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

December 11, 2019

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!

Riding My Unicycle Up (and Down) The Wicked Eau Rouge Corner at Spa

August 29, 2010

The Eau Rouge corner is the most wicked, steepest, craziest corner in Formula One auto racing. It is the corner that separates the men from the boys, to use a cliché. Or at least it was until they made a few modifications to it that made it so that pretty much all the Formula One cars go flat out up through this wall of a hill in the Ardennes Forest where the Belgian Grand Prix takes place.

So it was that because the corner no longer is entirely what it was in a Formula One car – not so long ago only fools like Jacques Villeneuve attempted it flat out, and ended up in the tire barrier off the side in a mess – I decided that I would measure myself against the drivers by attempting to take Eau Rouge on a real man’s machine: My unicycle. (It just turns out that there was a story in the New York Times today about unicycling, too, so you can get the background for unicycling on that.)

As a teenager for a brief period I worked in a circus in Canada called Puck’s Canadian Travelling Circus, and also for that circus’s predecessor company called Puck’s Rent-a-Fool. So I guess once a fool always a fool.

Eau Rouge has hung there for me as a temptation for years now but it was only yesterday that I finally got my courage up to attempt to ride my unicycle up the legendary hill.

The day before I did so, I sent off an email to a media contact at the McLaren Mercedes team to invite Lewis Hamilton, the team’s world champion driver, to join me if he cared to. For Hamilton too knows that Formula One cars are not entirely a man’s machine anymore, and he too rides a unicycle. I never heard back on that one, and I have assumed that Hamilton was too scared.

But he is certainly not afraid of unicycles. In fact, you could say he is part of a trend, and it all started off with an Irish former F1 driver named David Kennedy, who now runs a team in a lower series. Kennedy, in the 70s – when I first started unicycling – rode a unicycle. Then Mika Hakkinen, the Finnish driver who also became world champion at McLaren – like Hamilton – in 1998 and 1999 also rode a unicycle. (He went to circus school and, like me, occasionally rode his unicycle to high school.) And today there is Hamilton’s friend and competitor, Nico Rosberg, who drives as Michael Schumacher’s teammate at the Mercedes team, who also rides a unicycle. (He’d be better off here this weekend on the unicycle than in the Mercedes, where he qualified only 12th and then got a five spot grid penalty for having to change the gearbox.)

To quote from my story today from my Belgian Grand Prix Special Report about the Spa circuit, Eau Rouge “is end of a back straight where the cars run at 300 kilometers an hour, during a 23-second period at full throttle from La Source hairpin to Les Combes, at the end of the straight after Eau Rouge. Eau Rouge is the only corner in the series where the drivers have negative G-forces, here measured at up to -3.5g.”

So the challenge was there and I had to take it. I was warned by many colleagues in advance that the corner was like a wall, that it was difficult to walk up, almost impossible to ride up on a bicycle, and that I had no chance on a unicycle. What’s more, it could be dangerous for me.

Yeah, but I had to do it. I took a video of the feat, and yes, I made it!!! Not without looking like a fool and like a man on the verge of a heart attack, however. The second video, of me going DOWN Eau Rouge, was much simpler as a feat and I even managed to have the time to make a telephone call.

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