I’ve noted for many years now that not only do F1 drivers give rather dull answers to questions they’re asked, but journalists at races rarely ask any interesting questions. The Thursday press conferences are particularly dull. With the greatest of respect to your colleagues, do you think there is a danger that things are this way because nobody wants to be turned away from motorhomes or find their paddock entry pass suddenly inoperative?
First of all, I should say that I don’t believe the asking of dull questions at press conferences – or the avoidance of asking ‘interesting’ ones – has anything to do with a fear of being turned away from motorhomes or finding one’s pass suddenly inoperative at the paddock turnstile. For one thing, if it led to being ‘turned away from motorhomes’, you would swiftly lose the inclination to write much about the team concerned; for another, Bernie – and only he has the clout – is way too smart to cancel someone’s pass, particularly for something as trivial as this…
Funnily enough, though, it is a topic I touched on in my column, due to appear in the next issue of Motor Sport. The subject of PR, and its effect on contemporary Formula 1, came up during a recent lunch with Martin Brundle, and our feelings on the matter were very similar: we understand why the teams feel they should muzzle their drivers – but think it’s gone way too far, much to the detriment of the sport.
“The teams,” said Brundle, “are not smart on this sort of thing, are they? As an example, I give you Kimi Räikkönen. That whole Abu Dhabi radio thing was positive for him – and positive for the Lotus team, too, because it gave them exposure. People get constantly bombarded with boring PR sound bites, and they flick them away – let the guys be themselves, and in the end you will get a positive fan reaction.”
I couldn’t agree more. From a journalist’s point of view, the monosyllabic Räikkönen may be a nightmare – fundamentally the only aspect of motor racing that interests him is driving the car – but when he does speak, what he comes out with is the plain truth, of that there’s little doubt. And the truth – in a public interview, particularly on TV – is hard to find in this generation of F1 people. It’s not that they lie – although occasionally some of them clearly do – as much as the fact that they’re economical with the truth.
In part, this because the technical secrecy in F1 is overwhelming, and as well as that, of course, we live in times of suffocating political correctness, and why should racing be immune? Many of today’s F1 personnel – particularly the drivers – are young enough, after all, never to have known anything else. Therefore, not only is there a worry about inadvertently saying too much about the car, but also a fear of saying the wrong thing – something that may give offence to someone somewhere on the planet, not least a sponsor.
Remember, for example, that absurd carry-on after the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2007. In the course of a heated radio exchange between Ron Dennis and Lewis Hamilton, it was suggested that – shock, horror! – Lewis may have uttered the f-word. Immediately the thing mushroomed into a saga, to the point that a few days later McLaren felt obliged to issue a press release to the effect that no, no, Lewis had not used such a word…
I couldn’t believe what was happening. For one thing, what Lewis and Ron were saying to each other was in private, out of public earshot; for another, if you started to count the number of times in a day you heard the f-word in an F1 paddock, you would very swiftly tire. It’s hardly uncommon – whether we like it or not – to hear it on TV these days, is it?
The problem is that there is such a preoccupation with image in the 21st century that, for teams and sponsors, anything controversial – hell, anything unusual – is to be viewed with deep suspicion. In Austin Pirelli came up with the idea of kitting the drivers out with Stetsons to wear on the podium, and I thought that inspired, emphatically the best PR idea of the year. Afterwards, though, some oaf in my hearing expressed doubts: wouldn’t the Texan crowd feel patronised? Had he not heard their response? They loved it!
Political correctness, sadly, has a complete stranglehold in every aspect of our lives now – which is precisely why mavericks are so appealing. Hence Räikkönen and his Basil Fawlty act – “Yes, yes, yes, I’m doing it! Leave me alone…” His race engineer was only doing his job, and at the time must have been stung by Kimi’s response, but of course we all savoured it, because it was so different from the dreary norm. There are only so many times you can hear, “That’s what I’m talking about!” or ‘Ring-a-ding-ding…” without glazing over, after all.
Your point about press conferences is well made. Invariably the drivers’ behaviour suggests they are there under sufferance – quite often two will chat between themselves while the third is answering a question – and you can’t really blame them, because so many of the questions are as bland as the answers they give. Skip a conference for some reason, ask a colleague if you’ve missed anything, and the inevitable response is a shake of the head.
I’ve never been one for asking questions at press conferences, quite honestly, because if I’ve got something I think interesting to ask, I don’t want the whole world to get the answer.
Personal interviews – one-to-one with a driver or team principal – not surprisingly work very much better, but even so F1 folk today, compared with times past, are usually extremely guarded in what they say.
Hardly ever these days do you simply sit down with someone, switch on the recorder, and chat. Instead an appointment has to be made – usually days, races ahead – with someone from the PR department, and invariably you’re given a time limit, sometimes a fatuously short one.
To some extent, I can understand this, because the press corps is way bigger than at one time, and consequently there are many more requests for interviews. What I find less acceptable, though, is that nowadays a PR will sit there through the interview, recording the whole thing, so as to have a record of precisely what was said.
This, of course, is so that, if a driver is misquoted, his team can take issue with the journalist – and I’m sure there have been times aplenty when that has happened. Naturally, though, anyone thinking him or herself a relatively serious journalist finds the practice a touch offensive. Leaving aside any question of integrity, I’ve always thought in terms of, ‘If you let them down, they’ll never trust you again’, and of course the same goes for anything related in confidence, and plainly ‘off record’.
As a journalist, for me the main problem with having PRs-with-recorders on hand is that inevitably their presence is intrusive, and can have an intimidatory effect on the person being interviewed. I well remember asking Rubens Barrichello, in his Ferrari days, about the joys of being Michael Schumacher’s team-mate, and his briefly contorted facial expression said, ‘I can’t answer that with her (the PR) here…” Fortunately, Rubens being Rubens, he later caught up with me in the paddock, apologised – and gave me the answer to my question…
Now, in certain cases, people are starting to demand the questions in advance, so as to have carefully manicured answers prepared. Usually, if you’ve been around a while, and are known and reasonably trusted, that doesn’t happen, but on the rare occasions when it has I have simply declined the interview. Even more extreme is the request for ‘copy control’, permitting the subject of the interview effectively to ‘sub’ what the journalist has written – to tone it down, perhaps to remove something a little contentious which he now wishes he had not said.
Not a chance, as far I’m concerned – although quite often I’ve said at the time, “Are you sure you want to say that on record?”, and I’m invariably sympathetic if someone later says, “Look, do me a favour – I think I was a bit over the top when I said that about so-and-so…”
That’s how people should behave when they trust each other, I believe – and people who trust you will tell you things you may not, for reasons of libel, be immediately able to write, but still need to know: “You didn’t get this from me, but…”
Not a phrase you’re ever going to hear at a press conference, I’m afraid.