Features - News Feature
SEPTEMBER 1, 1995
The writing game: How to become a Formula 1 journalist
BY JOE SAWARD
Racing magazines often get letters from fans wanting to know how to become a Formula 1 reporter. There is not an easy answer but if you ask around the pressroom you get all kind of answers. Some go through journalism schools and working on local papers, but most have more unorthodox routes. We asked around the press room.
One of the most famous press characters in F1 is 70-year-old Franco Lini, who was born in Mantua and went to school with Tazio Nuvolari's son. He should have joined his father's machine tool business, but motorcycle racing was more exciting.
"I raced bikes and ran a weekly motor cycle magazine," he remembers. "And one day in 1949 I was in San Remo for a bike race and a Milan paper rang and asked me to report on the San Remo GP at Ospedaletti. That was the start."
The following year Franco had a bad motorcycle crash and retired from racing to concentrate on writing. By the early 1960s he was a familiar figure in the F1 paddock. And then, in 1966, he had a strange request from Enzo Ferrari.
"He wanted me to become team manager," says Lini. "I said: "Are you crazy?" But he was serious and insisted. Two days later I said I would do it for two years. Ferrari needed to build a new image because my predecessor Eugenio Dragoni was rather severe. Ferrari wanted me to talk to people."
Franco has always loved talking and he did well. Two years later, as agreed, he went back to journalism and 25 years later is still there.
Another F1 veteran is Frenchman Johnny Rives, who has worked for the Paris daily sports paper L'Equipe since 1960. He was aJean behra fan who hit on the idea of journalism as a means of becoming a racing driver.
"I found an old Underwood typewriter and started writing stories," says Johnny. "When I left school I started to work on the a small newspaper in Toulon as a football reporter and, when possible, I did motor racing.
"Then I had to spend two and a half years in the French army, fighting in the Algerian War. It was a bad experience and I lost a lot of friends. I was little destroyed. Motor racing helped me recover. During my time in Algeria I had corresponded with the chief editor of L'Equipe Pierre About and when I was demobilised I asked for a job. He replied but the letter arrived in Algeria after I had left. The army postal service sent it to Toulouse instead of Toulon, but finally it caught up with me and I went to work for L'Equipe."
Johnny was lucky, his dreams of being a racer came true and he competed many events including the Tour de France and the Le Mans 24 Hours.
"I enjoyed it," he smiles, "but I was never fast enough."
Rives is one of many former football reporters in the press room. Most of the British national newspaper men started out in football, but Stan Piecha of The Sun is not one of them.
"I'm not one for hanging around in the rain waiting for snotty-nosed 18-year-olds who won't talk to you," says Stan. "I've always been a journalist. When I left school I went straight onto The Leicester Mercury as a trainee reporter. I did cats in trees and court cases then became the crime correspondent and finally Industrial Editor for 10 years.
"Fishing was my hobby. I was UK Angling Champion and fished for England for five years. One day The Sun offered me the job of angling correspondent. You don't often get a chance on a national paper, so I took it and did two pages on angling every week until a new sports editor decided he didn't want fishing and I was given F1."
Another 'real' reporter is Australian Paul Treuthardt, who was trained as a journalist on the Sydney Daily Mirror and then turned to news agency work, ending up in Paris, living on a houseboat on the River Seine, just opposite the FIA headquarters.
"I was involved in the De Gaulle period, the Vietnam peace talks and the May 1968 uprising. I did oil spillages in the North Sea, the Moroccan invasion of Spanish Sahara, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, which I covered from Jordan and Lebanon. Motor racing was a very secondary occupation. I did the Monte Carlo, the French GP, Monaco and the FISA. As the years went on I started visiting more GPs and found that my agency colleagues were delighted to have someone do it for them because it can be very mystifying if you only see it once a year. Gradually I became the F1 of the Associated Press.
"Then, after 30 years in wire services - which is like 60 years in any other form of journalism - I was quite happy to be offered the job of press officer at Tyrrell in 1987."
Four years later Treuthardt is back in journalism as an F1 freelance.
Many of the F1 freelancers started out on famous racing magazines, such as Autosport or Motoring News in England, Autohebdo in France or Gazetta dello Sport in Italy.
British reporter Nigel Roebuck has worked for Autosport since 1977 and says it is the only job he ever wanted.
"My father man loved racing and read Autosport. I started going to races with him and literally fell in love with it."
Nigel dreamed of working in F1, but it took him a long time. After leaving school he became a management trainee at with a paper company.
"I was there for six years and hated all of it," he remembers, "but I never missed a major race in England and every year I used my holidays to go to races all over Europe. In the middle of 1970 I quit the paper business with no job to go to. I wrote a letter - a very uncharacteristic letter - to Car and Driver magazine in America saying: "Your F1 coverage is terrible. You need me." and received the reply: "Go to Barcelona, write a report and if we like it we will use it". I did and they did and for 18 months I did all the GPs for them. Then I was offered a job on a British magazine called Competition Car. I did that for a couple of years and - God help me - was editor for six months. In the end I got fed up and went to work with a friend doing public relations for Graham Hill's F1 team. When Graham was killed, we suddenly had no jobs. My pal went to Autosport as editor and six months later I joined as sports editor. Within a month the F1 reporter Pete Lyons announced he was leaving and I was back in GP racing. Another Autosport writer is Northern Irishman Maurice Hamilton, who first went to see a race with his father at Dundrod in the 1950s.
"We even went to the British GPs at Aintree in 1959 and 1962," remembers Maurice. "After I left school I was working as a quantity surveyor - which I wasn't happy with - and I went with my mates to the 1966 British GP at Brands Hatch and thought it was great. I wanted to get involved, but I didn't know how to do it. I moved to England in 1970 with the aim of getting into it, but I just hung about dreaming about team management. I worked in pubs, sold cars, office equipment, houses and plastic pipes. Then, finally, in 1973, I thought I'd try writing and did a feature about spectating at Monaco. I took it to Competition Car, where Nigel Roebuck was editor and he took it."
It was a start and by following Roebuck around, Hamilton realized that the biggest problem was access.
"There was a little booth at Victoria Station in London which made security passes. I went in and explained my situation and the guy liked the idea and did one for me for 50p. It had my picture on one side and a list of magazines with which I had vague connections on the back. In case anyone questioned me I added Cart and Track (Ireland) at the bottom so I could always laugh it off as a joke. That got me into a lot of races."
Hamilton's big break came in 1977 when he was offered work by Elf PR man Eoin Young. He didn't make much money but got to know all the important people in F1. Two years later, within a month he became editor of motor racing annual Autocourse and the motor sport correspondent of The Guardian newspaper.
Hamilton learned the trade as he went along, which is common among the F1 pressmen. Swedish aristocrat Fredrik Af Petersens did the same.
"I'm a failed racing driver," says Freddy. "I raced Mini-Coopers in the 1960s but after a run in a Formula Vee I realized I wasn't brave enough."
So Freddy gave up racing, but still hung around with his old friends and one day went to a local newspaper and asked why they didn't cover races. They said: "Why don't you write about it?" So I did."
Not long afterwards Freddy met driver Gunnar Nilsson "in a disco in Helsingborg" and realised that he had stumbled on a shooting star. Freddy reported on Gunnar's every move and they moved up to F1 together. At one point Freddy ran out of money and went to work for a Swedish chain store, importing fruit and vegetables. He hated every moment.
"One day I decided to take a risk and try to be a professional journalist. That was the happiest day of my life."
Freddy was kept busy with the adventures of Gunnar and fellow Swede Ronnie Peterson, but in 1978 both died within a matter or months. Freddy would later write 'The Viking Drivers' as a tribute to his two friends, but he struggled to survive in 1979 until Scandinavian interest in F1 was revived by Keke Rosberg.
Like Freddy, Canadian Gerry Donaldson is in F1 thanks to one particular driver - Gilles Villeneuve.
"I'm a trained commercial artist," he admits, "but after working in advertising agencies I discovered I was no good at that and became a copywriter instead. Then I started to write for magazines and one day I was at Silverstone, doing a story for a business magazine on Canadian team owner Walter Wolf. It was Villeneuve's first F1 race and Gerry was impressed by Gilles and by F1.
"I decided to try to make a career of it which wasn't hard because no-one else In Canada was doing it."
Gerry's interest in F1 is in people not the machines and he has written several bestselling books: biographies of Villeneuve and James Hunt and Grand Prix People, the stories of the characters in F1 and how they ended up in Grand Prix racing... a longer version of this article!
AND THE AUTHOR...
"I wanted to fly helicopters, but my eyesight was no good, so I didn't really know what to do. I didn't go to my first motor race until my 18th birthday - which was also the day I left school. That was the British GP of 1979 - Williams's first win - and I thought it was great, but I went off to university where I edited student magazines, worked in the theatre and, once in a while, studied history. By that point I had become a big F1 fan and one day I decided I wanted to be a racing journalist. I used to read Autosport cover to cover and I noticed that no-one wrote about European F3 series so I offered my services and they accepted. They were paying peanuts so I went to the rival Motoring News and said: "Autosport has a European F3 reporter, you need one too". They agreed so I borrowed a camera and set off with a tent, to travel around Europe by train, thanks to a wonderful unlimited mileage ticket they did for students.
"I didn't make any money so that winter I worked at the British Broadcasting Corporation to save up and went back to Europe in 1984 to do F3 and European Touring Cars. By mid-season I was broke and miserable. Then Autosport offered me a job and I joined to write about touring cars and to help sub-edit and layout the magazine.
"The budget for reporting international races was not very big but I used to do deals so that I could go travelling. I'd say to the editor: "You pay the air fare to Australia and I'll cover eight races, do news and features". He agreed and I disappeared for months on end. Then the FISA killed touring car racing and I ended up doing F1. After 10 years of hard work and long hours at Autosport I decided I wanted more time at home. I got married, moved to France and became a freelance journalist and now I have a wonderful life.
"The truth in F1 journalism is that if you want it enough, are willing to take risks and are lucky enough, anyone can do it - but you have to know how to write!"