This season I have been working with a new producer on BBC Radio 5 Live, who comes to the sport for the first time. She has worked extensively on athletics, football and other sports, but sees F1 through fresh eyes.
Likewise in my work with Australian TV Network 10, the 27 hour live spectacular they put on for their home race was staffed by people for whom Melbourne is a once a year touch point with F1.
The result is that I’ve come to see the sport anew, particularly the way that the key players communicate with the media. F1 is unique in that the narrative is, to a large extent, woven by the participants themselves. This is a special thing for a sport. Tennis players speak eloquently after a five set match, but never just before it, likewise athletes and golfers. Footballers seem the most remote, only one or two are put forward after a game and anything pre-match is always recorded during the week. Generally it is the managers who do the talking.
What other sport has the key participants speaking live to the media just before the start? Not just the managers, but the players themselves, moments before they go out there to risk their lives for 90 minutes. The grid walk has become an established favourite because it is so unique in sport.
The participants are also accessible during (if they retire) and immediately after the event. And not just for the main TV company – because there isn’t one – but for all the TV and radio broadcasters on hand.
A typical post race for the top three is a podium interview, then a 30 minute press conference in English, then they go downstairs to the “pen” where they speak in several languages for another 20 minutes or so to dozens of TV and radio crews.
A typical Thursday afternoon for Fernando Alonso, for example, will see him sit down in the Ferrari hospitality area with the international media, speaking in Engish, then after about 8-10 minutes he will switch to Italian then finally Spanish. Nico Rosberg can do that in five languages. Sadly all the British drivers can speak only in English, even the ones who live in Monaco.
The managers also speak frequently throughout the weekend. So the opportunity for key players to tell their own story across a race weekend is unparalleled. Commentators and correspondents like me interpret the action as it unfolds, but with so much of it narrated by the players themselves, the picture the viewer or listener gets is truly rounded. In any pre-race build up the viewer is introduced to a cast of dozens of characters, all of whom have a story to tell.
Also impressive is the way the key players present themselves when things go wrong.
The post race press conference in Sepang, which I moderated, was electric as the full drama of the Red Bull team orders ‘betrayal’ was laid out before a hungry media. It was right there with dramatic set pieces like the post qualifying conference in Monaco 2006 when Schumacher had deliberately spun, or Vettel’s Thursday press meeting in Montreal 2010 after the notorious collision with Webber in Istanbul.
Schumacher coped badly with the Monaco set piece; he would not accept he had done anything wrong and he resented being probed about it by the media. Webber, sitting next to him, observed that his hands were shaking as he spoke. He was later castigated by the stewards and sent to the back of the grid.
Webber contained his anger in Sepang, speaking with as much dignity as he could muster of his race and his feelings. Vettel knew that to pursue a Schumacher line of defence would not work so he came clean and apologised, inviting the ire and prurience of the media onto him. I watched him very carefully; he stayed calm, the lights were bright and they were all trained on him. But he said his piece, all improvised and in a second language and then exited, to have heart to heart with his team mate and managers. It was an entirely human drama but he managed to contain it.
It was a compelling piece of theatre, which enriches the narrative of a Grand Prix weekend.
Seeing the sport through fresh eyes thanks to working with people who come to it without background knowledge or prejudice, I see a sport that is brilliantly communicated by its participants.
No-one ever says this; it’s taken for granted. But it needs saying from time to time.