How to become a Grand Prix reporter


 © Inside F1, Inc.

Not so many years ago a wonderful American writer called P J O'Rourke (and before you write in and complain about his political views, I mean that he writes in an easily-readable and amusing fashion) published a book called "Holidays in Hell" about some of the less charming places he had visited as a reporter. Life is not all Bora Bora and dancing girls with nice coconuts. Sometimes one has to deal with Sao Paulo. This is all part of the job, so one does not complain. You just accept it. This is the time of year when Formula 1 goes on holiday. Most of the world does the logical thing and goes on holiday when the sun is shining on western Europe but the easy route is never one used by the F1 fraternity. Why go by the low road while you can struggle on the high road? Holidays in November are a pretty silly idea unless you go a very long way away and after nine months of aeroplanes F1 folk would prefer to stay at home. But, here we are, it is November and there are tornados ripping at the heart of Bognor Regis and Harrods is in danger of flooding. If one was in the Seychelles or Mauritius it would be nicer, but the idea of another departure lounge and another hotel is really not that appealing...

...which is probably not why I found myself sitting in a departure lounge just 12 days after I returned from Malaysia. Formula 1 really never stops. If there are no races there are awards ceremonies and then launches and testing. November is the only available time to do deals and so I was off to London to talk magazines. So there I was in the airport in the south of France, watching the rain teeming down the windows and ranting about British Airways being unable to fly me to London (where it was raining twice as hard). If I was a sane fellow I would have gone to Toulouse and stood in a windtunnel and asked the people to throw water over me once in a while...

But no, I had to go to London and BA could not get the plane to start and all the airline people were running around looking foxes with hounds not far behind and pretending to be Serbo-Croat so they did not have to answer questions. They gave us all a sandwich (in fact they were quite generous and gave us one each) and told us that they would find another plane. I muttered that I would be more likely to find the Holy Grail. To give them credit they did find an empty jet and a crew to fly it and once this had arrived, broken down and been repaired, it was off to London. We even arrived on the same day as they had promised to get me there.

The British are a cold nation but they are very good in a crisis. After the second plane broke down people were laughing and joking. There were some silly folk who were complaining but everyone else was deriving some amusement from the absurdity of the situation. What was the point of doing otherwise? Yes, I had a meeting which was important but...

...anyway I got talking to a guy who asked me why I was typing when everyone else was picking their noses and smacking their children. Oh, I said, absent-mindedly, I am journalist. I write about Formula 1. This is a bit like saying that you are the body make-up artist for the Miss World Competition and it usually begins a conversation along the following lines:

"What a great job! How do you get a job like that?"

I have always meant to have a glib response ready (I must ask a racing driver. They always seem to have a lot of glib responses to spare) but I tend to smile and say: "Yes. It is a great job. But it can be a bit tiring. It would be nice to go home more often".

But one is not allowed to admit to this in print because otherwise people from dull suburbs of Sydney write in and rant and rave about how F1 reporters should not complain. They are right.

When they ask me about how to get a job like that I always mumble something about taking risks, making sacrifices and working hard and the conversation moves on.

A couple of years ago I was asked the same question on a more serious basis. I had gone back to my old school in order to tell a bunch of 16 year olds how to become a sports journalist. It was a fascinating experience. They were all young but you could tell the ones who would go places. They had a glint in their eyes. I told them that there were fewer jobs in the whole sports journalism business every year than there were people in the room and that everyone would tell them that they should do something sensible like becoming a solicitor. And then I told them the opposite. Do it, I said. You'll never get anywhere if you do not try.

When I was trying to decide what to do in my life I had to fill in a strange questionnaire which asked me to answer one hundred questions using a scale of one to five. Do you like killing people? Strongly agree, agree, not bothered, disagree, strongly disagree. That sort of thing. Once these things had been fed into a computer out would pop a piece of paper which would tell you what you should become in life. Apparently the multiple combinations of answers were able to identify who would be a fire-eater and who would be the Pope.

Binary careers advice was obviously an inexact science and my results were rather alarming. The computer reckoned I was best suited to a career in adult education. As a kid who felt very much like a kid does at that age this seemed rather strange. How can you teach adults things when you don't know much about life? I said to myself - but only secretly.

The computer's second choice was even more amazing: minister of religion. This was amusing, but there was one small problem. The test had not included the question of whether or not I had any strong religious beliefs. And while I had never actually been a devil-worshipper, I wondered if it was really possible to become an agnostic bishop.

Teaching English as a foreign language was next on the list and for about 10 minutes I thought of the pleasures of living in a Latin country telling sultry 16-year-old girls that the only way to properly learn a foreign language was with pillow talk and then I concluded that I would end up being chased out of every town by irate fathers with shotguns and pitch forks and decided that I liked the next two ideas much better: diplomacy and journalism. The first, I thought at the time, consisted of drinking gin and tonics and being nice to people and the second of drinking gin and tonics and being nasty to people.

The rest of the list was much as before. I would be a good careers advisor it said. But what future did that hold if a computer could do it all for me? I was well-suited to teaching and researching in higher education; to teaching in further education and to teaching in secondary schools. It was all too much. I had always subscribed to the belief that those that can, do, and those who cannot, teach. My list was rather short.

The final insult was when this evil device suggested that I would be good at public relations.

Clasping my computer printout I went to see the careers advisor.

"I think I might be a journalist or a diplomat," I said blithely.

I was told in no uncertain terms that both careers were far too competitive and difficult. Had I thought about the Army?

No, thank you, I said. I think I'd like to be a motor racing journalist.

The Careers Advisor shook his head.

If people did what they were told to do by parents and teachers, Man would never have climbed Mount Everest or gone to the Moon. We would all have proper jobs and ordered lives and no spark in our eyes.

I expect Mrs. Armstrong once told young Neil: "Oh no honey, don't go to the Moon, It's made of cheese".

If you chat with people in the Formula 1 paddock you discover some wonderful stories about how they ended up there. If you want to know more you should try to find a copy of Gerald Donaldson's book "Grand Prix People" which was published in 1990 by Motor Racing Publications. My favorite story is of a colleague who was ensconced in life as an academic when he discovered that he had cancer. His logic was simple: I am mortal. What do I want in life? I want to be a Grand Prix reporter. He did it. He made it - and the cancer went away.

So if you want to know how to do it, it is simple: you don't get anywhere if you do not try.

I hope that one day someone comes up to me in the paddock and says that this column made all the difference, I will be very happy. But it will annoy me that the damned machine will have been right again...

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