A sea of flashbulbs illuminate the room and the press shout: “Billy over here, this way Billy! Smile, Billy!” A couple of years ago Billy Monger was just a normal kid hoping to make it to Formula One. Now, as he takes to the red carpet at the BBC’s Sports Personality Awards where he is to pick up the Helen Rollason Award for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity, he is a man in demand.
Having made a BBC documentary with Billy in 2018, I was thrilled to be asked to chaperone him and his family to the awards ceremony. It was a request I accepted with great pride, not only because the Monger family are incredible, but also because my first job at the BBC after becoming a journalist was working as a production secretary on Sports Personality of the Century at the end of 1999.
My first day in the job was making sure all the VIPs had transport to get to them to the event at Television Centre in London. I’d gone from practising shorthand one minute to phoning greats like Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Steven Redgrave the next.
On the night I was assigned to look after Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United team. I remember standing under the giant arc of Television Centre nervously awaiting the arrival of ‘Fergie’. As he climbed out of the car, I was there to shake his hand. He wasn’t the only famous person I rubbed shoulders with. I was also lucky enough to welcome the amazing Muhammad Ali.
We were told as staff it was not acceptable to ask for photos or autographs… you should have seen how many people rushed David Beckham when he entered the after-show party… I of course, was not one of them, I was still shaking from just being in the same room as many of these sporting greats.
I worked 36 hours straight before the ceremony, but it was an evening I will never forget and it laid the foundations for the rest of my career. I moved from behind the scenes to in front of a microphone as I worked my way up from reading the travel news and hosting speedway meetings to presenting rallying and MotoGP on the BBC.
Most recently, and the reason I was invited to the BBC awards again, is because I now stalk the F1 pit lane presenting and doing interviews. It’s a job I adore and one that I have been lucky enough to have done for the BBC since 2011.
Working in the paddock can be unglamorous at times, despite what many people may think. Soaked with rain or freezing cold, waiting for a driver interview after what has been a dull race is certainly not something to write home about, but there are still times when I have to pinch myself. I try not to get too star-struck, but the first time you sit down and interview the likes of Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost or Lewis Hamilton you can’t help but think – WOW!
“I saw Lewis gently take the hand of Billy’s mum and ease her forward to watch her boy”
As I guided Billy Monger to his seat in the auditorium at Sports Personality, it was another of those incredible moments. It took forever to get him into position because everyone wanted to say hello, have a selfie or just shake him by the hand.
What Billy has achieved since his accident at Donington Park when he lost both of his legs whilst competing in a Formula 4 race is quite extraordinary, and the stars all wanted to meet the man who has done what seemed like the impossible.
It was an honour to be there with Billy and his family, especially when he learned of Hamilton’s appearance at the awards. In fact, the general excitement in the hall when people found out he was coming that night was palpable. Hamilton took to the stage in a striking black, bejewelled outfit as Gabby Logan interviewed him as one of the nominees for the Sports Personality of the Year Award. Those sat around me whispered: ‘He’s actually here. That’s amazing.’
Lewis would have known the chances of him winning were slim. It seems a long time since the glory days of the ’80s and ’90s when Mansell and Hill both won it twice.
But Lewis was there that night to support Billy. (I was told earlier in the year there was ‘no chance’ of him going to the ceremony.) He was elated as his interview turned into the prizegiving for Billy. He listened with pride to the inspirational words of his friend. While the speech was happening I saw Lewis gently take the hand of Billy’s mum, Amanda, and ease her to the front so she could take centre-stage and watch her boy bring the whole auditorium to its feet, and the watching world to tears.
While motor sport might not be as loved by the masses as once it was, there is no doubt that evening a star was born… and as Lewis looks to get his sixth world title, Billy Monger will look to turn the adoration and admiration of the public into a race seat and his own challenge in 2019.
After the show, as Hamilton’s jacket faded into the night and he slid out the back door, it was Billy who was left shining brightly. Yes, Geraint Thomas might have won the big award, but at the after-show party this time, forget David Beckham… everyone wanted their photo with the man of the night, Billy Monger.
Jennie Gow has formed a staple of the BBC’s Formula 1 broadcasting team since 2011, working across both TV and radio
Follow Jennie on Twitter @JennieGow
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