Poetry and the Grand Prix of Press Releases

There is a girl I know in Paris who gets very excited when one quotes Shakespeare to her. Give her a few lines of Macbeth and she will smile like a cat, become a little flushed and will lean back in her chair with a look of contentment on her face. She knows it is a little bit strange but she cannot help herself. The words are so beautiful, she says, even though she cannot really understand them. The sound is enough. The prose has such poetry.

Poetry is not something that you hear much about in Formula 1 despite the fact that it has popped up in the most unusual circumstances in the past. If you think about it, it really is rather strange that there were poets in the trenches during World War I. So why should there not have been a poet of the paddock? The war poets were not fey limp-wristed fellows who wrote verses, downed a quick dose of arsenic and died in bed. They were poets with muscles and guns. And yet Formula 1 racing has no poets - even the more robust punk poets have failed to put biro to exercise book on the subject of Grand Prix racing.

In the press room these days all the journalists are like teleprinters, churning out words. There is no time to worry about poetry in motion. Occasionally one of the specialist magazine writers will have the time to come up with a nice first line or a tuneful paragraph but none of them will ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The heart-rending, brain-dredging work of the writer in search of a first line for his novel is not something which affects the F1 hacks. There are deadlines and all that arty-farty stuff is for the pretentious people with red-rimmed spectacles.

But would it not be a pleasure to read a fabulous lilting opening line or a few stanzas about the shiny racing cars and the romantic heroes who drive them? How many more people could be lured into the sport by a great opening line? One can dream of beginning an article with a seductive sentence like the one which Gabriel Garcia Marquez opened his Nobel Prize-winning book One Hundred Years of Solitude.

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice".

How can one not be drawn in to the story with a first line like that? How many questions have been asked in those few short beautiful words?

Such erudite matters are rarely discussed in F1. Once many years ago I had an argument with a fellow journalist which lasted several hours over the line: "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills". He refused to accept that it was any better than "I used to live in a concrete tube beside the motorway". He just did not understand.

I guess he never had a girlfriend in Paris who got excited about Shakespeare...

The thing which amazes me is that, despite their headlong rush to outperform their rivals, no racing team has yet embarked on the literary approach. They build bigger motorhomes, they hired better chefs. Their factories are being built by beknighted architects and yet no-one has yet hired a poet to produce their press releases. At the moment the press release as an art form has only reached the level at which most of the words are spelled correctly and there is some punctuation.

In theory the team press release is a logical means of communication. There are too many journalists and drivers have too many other things to do than to worry about saying the same thing over and over again 312 times. The best idea is to write their thoughts on paper and hand out copies to the hacks. That way the pressmen do not have to infest the paddock and can remain in the Media Center hammering away at their keyboards. Nowadays drivers concentrate on television interviews and every team issues an official press releases on each day of a Grand Prix meeting.

This would be wonderful if the press releases ever said anything of value but because of the control-freak nature of some of the team bosses the truth has to be pasteurized before it can be given to the world and so about half an hour after the afternoon sessions one will find the team press officers hunched in corners with their bosses with biros flashing in the sunshine as the words of the drivers are altered to fit the official story. Many a time I have heard a driver deny that he said something which has been credited to him by his team.

In the warm and wonderful world of the press release rude words are deleted. This is a family show. Spins and crashes can also be forgotten about and embarrassing mechanical failures can be glossed over. In a Formula 1 press release suspensions do not fall apart at 160mph. This becomes "a minor problem".

A typical press release quote is as follows: Edgar Sprugbucket, a Norwegian driving for Team Pussycat, has crashed end-over-end. He is unhurt but he has qualified 20th on the grid.

"It could have been better," Edgar will be quoted as saying. "We did not maximize the performance envelope of the car. Tomorrow is another day and I am sure we will be able to make a big impact in the race."

Such inanities are worthless but they appear on pretty pieces of paper which men with pigtails in art agencies have spent days designing. I have always thought it would be fun to wallpaper my office with them so visitors could have a good giggle.

The wonders of the electronic age has enabled Ferrari to start putting instant black and white photographs on the top of its press releases. It is very clever that they can do it in the time available but I have yet to understand the point of it. F1 journalists know what the cars look like and the pictures are not good enough to be used in any publishable form. In other words, it is simply an exercise to show that Ferrari has more money to waste than McLaren. It is a bit like little boys comparing their biceps.

British American Racing, which used to be the World Champion money-wasting operation in F1, came up with an interesting idea this year. They have a BAR press release on one side of the piece of paper they hand out and a Honda press release on the other.

One never knows on which side to put the dirty coffee cup...

The rear of the Jordan press release is packed full of vital information: a list of team personnel; Jordan's F1 history to date; the details of the drivers and their results in 2000. Arrows does the same but with less information which may be related to having had a long history without much to write home about.

Benetton uses the back of its press release to list every single sponsor involved in the team with pretty all-color logos. And so one learns fascinating things such as the fact that the van Bommel shoe factory has been operating for 260 years and is known for its "sublime quality" which obviously has had little effect on the performance of the cars.

The rest of the tree-wasting teams have the nerve to put nothing on the back of their press release. Not even a cartoon. (Ooh, there's a good idea.)

When you analyze how much money is spent on printing the paper one wonders why the press release has not developed as an art form. But if poetry has been slow to arrive, the competitive F1 folk have managed to make a race out of the production process of the press releases. The amusing thing is that the performance on the race track is virtually mirrored by the performance of the press officers.

This year in Barcelona the unkinder souls in the Press Center decided that it was time for the press release Grand Prix to have the benefit of official timing. The result was most instructive. The session on Friday in Barcelona ended at 14:00. An hour later - to the minute - the first press officers came through the door of the Media Center and as often happens McLaren's Ellen Kolby (sister of Formula 3000 driver Kristian Kolby) and Wolfgang Schattling, the unflappable Mercedes-Benz PR man, were the first past the finishing line as they burst into the press center like a grey SWAT team and begin distribution of the pearls of McLaren-Mercedes wisdom.

Fifteen minutes later in came the Lady in Red: Ferrari's curvaceous Stefania Bocchi, her press release complete with the instant Ferrari photographs. At 15:20 a ray of sunshine appeared in the form of Benetton's Julia Horden who is always dressed in two-tone blue and is never without a smile. She always seem to be glowing slightly from the excitement of producing a high-speed press release.

Soon it was rush hour and at 15:22 in came the Jordan girls looking like a pair of a bumble bees, buzzing from desk to desk in their black and yellow gear. To the best of my knowledge no-one of the press corps has been bitten by them yet...

Six minutes later in came the Silvia Frangipane from Williams, speaking four languages at the same time and delivering press releases to all four winds as a farmer would scatter seed across the fields.

At 15:32 the doors were darkened by a lady in black (with Orange highlights) as the Arrows press release thudded onto the desks. Four minutes later Minardi's lemon yellow and blue ladies arrived, looking like Spanish telephone boxes. The team's press release is almost always faster than the cars. Only a minute behind Minardi was Jaguar Racing.

Then there was a gap of 13 minutes before the arrival of the Prost press release, dead-heating with Sauber. And then nothing happened for 43 minutes before the British American Racing missive arrived. To give the team credit, the BAR press release is always the best written and one of the more informative. It always has a nice little headline like "A Gripping Tale".

Poetry in motion may be a nice idea, but obviously the motion is a bit slower than racing prose...

Print Feature