfaction of the week so far came when a former colleague of the Formula One reporting world got in touch with me and invited me to attend the launch of his new book, about the Circuit Paul Ricard, for the return of the French Grand Prix to the circuit in the south of France later this month. This was Daniel Ortelli, the former reporter for the Agency-France Presse of the Formula One series, who is now devoting himself to many different projects, including this new book.

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….

“Grand Prix” by Frankenheimer, and the Shocking Count of Death

September 27, 2017
bradspurgeon

Grand Prix film at Spa

Grand Prix film at Spa

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 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

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.

And so Little Has 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 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

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. But 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 is also true that this can be seen in some ways as a natural progression for what was ALWAYS the pinnacle of automobile racing. It has just expanded, developed, and become MORE of what it was, as well as diversifying.

Very few of the underlying narratives have changed, and even most of the circuits from the film are still part of the series, but built up and 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

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 familiar – in most other ways to today’s series, no longer, thank goodness, takes the lives of some of its drivers nearly every year.

No, it is not entirely what it was. It is better.

Grand Prix film Trailer

Four More Years of the Great Singapore Grand Prix – and a Look Back at the First Race of 2008

September 16, 2017
bradspurgeon

Singapore Grand Prix starting grid with the Singapore Eye in the background.  Photo: © Brad Spurgeon

Singapore Grand Prix starting grid with the Singapore Eye in the background. Photo: © Brad Spurgeon

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.”

In my second look-back on this new section of my blog, I am posting my first race preview for the Singapore Grand Prix, published just before the 2008 inaugural race.

The 10th Edition of the Singapore Grand Prix – and a New Racing Section to this Blog

September 14, 2017
bradspurgeon

Chase Carey of Liberty Media at Singapore GP 2016. Photo:  Brad Spurgeon

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.

A Musical Experience in Milan – or Rather, in the Paddock at Monza… Joan Thiele

September 1, 2016
bradspurgeon

Joan ThieleMONZA, Italy – So far so horrible on the level of my open mic experiences in Milan. Followers of this blog will have noticed – or not – that in the last few years I have mostly been playing on Thursday night at a blues jam in a bar/restaurant called Fermento. Well, this year, this very night in fact, that jam don’t exist no more!!!! But I have had a really, really fun and very cool musical experience in Italy in the least expected of places: In the Formula One paddock in Monza, where I do my day job this weekend at the Italian Grand Prix. How so? It gets kind of long and complicated, so I’ll skip that for the moment, but let me just say that the experience was all about a mini-concert given in the motor home of one of the Formula One teams, by an Italian singer-songwriter by the name of Joan Thiele. I’ll try to get the rest of that story down here in as few words as possible, but that won’t be easy….

So it turns out that the Formula One team, called Manor, has as one of its sponsors, the music app called Shazam. And it turns out that Shazam is doing few little mini concerts around the world in conjunction with Formula One. (Does that sound like an alternative to the tiny desk concerts on NPR??!! In a way it is!) And it turns out that they try to use a local musician each time. So, as the PR woman at Manor knew that I was interested in music, she asked me if I had seen they were going to have a mini-motor-home-concert in Monza tonight. As it turned out, a sucker for the image of a microphone, I had indeed noticed this playbill outside the motorhome not three minutes before.
Joan Thiele – Save Me

So I went to the mini motorhome concert and found that, on the top floor of the motorhome – henceforth to be called a hospitality suite – they had set up a beautiful little playing area for the musician. There was a Fender Stratocaster, a ukulele, a couple of amplifiers, a microphone, and a mixing table. I felt envy and desire to go and play. Until I heard the musician, and said, no, I just want to listen to this. Enter Joan Thiele. What a mix of everything: A father who is Swiss, Italian, Canadian, Colombian, and who knows what all else, and Joan’s mother also a mix from one or two of those areas, and Joan having grown up partly in Colombia, but living in Italy now, and having spent two or three years in England, and learning her trade at open mics etc., this woman of – I think – 22 years old, got up with her Strat and used it as a kind of electro-music surrogate, and her voice too. Vocals that reminded me to a degree of Lana del Ray, and a sound that goes in that same direction – that’s my feeling, but there’s much more (in fact, I had a colleague who thought one of the songs reminded him of, “Down on my knees, I’m beggin’ ya…) – I listened quite hypnotised to the five or six songs she played. (Another colleague said she had Brooke Shield’s eyebrows.)
Joan Thiele – Taxi Driver

And I suddenly found myself forgetting I was in the Formula One paddock. As it turned out, I need not forget this: The Formula One paddock is a hugely diverse place. And it also turns out, then, that in that world, another of the reasons that we had Joan Thiele – who is working on her first album, and her A&R person from Universal Music was there with her – is also represented by Trident Management, which is a management and promotions agency that also owns one of the Formula One support race teams in the series known as GP2, the Trident Motorsport team. So it all suddenly fit together, in a way. Trident also represents two very well-know Italian musicians, Eros Ramazzotti and Jovanotti.
Joan Thiele – Hotline Bling

In any case, the other thing that fits together is that this being within the Formula One paddock, I, as a print media man with a print media pass, cannot use the video I made of Joan’s hypnotizing performance. The Formula One promoter sells audio visual rights to the television and radio companies for huge sums of money, and that then means that print media journalists cannot use any audio visual footage – or sound files – that they gather in the paddock, without fear of huge problems.

So my recordings will have to wait for the future. But in the meantime, I’ve decided to cut and paste some of Joan Thiele’s music videos that I find on the web into the blog to show who it was I got to hear and speak to today in the Formula One paddock and feel that from a musical point of view, my trip to Italy, even if it wreaps no musical stage-time for me, will have been fulfilling in another way! A nice discovery. Check her out, Joan Thiele.

Quick Notes From Milan, Nice, Paris and Singapore….

September 16, 2015
bradspurgeon

singaporeSINGAPORE – Looking back to see what my last post on this blog was, I’m stunned to see it was about my trip to Belgium! Since then I’ve been to Milan, Nice, Paris, and now I’m writing from Singapore. I’ve done an open mic in Nice, another in Paris, and I’m going out for music tonight in Singapore. I did a gig on Saturday night too, by the way, in Bondy, just outside Paris, in a neat restaurant called, L’Atelier. Time goes too quickly sometimes. But there really is a good reason for the lack of activity on the blog during that period.
First performer at the Snug open mic.

I’ve just emerged from my busiest period of the entire year in my job as a Formula One writer, having produced 16 full-length feature articles for the next two races, Singapore and Japan, which you will be able to find amongst my Brad Spurgeon stories on The New York Times site in the coming days; I have written a 5-page profile of the Ferrari racing boss, Maurizio Arrivabene, in the October issue of Road & Track magazine, which just came out on the newsstands yesterday, and I have also been preparing the visas, flights and hotels for the remaining part of my world travels, which will be hugely intensive over the next two and a half months, taking me around much of the world….
Fourth performer at the Snug open mic in Nice.

So it is that occasionally, just occasionally, I can truthfully say that I’m not updating the blog because I’m a slacker who has run out of steam, but because it’s totally full-steam ahead in other areas, leaving no time for this. But now I’m back, and I’m hoping to keep this going massively in the coming months!
Second performer at the Snug.

But first, I want to report that I finally got to play at the Monday night open mic in Nice at the Snug & Cellar pub. I’d been wanting to go to this for years, but I was never in Nice on a Monday night – until last week when I had to interview a legendary author – of one of the greatest car racing books ever written – and so I had a bit of time to check out the Snug.
Third performer at the Snug.

It was a pretty good atmosphere, full of people, full of musicians, a nice presentation by the MC, but the sound system was not the best on earth. And it tended to be a very vocal audience – during songs, I mean.
Fifth performer at the Noctambules.

In Milan, I think it was the first year ever that I did not get to play anywhere, as there too I had on the only night I usually play in a jam, I had an important interview to do for my job, so I had to let the music drop there. That was the first race at which I have not played at a venue in I have no idea how long, but it seems like years!
First performer at the Noctambules.

So it was that once back in Paris, it was with a vengeance that I went and played at Raphaëlle’s open mic at the Noctambules bar on the Place Pigalle – which I actually help organize a little too, making sure the sound is good for every performer…. It was another fabulous night, in any case, mostly because of Raphaëlle’s extraordinary MCing, and her incredible singing too, between the other wonderful musicians of the evening….
Fourth at the Noctambules.

And that takes me to Singapore, where I am quite exhausted as I write these words and prepare to go out and force myself to keep awake, as the more than 20 hours of travel without any real sleep have begun to weigh on me…!
Second at the Noctambules.


Sixth at the Noctambules.

Third at the Noctambules.

A Bru-typical Night at the Brutopia Open Mic in Montreal

June 1, 2015
bradspurgeon

brutopia

brutopia

MONTREAL – Arrived in Montreal pretty wiped out from a long, long day of travel yesterday. But there was no way I was going to be in Montreal on a Sunday night without hopping over to the Brutopia pub and taking part in one of the best open mics in Montreal.

So that’s where I went after a pizza dinner just up the street at which I was terribly let down by horrendously bad, and expensive, wine. But that’s another story!!!! Brutopia is one of the mainstay open mics of Montreal, and it is located right downtown on Crescent Street, where, during the Formula One racing weekend – next weekend – the street festival and all the off-track fun happens.

But Brutopia might be a pub just about anywhere in the world, were it not for the unmistakable mix of a cosmopolitain crowd, with people from Africa, Europe, Quebec, Ontario, Vietnam and just about everywhere else, along with a great little selection of beers, including local brews, and Canadian accents all over the place.

When I arrived, as usual, the small stage already had a clipboard on it waiting to be signed for a place on the open mic. It is so laid back that you don’t even have to arrive hours ahead of time, but can pretty much sign up all night long and expect a spot on the open mic. The momentum of the evening is such that people who are in the bar without even having thought of playing in the open mic end up singing up….

I got on second on the list, and after the MC opened, and a woman named Sarah from Perth did the horrible job of being the first musician aside from the MC in the open mic to play, I got to go up and relax my way into it.

Warning: Brutopia may be a very large bar, with a very cool stage, and a receptive management and audience for music, but it is far from an easy audience to grab. It’s very much a pub for carousing, and if you don’t hit the right musical chord – as it were – you can be prepared to hear talking throughout. Even if you do hit the right notes, in fact…

Anyway, I’m kind of adding words to this whole thing without saying anything, so I had better stop. Suffice it to say there were some very interesting and fun acts last night, my favorites being the Quebecois who did a great Creedence cover, and Kwa (hope I got his name right!) who did all sorts of interesting electronic things – looping, etc. – with his travel guitar, and vocals. Oh, and the fabulous Michael Jackson cover too….

I plan to be back next Sunday, so keep posted!

Powered by WordPress.com.