Behind the Grand Prix scene — The journalists

The term journalist sawyers a wide range of activity, from instant news service from Reuter or Associated Press, to Annual Reviews. In between there are daily papers weekly papers and monthly papers all supplied with words by journalists, while radio and television both come under the heading that embraces dispensers of news. Naturally the writer list an Annual Review has an entirely different job to that of the daily paper man and personally I am happy that I write for Motor Sport, which is a monthly; though sometimes even that can be a his of a sweat.

Some time ago we were having an after-dinner discussion about journalists and journalism and a very well-known broadcaster was getting on his high-horse and suggesting that we mere reporters for weekly or monthly magazines had a cushy time. Mind you, we were not denying it, in fact we had net even raised the matter, but our BBC man was now really firing on all four and getting very worked up, so we chivvied him along a bit to liven things up, suggesting that though he might be spouting words of wisdom down his microphone they could be a load of waffle because the average listener forgot what had been said within a couple of hours after hearing it, whereas we, the writing press, had to get it right because once it was in print it was there forever more and a reader could say “. . . but you wrote five years ago . . .” This stirred our man up to greater things and he got onto the question of timing and working to tight schedules, deriding us for having a day, a week, two weeks, even three weeks to find things out, we did not have to work to the tight timing that he did. He began to was lyrical about the split-second timing that a broadcaster has to work to and ended up by saving “…why, I have to work to the second, even to half a second, you lot just don’t understand”. Whereupon a well-known photographer who had been listening to it all and not saying anything, took his pipe out of his mouth and said “I have to work to a five-hundredth of a second, and I don’t get a second chance”. We all fell about laughing and our BBC man went off to bed.

Different people in the journalistic world certainly do have to work to different schedules and there are a great variety of methods used. Let us look closely at one of the men who supply a daily paper with news. On Saturday morning you will no doubt read something about practice that took place on Friday and a cautious preamble to the race due to be held on Sunday. On Monday morning you will read a report of the race and the results. But what does it involve to get that information in the paper. Maurice Hamilton writes for the Guardian and his methods and system of working are similar to those men who write for the other daily papers. The Guardian usually has three pages on sport in the Saturday edition and there are reporters from all over the world keen to get their sport in the first edition, so motor racing has to take pot-luck with all the other sports. On Friday, which is normally practice day, Hamilton phones the paper’s Sports Desk three times. The man in charge of the Sports Desk, who makes up the three pages, comes on duty at 3 p.m. and works through until 11 p.m., so it is important to contact him us soon as possible to reserve space and find out how many words you can have, which is usually around 300. The preparation of the three sports pages is done to a strict routine, and this means that the first page has to be finished by 4.30 p.m., so if practice is over by 2.30 p.m. as it should be, there is a reasonable amount of time, always assuming that the practice results are issued fairly promptly. You then have to concoct a suitable story into 300 words and get on the telephone once more, and as soon as possible. It is no good writing 500 words, the piece has to he exactly to length for the page planner has arranged exactly that amount of space for you. Your second telephone call is to a girl on the Copy Desk who takes down exactly what you dictate, knowing or caring little about motor racing or any other sport come to that, for her job is merely to record the information and it can be about Formula 1 or tiddlywinks, it all goes through to the Sports Desk. If your aim is to get on the first page it is no good waiting until 4.30 p.m. for by then the page will almost certainly be full, the sooner you act the better. After about half-an-hour you telephone through again to the Sports Desk to make sure that the copy girl got your 300 words and that it did not get lost on the way from her to the Sports Desk. If all is well, that is that for the day.

However, it Is seldom as simple as that for sometimes telephone communication is awful and you cannot hear London and London cannot hear you. Add to that the fact that you are one of sixty or seventy journalists all trying to do the same thing to newspapers all over Europe, and often all over the World. You put your name on a waiting list as soon as you can and then start writing your 300 words, and Dr. Sodt’s law often has your call coming through too soon, before you have really written what you intended. Snap decsions have to be made for if you refuse the the call you go to the back of the queue and that could mean missing the first page. You may think that is not the end of the world, as there are two more sports pages to be made up and anyway the Sports Desk does not close until 11.30 p.m. But if you miss out on your allotted space you can be sure it will go to some other sport, for all the reporters are pressing to get their stories in. A missed telephone call could put you right to the back and there may only be space for 100 words. The Sports Desk Editor cannot wait and invariably has far more information available than he can use.

If there is a hassle over the time-keeping, or one of the cars has been penalised in post-practice scrutineering, this all makes for delay and delays simply do not fit into the time-schedule of producing a newspaper. Saturday is in effect a day off, there being no Guardian on Sunday, but it is still necessary to keep in touch with what is happening and to be prepared for eventualities that might arise on race day. The time of the race can be critical, so contact with London is necessary to warn them about the possible, and hopefully, probable time schedule. Dead-line for the first edition of Monday morning’s paper is 6.30-7.00 p.m. so once again you have to keep a watchful eye on the timings. As soon as the race is finished Hamilton has to try and talk to the winner, find out what happened to various drivers, sum up race tactics, sort out any strange happenings that occurred, find out the whys and wherefores of the fancied runners, collect the official results, cross-check on the happenings in post-race scrutineering, write the 300 or 500 words that have been agreed upon with the Sports Desk and join the battle for use of the telephone. He then gets through to the Copy Desk girl and dictates his story and the results, and more often than not there is an Alfa-Sud or Renault 5 race going on out on the track, while in the Press building or tent, there are dozens of other journalists all doing the same ache is, while Telex machines are clicking away, people talking, others shouting, some arguing and a general unholy row going on It is not surprising that a few misprints appear, like misses the first-edition dead-line it will mean that readers in far away places the Scotland or West Wales will not have a race report on Monday morning. There is an emergency dead-line of 10-11 p.m. but every true journalist considers it a failure to be involved in that, for it means that his story will only appear in the London and Home-counties edition. Sometimes there is little choice, if there has been an official protest and the results are held up, and every, daily-paper journalist dreads this sort of thing happening.

The keynote of a good reporter is knowing the “point of no return”. At some circuits the telephone system is far from satisfactory and it is a safeguard to have planned an mergence system. If the bun-fight in the Press room has reached an unacceptable level and you can see that the delay in getting your telephone call to London is going to mean missing the dead-line, you cancel it and hot-foot it off to your hotel and make the call from there. This is not as easy as it sounds for you have to deal with traffic congestion, which is where a bit of pre-planning comes in useful. Having your car near the paddock may be convenient for arriving in the morning, but is the last thing you want when it comes to leaving in a hurry. Also, Dr. Sodt is always lurking nearby, and if you do get back to your Hotel and get your story through you are as likely as not to meet someone later on who tells you about the protest or the change in the results.

Other problems that can arise are when something dramatic has happened in some other sport, that you know nothing about, so that when you get through with your 500 words on the Grand Prix the Sports Desk says “. . .can you cut it to 250 words, there has been an international football crisis . .”. You dare not let the man in London do the cutting, for like the Copy girl he has to deal with every sport imaginable and can not be expected to know the details of the Formula 1 race in South Africa. Or there has been a World crisis and the sports pages have to be cut from three to two. Cutting has to be pretty arbitrary so if you happen to have left things a bit tine you could get through tube told “. . .sorry old son, too late, the pages are closed”. If you do that too often the management start looking for a new reporter.

Inevitably with such a scramble and under such varying conditions mistakes occur, some tiresome, some disastrous and others lust puzzling, like Hamilton’s dictation which said “the car was carrying a weight penalty” which got printed as “the car was carrying a wet penalty”, which must have made the readers puzzle a bit on Monday morning. When dictating the story you have to spell out just about every word, especially names like Villeneuve, Salazar, Fittipaldi and so on, but even so mistakes creep in which the motor sporting reader spots instantly on Monday morning. He probably wonders why the newspaper does not have a motor racing specialist on the job. The answer is that the newspaper does, but he is out in South Africa, in California, or Italy and the people in London cannot hope to know all about every sport.

On Monday morning at airports in Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Bruxelles or wherever the race has been, you will see the daily paper reporters anxiously buying a copy of their paper and reading their gems of prose. They either stagger off, hand to head, saying “oh my God!” or sink back with relief and say “Whew”. With live television making a lot of the action at a Grand Prix available to people back home it can often happen that the viewer has seen something that those at the circuit were not aware of. The viewer sees a car lose the right front wheel somewhere out tin the back of the circuit, but in the pits or press room all you know is that “so and so lost a wheel”. As you are rushing around gathering information on your way to the telephone you see the driver concerned and he says “I lost a front wheel” and then he is gone, swallowed up in the crowds. You then meet a team member who says “the left front wheel came off” so you put that in your story having no time to wait for the wrecked car to be brought back to the paddock. On Monday morning the newspaper reader thinks you are a right twit, for he knows it was the right front wheel and you said it was the left.

After a race, at best Hamilton has about two hours in which to achieve everything, at worst 30 minutes, always providing the race runs to schedule, but if there is a delayed start, as in Canada, or a stop-and-restart affair, as in Dijon this year, then the daily paper men are sweating on the top line. If there is a total disaster beyond anyone’s control and none of the papers get a story it is not too bad, but if all the others get a story and you do not you can start thinking of alternative employment. Being a reporter for a daily paper is something of a challenge, as competitive job, the satisfaction being the facing up to the challenge and beating it. Personally it is a job I could not do, it is too fraught with chance and frustration. I find the pressure of a monthly magazine hard to bear at times.

Of all the daily papers who cover Grand Prix racing the Guardian has the advantage that it offers Maurice Hamilton a 500 word “follow-up” on Tuesday morning, so that he has the possibility of correcting serious errors before they are forgotten and enlarging on important things that time restricted on race-day. When next you read your newspaper on Monday morning spare a thought for all the people involved in bringing it to your breakfast table and in particular “the gentlemen of the press” whose job it is to gather the information in Long Beach, Las Vegas or Imola and transmit it to the newspaper office. Then there are all the people who work all night printing it, despatching it, and transporting it, right down to the lad on his bicycle who delivers it while you are getting tip. It is a busy world, the world of the journalist. — D.S.J.