Originally hailing from Northern Ireland, Maurice Hamilton’s first exposure to motorsport came at the age of seven, and it would be an understatement to describe it as an all-consuming passions ever since.
Hamilton is one of the world’s leading F1 writers with over 30 years’ experience in the field.
He has contributed to – an in many cases, been the editor of – a host of leading publications, including the likes of F1 Racing magazine, AUTOSPORT and the fantastic Autocourse annual review.
Additionally, he has worked for major UK publications such as The Observer and The Guardian, in on top of covering F1 for BBC Radio Five Live.
For me, Hamilton is one of my favourite F1 authors, and I’m a proud owner of many of his books, which I repeatedly read. There is a poetry to his writing that I find truly engrossing, and his shrewd analysis coupled with his biting wit make his books a pleasure to read.
After we read and reviewed Chequered Conflict – his fantastic analysis of how the 2007 World Championship paralleled with that of the 1986 season – Maurice kindly agreed to an interview request to discuss it and his latest book, a warts-and-all profile of the Williams team, as told by those within the team itself.
We’re very thankful to Maurice for kindly giving his time to RichardsF1.com, and we hope you enjoy the interview below.
What inspired you to write Chequered Conflict?
As the 2007 season went on, events seemed to become more incredible by the race. The arrival of Lewis Hamilton and his effect of Fernando Alonso was one thing, but when the Spygate story burst forth in July, the world seemed to go crazy.
In 30 years of covering motor sport, I had never seen anything like it.
And it just went on and on, each race throwing up something new. Then we had that incredible end to the championship, the investigation into Hamilton at Fuji and then the sight of him stuck in the gravel in Shanghai. I mean, where was this going to end?
It was at that point that I got on to my literary agent and asked him to put out feelers with publishers to see if there was a market for a book on this amazing season. There was! I got to work straight away because it had to be published very quickly. We had it on the streets before the start of the next season.
You drew some incredible parallels between the 1986 and 2007 championship seasons, which as a reader, I found utterly fascinating. Were you surprised by any of the revelations that were unearthed over the course of writing the book?
That’s an interesting question. The director of the publishers we eventually did the deal with said it would be good if 2007 could be put in context with regard to the history of the sport. It was a good point and it got me thinking. I suddenly hit on the idea of a comparison with 1986 and, the more I thought about it, the more amazing the parallels were – albeit without such an extraordinary Spygate angle. And also, the bit I liked just as much was the fact that, by doing this, it was giving me a means to write about how much F1 has changed in many ways but, in others, not at all.
Creative interpretation of the rules and the copying of others’ design concepts is pretty much the mainstay of modern-day Formula 1 competition. What lessons has Formula 1 learned in the wake of the ‘Spygate’ saga?
This may sound a strange thing to say but I’m not sure that it has created a massive rethink of how things are done regarding the copying of concepts. As you say, this has always been the mainstay of F1 competition and continues to be so – just look at the rash of ‘F-duct’ and ‘blown diffuser’ copies this year. It’s an accepted fact that when key personnel move to a new team, the first thing they have is a heavy debrief as they mentally download all they know about their former employer.
I think the point to bear in mind about Spygate is that it was such a highly unusual case. It might never have been discovered had the photocopy shop not alerted Ferrari. Saying that, Spygate was so blatant, it took the breath away.
To answer your question, I’d guess teams have tightened security. Part of the problem in McLaren’s case was that Ron Dennis’ arrogance led him to believe that his management structure was so wonderful that such a thing could never happen.
Your book covers some particularly sensitive material and criticism of the management culture within McLaren in 2007. Have you had any feedback from the protagonists whom you’ve written about?
Not on the record, no. But then I didn’t expect it. It’s not the sort of thing a team would admit to. But it’s interesting that the criticism you refer to was never challenged.
I’d like to think that’s because I – and the publisher’s lawyer – had been painstakingly careful about what I wrote and how I couched some of the criticism.
I’ve always worked on the principle that, if I criticise someone or some thing, I have to be prepared to stand toe-to-toe with the individual concerned at the next race and defend what I wrote. And, apart from the Ferrari episodes in the book, I’ve only had to do that once, way back in 1994. And, no, I’m not going to tell you who it was!
The outcomes of the 1986 and 2007 championship seasons both make solid cases for team orders in a team where both drivers could essentially pinch points off one another in their efforts to chase the Drivers’ Championship, and in both seasons, Williams and McLaren (respectively) paid dearly for this. Should team orders have a place in Formula 1, and if so, to what extent should they be tolerated and/or allowed?
That’s such a difficult question. I’m a great advocate of drivers being allowed to race, which is why I deplored Ferrari bending over backwards to have the second driver serve Michael Schumacher – at all times. But the end of the season is a tricky one. When two drivers continue to have an equal chance on points, when do you draw the line, particularly when your rival – as was the case in 1986 and 2007 – is focussed on a single driver? But, if one of your drivers has an exceptionally slim mathematical chance, then it makes sense to favour the stronger of the two. That’s the way it’s always been and I’ve no problem with that.
Your profile of the Williams team in Williams: The Legendary Story of Frank Williams and His F1 Team in Their Own Words is a completely different project. What was the inspiration behind writing it?
There’s two books I had always wanted to do. One was on Ken Tyrrell – and sadly, I had to wait until his passing because he wouldn’t even talk about doing a book when he was alive! – and the other was on Williams. Like Ken, Frank has always been against such things. ‘Who would want to read a book about me?’ is the usual response – and they don’t want to hear your answer.
I wrote a biography of Frank in 1995 but I had to do it without his formal agreement. I wrote and told him what I was doing and had no response, not even when I deliberately went up to him at the next race. We talked about everything under the sun. But the book was never mentioned. I took that as the best approval I was likely to get – and went ahead!
This book was different. I had to have Frank’s approval – but how? It seemed to me that here was a fantastic man and his wonderful team – but people knew very little about them. Proof was that no less than three publishers were prepared to fight to have this book done – which was nice for me! I really wanted to do it in any case because I had seen all of the team’s races, been to the launches of all their cars, and so on. So, the best solution was to tell Frank that this book was not about him – but about his team, the unsung heroes for whom he has a great deal of time. He liked that. And when I got his wife, Virginia, on board, we were up and running. Virginia was a fantastic help, as were Claire and Jonathan Williams and Liam Clogger, the team’s media director.
The book comprises the anecdotes and personal recollections from many of the key players in the team at every level – the management, drivers, mechanics and machinists – and would have required considerable support from the team itself. Can you describe the process and steps involved in making it happen?
After gaining Frank’s quiet approval, it was a case of simply putting out the word and asking anyone who wished to contribute to come forward. I spent quite a few days at the factory over a period of time and Liam set up the interviews. I have to say that the response from the many who spoke was overwhelming and, at times, quite emotional. I can’t begin to describe the affection this team holds for Frank and Patrick (Head). It really did support my gut feeling that this was a book that simply had to be done. In the end, I spoke to more than 60 people across the spectrum. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding process. And that’s the reason why I chose the format where I would set the scene at the beginning of each chapter and then let the people who matter do the talking. I’m really chuffed with the way it worked out.
It’s obviously a book made with the blessing of Sir Frank. Was it perhaps difficult to cast aside the high esteem in which you may hold him when you have to write objectively and critically about the team?
That was not a problem at all because, believe me, there is no one more critical of himself and his team than Frank – or, indeed, Patrick. I just loved the unprompted quote from Patrick when he said he couldn’t remember a great deal about quite a few of the many victories – but he remembered every precise and painful detail each time something had gone wrong and cost them a result.
With regard to me holding people like Frank and Patrick in high esteem, I have confess I remain in awe of a lot of these people but, after such a long time at the keyboard, I’ve learned that I have to try to be professional, just like them.
The team has faced some of the worst tragedies in its history: the deaths of Piers Courage and Ayrton Senna, as well as Sir Frank’s own accident. Can you describe your approach and emotions in covering these instances when compiling the book?
I think Frank is the only member of the existing team who was around in 1970 when Courage was killed. It is a delicate area, of course, particularly when you know Frank simply adored Piers. But it’s at times like this that Frank’s incredible pragmatism and honesty comes to your rescue and he can talk about it without either taking offense at the intrusion or becoming morbid. It’s the same – more so – for his accident! He is absolutely amazing. ‘Driving too fast; I cocked up.” End of. Not an ounce of self-pity.
The Senna story was very different because this affected the entire team – and affected them deeply. The scars are still there today. But I got the very strong and sincere impression that they wanted to talk about it and express themselves in a manner they had never been able to do before.
I did no more than switch on the tape, gently bring up the subject, and they did the rest.
Inasmuch as the team has achieved considerable success and remains Britain’s most successful F1 constructor, it hasn’t tasted victory in over five years. In your opinion, what is needed to get the team back to the top step of the podium?
Blimey, if I knew the answer, Frank would pay me a fortune. No, I’ll take that back; he would pay me as little as he could get away with! The technical department has been regrouped and then had subtle changes but the answer is still not forthcoming. I think, to be honest, they need an Adrian Newey. That combination of Adrian and Patrick – the genius and the brilliantly pragmatic engineer looking over his shoulder – was absolute dynamite. Perhaps their biggest mistake was to let Adrian go.
What sparked your passion for motorsport and Formula 1?
When I was seven, my Dad took me to the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, an epic and dangerous road circuit in my native Northern Ireland. All the big names were there – Fangio, Moss, Hawthorn, Collins etc – but it was the noise, the smell, the drama, the foreign accents, Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston Martin, the sense of occasion. I fell in love with it immediately.
You’ve been a Formula 1 broadcaster, journalist and author for over two decades. How did you get involved in the field professionally?
That’s a long story! I moved to England with the sole purpose of somehow getting involved. I discovered, to my continuing amazement because I was hopeless at school, that I could write. Started doing club reports for AUTOSPORT in my spare time and it took six years before I got to know enough people, chucked my job as a salesman and became a freelance writer in 1977. I had to a bit of…er…telling white lies, I even forged a press pass! But I have to say that I would not be here without the help of Eoin Young, the great Kiwi writer who took me under his wing and showed me how to be 100 per cent professional.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring journalists wanting to break into the Formula 1 circle?
Cut your teeth with club reports for local magazines and newspapers. Then never, ever give up – because you’ll feel like it at times. If you really and truly believe in what you want to do – like it’s an all-consuming passion in your gut for this wonderful sport – you’ll get there.
What is your take on the 2010 championship season?
I’m loving every minute of it. None of the bitterness of 2007. It’s a long time since we’ve had so many top drivers in competitive cars, with the balance swinging from race to race. Five different leaders of the championship by half distance; that’s never happened before. Says it all…
Images via The Cahier Archive