Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Write Stuff

I've spent the last 8 months on this site writing about motorsport of one form or another - and by and large, I have enjoyed the challenge. I have taken as my brief the idea of producing a column which, allowing for the fact that this is only a hobby and I can't attend the races and don't know any of the drivers or team bosses personally, is modelled loosely on Nigel Roebuck's Fifth Column in terms of subject matter, albeit with less of an F1 bent.

Up to now, though, I haven't written anything on the business of writing about motorsport itself. I thought that this was an interesting subject though. After all, most of us can attend only a few races a year, and many of the major series aren't televised, so it is only through the written word that we get to find out what is going on. I am aware that, in what I say below, there is the distinct danger of wandering into a pot/kettle colour trap. My only defence is that I make no claim to be anything more than an amateur.

Time was when, unless you had a great big white satellite dish on the side of your home, the only way you could find out about the weekend's motor racing was through the specialist press. In practice, in the UK, that meant Autosport. Sure, there was Motoring News, but, then as now, it felt a little cheaply produced, and its principal focus was on rallying, rather than circuit racing. There were also a couple of specialist monthly magazines, but by the time these came to print, what they were reporting was decidedly yesterday's news. Grand Prix races, though not qualifying sessions, were televised, and you might find mention of Le Mans or the Indy 500 in the results columns of the quality newspapers, but for the rest, you had to wait until Thursday morning.

To my mind, Autosport usually did a very good job in those days (I'm talking here of the mid to late 1980s). All the major international and national races were covered in some detail and the coverage of what were then the 3 major international championships below F1 was superb in terms of botrh quality and depth. Keith Oswin (what became of him?) handled the bobble hat and bacon butty brigade of world rallying, while Tony Dodgins brought a real enthusiast's eye to the young turks of the F3000 championship and Adam Cooper specialised in the then rather fascinating World Sportscar Championship.

The Grand Prix coverage, though, was particularly noteworthy. In those days, the job of reporting on races was split between Joe Saward and Nigel Roebuck. Saward brought a dryly humorous and sometimes travelogue-ish feel to qualifying reports (I've subsequently wondered whether he stole his style from Clive James, whose report on the 1984 Portuguese Grand Prix I was recently pointed to.) Nigel Roebuck played more of a straight bat with the race reports, but made great use of the fact that he appeared to know many of the drivers personally, and counted several as friends. For me, at least, this remains the golden age of Autosport's Grand Prix coverage. Those who can remember further back than I speak in hushed tones of Pete Lyons, although personally, what little I have read from him seems a little self-conscious and overdone - but each to their own.

I can hardly be alone though, among more dyed-in-the-wool motorsport fans in lamenting what has become of Autosport over the last decade and a half. It still has reasonably wide coverage of most international racing series in between its pages, but you'd never know it from the cover. The front cover these days almost always follows a tabloid-F1 driven news agenda, rather than focusing on the major race of the weekend, whatever that may have been. If this was all that was wrong with Autosport, I could live with it, but sadly its not. Across the board, wordcounts are down, and more space is given over to pictures. There has been a move away from straight narrative towards messy little "fact boxes" which more often than not get in the way of telling the story. The news pages contain very little news, especially when it comes to F1 - where they would more accurately be described as "statements of the bleeding obvious".

A couple of years ago, I met up with an old schoolfriend for a pint and a reminisce. He works in the rag trade, and has been involved in motorsports journalism, even at one time sharing office space with the guys from Autosport (whom he described as "frighteningly obsessive race nuts" - what did he expect?). He did point out though, that these were changes that were happening across the board in the publishing industry - almost everywhere you look, the trend is towards lower wordcounts, less detail, a greater eye for the casual reader - and the belief that magazines are somehow primarily "lifestyle accessories".

He's probably right. For example, around 10 or 12 years ago, I used to be a regular reader of a UK music paper called the NME. Even then, it had its moments of rather tiresomely puerile 'humour' and tabloid silliness. Come to that, it also had a rather unpleasant habit of hyping the mental health problems of rock musicians, but that's another article for another blog entirely..... More often than not, though, the album reviews were quite thoughtful, well-written pieces which told you something useful about the release in question. No more. I picked up a copy out of sheer boredom while stuck in a train station in London a few months back. The magazine now has the feel of one of those horrible, and I believe now defunct teen pop rags. Album reviews, of course, were cut back to at most 1/3 of their previous length - not enough space for even the most gifted of writers to say anything worthwhile.

And yet my journalist friend insists that this is what sells copies - this, apparently, is what the great unwashed actually want. He assured me that any attempt to, for example, revert Autosport to its more purist 1980s format would be commercially disastrous - while hinting at the same time that the majority of the staff writers would dearly love to do just that. To be fair, those working in the particular field of motorsports writing have a couple of additional problems to contend with. The first is the growth of "press officers". With F1, in particular, becoming ever more the play-thing of large corporations, the last thing the teams want is drivers who might actually speak their minds. So where once it might have been possible for friendships to develop between drivers and writers, now it is all but impossible for them to so much as speak to them without their 'minders' present. A second problem is, simply, the internet. These days, there's no need to wait for the copy of Autosport or (if you like that sort of thing) Motorsport News to drop through your door to find out what happened at the race circuits over the weekend. You can simply go online on Sunday evening - if of course you haven't watched it all on digital or satellite.

Having read the diatribe above, you might be surprised to learn that I still read Autosport. From a pragmatic point of view, its still a reasonable summary of what has been happening in the world of motorsport each week, and i'm just old enough to want such information on good old fashioned tangible paper. While I'm rather of the impression that Nigel Roebuck has lost interest in the sport and that his once unmissable Fifth Column has suffered for it, he's still often worth a read all the same.

More importantly, though, I think his replacement as lead Grand Prix reporter, Mark Hughes is actually a better writer. Within the tight confines of the modern Autosport style, Hughes has written some of the most inventive and captivating pieces of sports reportage I've ever read. Safe in the knowledge that if the reader wants a blow by blow account of what happened to every driver in the race, then he or she can simply look up the team's press releases on the internet, he opts to tell the race as a story. Occasionally he will tell it through the prism of a single driver. More often than not it is the story of the battle between the main players that weekend and why the race turned out as it did.
Sometimes, it doesn't quite hang together properly (one wonders if he is often rather ruthlessly subedited for length) but more often than not it does. Not for nothing has he been called the "Ernest Hemmingway of Grand Prix writing". His understanding of what is involved in actually driving an F1 car, in particular is considerably greater than that of most of his fellow scribes. Perhaps not surprising, given that he was a pretty decent club racer himself in his day, and his brother, Warren, rather better than that. While I make no bones about the fact that I preferred the old "start with Friday practice and tell the story going forward" approach taken by the magazine 20 years back, I do have a lot of respect for Hughes, if not for the people who decide the overall tone of Autosport these days.

Where else can one find worthwhile writing about motorsport these days? Thankfully, the internet, while it may be doing its best to destroy the printed motorsport press, does contain some pretty good motorsport writing. Joe Saward continues to write his offbeat Globetrotter column over at grandprix.com. His 'The Mole' columns, under which he writes his more speculative pieces on the goings on behind the scenes in F1 have rather lost their novelty (These days, frankly, I'm sick of reading about the bloody Penelopes) but his Grand Prix reports usually provide a good precis of the weekend's action for those who find Mark Hughes' approach a little flowery.

These days, to my mind, the best writer on the murky underbelly of Formula 1 is the rather eccentric Shakespeare scholar and playwright, Dr Mike Lawrence. His well written, forthright columns are the best thing about Chris Balfe's Pitpass site. As a long time follower of the sport, he understands the driving side as well as the 'political' side. Check out, in particular, Natural Winners. For what it's worth, I'd also strongly recommend his recent book, Colin Chapman: Wayward Genius as one of the best motor racing history books I've ever read.

Anyone frustrated by the lack of detailed coverage of the excellent GP2 series in the mainstream press would be well advised to look at David Cameron's (that's the writer, not the globulous fraud who would be Prime Minister) GP2 blog, with its detailed race weekend reports. They give a real feel for what it was actually like to be there and are far better than anything that appears in Autosport on the series.

Official sites aren't usually worth the electrons they are written on, but the Champ Car World Series site is an honourable exception. In particular, Robin Miller's 'Straight From The Gearbox' column is a must-read, while Gordon Kirby's Inside Track is often also worth a look too. Sadly, the site is a nightmare to navigate, but you can find them here.

Staying with Champ Cars, I'm usually of the opinion that driver-penned columns can safely be given a miss. For one thing, they are most probably written by the driver's Press Officer, and for another, they are usually just PR-puff pieces, calculated to say as little as possible and certainly nothing that hasn't been said elsewhere. PKV Driver Katherine Legge's First Legge columns for Crash.net are worth a look though, with a degree of honesty and of detail which is most unusual for driver columns. Her writing gives rather more of an insight into what is involved in top-flight single seater racing than any driver column I have seen before. It also feels as if Legge herself actually wrote it. Either that or she has a particularly talented press officer.

Whatever Joe Saward might claim, there are also some fairly worthwhile amateur efforts on the web (though, to be fair, these don't tend to specialise in news-gathering). I must single out in particular Dennis David's excellent piece on Alain Prost, Appreciating The Professor. Some excellent, usually historically themed driver and team profiles, generally much better than anything to be found in Motorsport, can be found at Leif Snellman's 8W (who?, what?, where?, when?, why on the world wide web) site - with contributions from a number of journalists and from readers. A particular favourite of mine is Snellman's Talent Overplayed .
This being a blog, I'd also like to draw attention to the efforts of my fellow motorsports bloggers. For instance, there's Rhm's admirable attempts to understand F1 technology from the outside, and to report it in layman's terms over at The Racing Blog. Checkpoint10 have been providing intelligent commentary on motor racing, with a focus on F1 and Champ Cars, for some time now. I particularly liked their piece on the disappearance of Montoya and Villeneuve from the grid this summer. Probably the most comprehensive of the blogs is Roy Madden's large and remarkably successful team-authored Linksheaven F1 Blog. Those looking for images, rather than words, could do worse than to check out Flickr's Racing Images Pool, with over 7,000 photos from around the world (I'm one of about 750 contributors). Another site I stumbled on quite by accident the other day, though strictly speaking a personal blog rather than a racing blog, is smtfhw's weblog - which contains an vast archive of her F3 reports over the years (if you have the patience to find them) and a rather moving meditation on death in motorsport. There are plenty more besides - many of them linked via the sidebar on the right, if you want to explore further.

So if the article started off rather downbeat about the current state of motorsports journalism, I hope it hasn't ended that way. At the end of all this, I'm forced to conclude that, while the printed specialist press may not be in the best of states, and this probably reflects changes in the media more generally, there is in fact as much good motorsports writing out there as ever. Its just takes a little more effort to find it these days.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Nicebloke said...

My one-stop shop for motorsport news is Crash.net. Having said that, they tend not to take part in silly-season conjecture which, let's face it, is kind of fun, so I find other places that have that.

I'd also like to see a more diverse racing blogosphere. So many F1 blogs, yet hardly any that focus on sportscars, motorcycle racing or rallying (which is why I try to focus on those).

12:28 PM  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Patrick, I've just discovered your superbly-written blog!

I totally concur with your thoughts on the current style of printed motorsports journalism. Mark Hughes is, indeed, a beacon of creativity, depth and intelligence. As you point out, though, wordcounts and detail are plunging in all newspapers and magazines, and this is truly depressing. There's some interesting thoughts upon this phenomenon on Bryan Appleyard's blog:

http://www.bryanappleyard.com/blog/2006/11/death-of-print.php

Incidentally, did you see in this week's Autosport that they are advertising for a journalist to lead their F1 coverage from the end of November? I doubt that they're adding someone else to their team, so I presume that means either Mark Hughes or Anthony Rowlinson is leaving...

10:15 AM  
Blogger patrick said...

Gordon - glad you like the blog

I only hope its Rowlinson and not Hughes, or one of my last remaining reasons for reading the magazine will be vanishing.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Well, it's Rowlinson who's gone. His name is absent as Executive Editor from the role-call in this week's Autosport.

Hughes is so good, I wonder if he won't decide to leave motorsport journalism completely at some time in the future. I can imagine him writing books outside F1, or working as a journalist for an international current affairs publication.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Barry said...

Mark Hughes is a brilliant writer.
The words that he uses and the images he creates are exquisite.

His column is always the most enjoyable, as well as the piece he writes on a race weekend about standing out around the track somewhere during practice.

3:50 AM  
Anonymous Oswin said...

You wondered what had happened to me...

I left Autosport in 1999 and did some freelance PR work for Pirelli and latterly Skoda on the WRC. As the championship started to fall apart (and still shows no real sign of a genuine recovery in the short term) and sponsors pulled out mid-season leaving me high and dry, I opted out of full time motorsport work.

I briefly put my travel experience to use with Thomas Cook but earlier this year became Customer Relations Officer at Qantas Holidays. So if you didn't enjoy your trip to Oz it's me who'll be telling you you can't have a refund!

3:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon your blog while I was tying to find Mike Lawrence's Official Page and I'm happy I did so!
Your article turned out to face a topic that has been of my interest for years - the coverage of F1 in print media. I bought my first copy of Autosport back in 1991 while spending my holidays (I'm German) in Bournemouth and I was amazed by its scope. Back in these days I was a Nigel Fan and it was hard to find a good F1 Magazine (was there any??)in Germany at all. Schui's arrival in F1 changed things on the media front and brought (along many crappy papers) the superb F1 Racing to Germany. It didn't seem to be biased like all the other "Schui-PR" publications which is why I still keep many issues in my 'archive'.
I agree that Mike Lawrence is a great writer - I especially like his humor. I rememer his wonderful attempt to classify drivers by their image (somethig like: "if I see Fisichella I think Rubens Barrichello") - I couldn't stop laughing:-)
To wrap it up: thanks for your collection of web links, it is good to know that great F1 journalism still exists.

5:21 AM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

The results of your work are really excellent!

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thursdays used to be special back in the 80's as i looked forward to seeing what Nigel Roebuck had to write about, be it current or looking back, and knowing that I could find out about everything from F3 to Can Am. Me and my friends often moan now about the focus on F1 with everything else being pushed into the few remaining pages. Cannot recall the last time I bought Autosport. Two years ago? I do now buy Motorsport from time to time. I know the Roebuck material is in there and if there is one other item that will interest me on the history of the sport from about 50 to 25 years ago I am sold. In years to come however, I think we will have the next generation commenting on the golden years of he Hughes columns and the changes forced through by the way 'we' want to receive the information and probable changes to information technology. In the meantime I have to say I loved the blog. Spot on chap.

3:39 PM  

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