David Tremayne is one of motorsport’s foremost freelance journalists and an acclaimed writer of over 40 motorsport books.
Growing up with a fascination for land-speed record and Le Mans racers, he dived into motorsport journalism after completing his economics degree at Central London Polytechnic. He quickly worked his way up the ranks, becoming editor of the Motoring News and Motorsport magazines.
Gifted with an encyclopaedic knowledge of motorsport and its history, he is not afraid to pull punches and question the status quo, and he’s the only four-time winner of the Guild of Motoring Writers Timo Makinen Trophy for ‘Outstanding Motorsport Reportage’ and a three-time winner of the Guild’s Renault Award for ‘Outstanding Journalistic Effort’.
In 2007, he co-founded GrandPrix+ with fellow F1 journalist Joe Saward, and it became the first globally-available electronic magazine published for every round of the Formula 1 World Championship, in most cases within a few hours of the chequered flag falling.
In 2011, he and Saward (pictured left) were appointed as non-executive directors of the Caterham group’s motoring arm, which has no involvement in the outfit’s motorsport campaigns.
Having successfully secured our FIA accreditation to cover the Australian Grand Prix this year, I plucked up the courage to introduce myself to David in the Albert Park Media Centre, and he kindly accepted my interview request to talk about his career, F1’s biggest talking points and to offer some advice for aspiring journalists trying to break into the sport.
I thank David enormously for giving us his time and for the support he has provided to RichardsF1.com.
For those of you who may be interested, this is David’s complete body of literary work, with links to be able to purchase each title online at Amazon.co.uk:
What triggered your initial fascination with motorsport?
I don’t know, really, but as a kid I liked the Le Mans Maseratis and Aston Martins in 1963. And then in 1967 my interest in record breaking was inspired, ironically, by Donald Campbell’s death on Coniston Water. And in racing I loved the new Lola Aston Martin when I saw it at the Racing Car Show. And I got turned on to Formula 1 when I saw a picture of the BRM H16 in Autocar magazine, coming right out of the page at the camera. It was being driven by this guy called Jackie Stewart at the International Trophy at Silverstone.
At that point, I suddenly said to myself, ‘Hey, Formula 1 cars are cool!’ I had instinctively never been a fan of the 1.5-litre F1 cars.
From that point my interest was on rails, and from 1967 I was absolutely hooked on Formula 1. I was a big BRM fan to begin with, with their hopeless H16, and that lasted up until 1973 when I realised the team wasn’t going anywhere, and then I became a Hesketh fan.
Looking back, I don’t actually know what triggered my fascination with the Le Mans Maserati 151 – I guess it was just a brutal, cool-looking machine, but in my mind racing has always been there as long as I can remember.
How did you break into the motorsport landscape as a journalist?
I wrote for a partwork magazine and I did a few motorsport features there. In 1980 I found out that Motoring News had a deputy editor position going, and I got it. I became editor in 1982 and stayed there until 1995. That was total immersion, which was wonderful. You had a team of like-minded guys working together, you learned a lot from them, and equally you passed your knowledge back to them.
Simon Arron worked there already, but I hired Mark Hughes and everyone else who started after him. Martin Whitaker, Paul Fearnley, Marcus Simmons… You’d always look for the guys in whom you could see the same kind of passion you had yourself, and bringing new talent on board was just as much of a buzz as writing.
A lot of them have gone on to enjoy good careers, and the only thing I can liken it to is having another family of kids whom you mentor. They’re all doing pretty good jobs and I’m really proud of where they’ve landed up and what they are doing.
When you yourself broke into the motorsport scene, there would have been the established ‘old guard’ like Paul Frere, Denis Jenkinson and Jabby Crombac already on the scene. What was it like stepping into the paddock and immersing yourself in that environment?
I was quite lucky. Alan Henry was (then) the Grand Prix correspondent at Motoring News so I got to know him really well. Through him I met Nigel Roebuck, a great writer and a great friend, at Monaco in 1982.
I also met Eoin Young there that same weekend, and that was a big deal for me as I used to love his writing. From 1967 I had always read his ‘Straight from the Grid’ column in Autocar. I remember the evening in Monaco vividly: I was wearing a metallic green tie, and he took it upon himself to take the piss, and said something about me not getting a conversation the boys were having about the old days. So I started quoting something back to him, and he looked at me and said ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ And I replied, ‘If you’re so old that you no longer recognise lines from your own column…’ We got on just fine from then on. Eoin’s column had a big influence on me, and I was grateful that I had these figures who helped me to settle in.
That’s always worth remembering when you see the next generation coming up. You never want to feel like the outsider in a clique, and I remember meeting Jackie Stewart for the first time at Monaco in 1986 (I was covering the Formula 3 race at the time), and he made me feel very welcome, called me in from the fringe, made me feel part of it.
It’s actually an incredibly friendly environment. There’s this perception that Formula 1 is this cold, unfriendly environment – it’s anything but that.
Once you can break in, you’re fine – it’s getting to the point where you can break in, that’s tough. That’s why I always try to make newcomers feel comfortable, like they’re insiders, no longer standing on the outside looking in.
Funnily enough, I never had any time for ‘Jenks’. I respected what he’d done as Eric Oliver’s sidecar rider and winning the Mille Miglia as Stirling Moss’s navigator, but he was a prickly, awkward bastard, and I wasn’t prepared to go and pray at the ‘Altar of Jenkinson’. I hated the fact that he didn’t write a proper obituary for Jim Clark when Jimmy was killed in 1968. They had one picture and a caption that read ‘Mere words can’t express how we feel’. Even then, when I was 14, I read that and thought, ‘That’s your goddam job. You should be expressing exactly how you feel.’ At Motor Sport, they bottled it.
When Ayrton died… or our friend David Leslie… It doesn’t matter how upset you are yourself, you must never shy away from doing a proper obituary – that’s your job. Your job is to sit down and open a vein and tap into the emotions that other people have and express for them what they would like to express about their heroes but perhaps can’t. It doesn’t matter how much it hurts, that’s your job.
When Ayrton died I wrote 1200 words in 20 minutes, working three sentences ahead of myself. It’s one of the things I was most proud of writing. One of the few things that really satisfied me.
It’s daunting for a journalist who is setting foot into the paddock for the first time; they would often find themselves struggling to bridge the gap between being a fan, and being there to write as a professional journalist. What advice do you have for someone who has had little exposure to the paddock environment?
You must never feel like you’ve climbed Everest, or that you’re somehow not worthy of asking your subject questions.
My advice is to always have a good question to kick off with. Alan Henry still takes the piss when he recalls the first time I met Mario Andretti because I was completely tongue-tied.
I resolved never to let that happen again. The next time I interviewed Mario, I took some sprintcar photos along with me, which he looked at with Michael [his son]. That helped loosen him up, and it gave me the opportunity to ask him a question about the time he raced for Wally Meskowski in sprintcars, when his team-mate Dick Atkins had been killed early in 1966.
Mario had sought permission to go to the funeral, and I asked him, “Is it true that Wally said to you: ‘Whadda you wanna go to this funeral for? He ain’t coming to yours!’” And Mario said to me, “Boy, you really did your homework!” And from that point on, he was on the line.
If you have something good that you want to ask, that’s the secret. The minute you’ve done that, it’s kind of established that you’re not just some dickhead who’s going to ask, “Is it nice driving cars fast?” You’ve got to engage them, show them that you have some knowledge and passion about what they’ve done.
Your book The Lost Generation is a fantastic read. What was the trigger to write this book?
Anger. It annoyed me so much that Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce had been taken and were largely forgotten. Their deaths were just so stupid and unfair, such cruel twists of fate to take three such massively talented drivers in the prime of their life, before they’d realised their potential.
I remember when Roger was killed; that was just awful. And then Tony came along, and Tom, and it was just unbelievable that the same thing happened to them.
To put it into some sort of context, I never met Marco Simoncelli before he died, but that had a massive effect on us as a family – for some reason more so than the death of Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas. You look at this year’s MotoGP field and it’s just not going to be the same.
Roger, Tony and Tom were taken while they were still on the upward curve towards true stardom. It’s important that people never forget who they were, and that was one of the reasons why I wrote the book.
How did Roger Williamson’s death affect you, and why was he such an inspiration to you?
I was a fan of Roger’s after I saw him race a GRD 372 in the Formula 3 race at Silverstone’s International Trophy race in 1972, and he just disappeared. I loved his commitment and that he never gave up. That ‘never give up’ attitude forever inspired my approach to how I go about things. And I loved the way Roger drove – he was right up there with the best.
I’m quite convinced – with [Williamson’s benefactor] Tom Wheatcroft buying McLaren M23s for 1974 – that the Yardley sponsorship money would have gone to them. Imagine having Roger in a Yardley McLaren pitted against Emerson Fittipaldi in a Marlboro McLaren – I would not have bet against Roger beating Emerson.
Tony’s death was overshadowed by the death of Graham Hill…
That was just Graham being Graham, which led to them being killed. Trying to land where he shouldn’t have. There was all of this outpouring of emotion for Graham – which, OK, that was absolutely right – but what about that plane crash’s other victims? Tony was going to be mega…
Tom Pryce’s death was just so senseless…
Absolutely. It was interesting talking to his wife Nella. Shortly after the news had broken of Tom’s death, her father came to her and said, ‘Remember, that marshal’s parents have lost a son, too.’
That was massively magnanimous in the circumstances. It wasn’t like that young marshal had thrown the fire extinguisher at Tom; he was just doing his job. This was going to be his starring role in the race, where he could put out Renzo Zorzi’s fire…
The one thing that I was never able to do when writing the book was find out the surname of the marshal who survived. Nobody who I spoke to in South Africa could give me his full name; all anyone knew was that his first name was Bill. I would really have liked to talk to him. If you look at the footage, Tom missed his ankle by millimetres.
You always remember where you were when these things happened. They have a huge impact on you at the time, and after, and Simoncelli’s death had that same impact on us as a family.
Both of my sons work in motorsport. Tom was there in Sepang working in MotoGP and had to write a piece for Bridgestone as their tribute to Marco, while Sammy had to write a piece on autosport.com, and had interviewed him a few months before his death.
I really wanted to take a spare weekend off and go to a MotoGP race and interview Marco in 2011, just because he was so exciting.
I gave a speech to the Melbourne Club just a few days ago, and I talked about the impact that Roger, Tony and Tom have had on me in my career. There’s not a week that goes by when something doesn’t remind me of one or all of them, even nearly 40 years after their deaths.
People tell me they cry when they read the book; well, it was no trip to Paris writing it. I burned myself out emotionally for a year after that…
Tell us a little bit about some of the writing projects you’ve recently worked on, or are working on.
We’ve been working on a McLaren trilogy. The first two have been about the team’s cars and wins, and the final instalment will be on the drivers.
I also want to write a proper biography on Jim Clark. But having enough time for these projects is always the factor.
I’m currently writing the technical story of the Bloodhound 1000 mph land speed record car, and I’m also writing a book about Dave Maraj’s Champion Racing, who won the 2005 Le Mans 24 Hours.
After they’re done, mid-season, I’ll start on the third McLaren book.
Longer term, Johnny Herbert and I are going to do his biography, which should be a lot of fun. We’ve known each other for 27 years this year…
One of the greatest things in my life was to be present when two land speed records were broken, and to do the books on them. You feel part of these projects, in the same way that you feel a part of the entire motorsport landscape when you’ve worked in it for so many years. That’s what I love about what I do, that feeling of belonging, of having earned your spurs.
A great challenge for a journalist is, in dealing with complex characters who have distinctly private and public personas, is being able to bridge the divide between the two. Who have been some of the characters in motorsport who fit this description?
Ayrton Senna was definitely one. It actually remains one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t really have the relationship with him that I could have had. I knew him very well and I could have had a fantastic journalist/driver relationship with him if I’d been prepared to be uncritical of him, but I wasn’t. Ayrton would demand total loyalty, and he couldn’t see the distinction that needing to be objective inherently created, especially when he’d got things wrong.
What I really should have done was just said: ‘Let’s stop being stupid about this. Let’s go out to dinner and talk about anything other than racing’. I wasn’t smart enough at the time to realise that, and it’s sadly too late now.
Looking at today’s drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are two of the most intelligent drivers on the grid. They have an understanding that life is hard and you need to work hard to get somewhere. They seem to be more worldly.
Do you remember the question Seb was asked in the Thursday press conference about why there aren’t any Italian drivers on the grid? He made a really good stab at trying to answer it, while another driver might have just said ‘I dunno’.
Mark is great because he sees the big picture, and he has that understanding that some people coming through the ranks need help and will reach back to them. Maybe that’s because of his age, his level of maturity, I don’t know.
I love Lewis, but I don’t think you could ever sit down with him and have a proper ‘meaning of life’ conversation with him. I don’t think he’s at that stage yet. Perhaps it’ll emerge when he’s retired? It does for a lot of drivers, but they also need to trust you as a journalist as well and that’s difficult these days in F1. You know how much you can be trusted, as both a journo and as a friend, but they don’t.
I’d never call any of these F1 drivers unintelligent, but you must never forget that most of them quit school early to pursue racing, so there isn’t that kind of rounded intelligence you might see in other people. I think Mark and Seb are exceptions to that.
I remember asking Jenson to sign something for a young karter friend of mine to the effect of ‘Congratulations on your first win, let’s hope it’s the first of many’, and his reaction was like, “Ooh, that’s a lot [to write].” Now that wasn’t because it would take up a lot of his time or that the inscription was too personal – he was genuinely having to think about what he wrote as he wrote it.
The other thing to remember is that there’s sometimes upwards of 400 journalists on any given race weekend who want a piece of these drivers, who are there to do a job. Imagine if someone kept interrupting us every time we sat down to work?
What do you believe some of the major talking points of the 2012 season will be?
One of the things I most want to watch is how Jean-Eric Vergne does in his maiden season. He’s enormously talented, and there’s this Prost-like quality to him that comes through.
It’s important that Mark Webber does well this year. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that his replacement will come from the Toro Rosso ranks, and it will be down to whatever Helmut Marko decides.
I really like Felipe Massa on a personal level. He’s under so much pressure to perform this year and he’s got a huge uphill struggle ahead of him. If he doesn’t do the job this year, I can see Mark making way for Vergne and sliding across to Ferrari for a swansong couple of years as Alonso’s team-mate.
On the technical side, it’s going to be interesting to see who’s the smartest with getting their exhausts, fancy front wings and passive ‘F-ducts’ to work. Mercedes may have the advantage initially, but that will be neutralised within a couple of races.
I’d really like to see three or four teams in the mix and taking points off each other. I don’t want another year where Seb runs away with the title. I want a close fight like we had in 2010 – it wasn’t totally unpredictable, but at least you had a degree of uncertainty.
What is your opinion on Robert Kubica’s recovery chances?
The romantic in me desperately hopes that he can make a recovery and return to F1. He was a fantastic driver – the one title contender in 2008 who made the fewest mistakes.
In reality, it’s going to be hard. But he’s come back before from a big road car accident that hurt his arm, so he’s done it before.
I remember when we first heard about his accident and all that was known was that he’d broken his leg. We all thought he was an idiot for getting himself injured, but then we found out more details and it was just horrific. Bless him.
It’s awful, and so sad. The guy was really reaching his peak; he was the one who had Lewis and Fernando really looking over their shoulders. You just have to feel for him.
What’s he going to do if he can’t get back into F1?
In a way, you could use the story of Alex Zanardi as a case study, but let’s not forget that Alex had largely had his career before his accident [in 2001]. You look at him now with his hand-cycling and how he’s qualified for the Paralympics.
I remember interviewing him in 1993 when he was racing for Lotus. He was very big in his upper body back then, and I wondered how on earth he managed to get his frame into a Formula 1 cockpit.
He’s nearly double that size now. But he’s done exactly what we all thought he would do. When he had his accident and before we knew he was going to recover, we all boosted ourselves by joking that he’d be out there redesigning his prosthetic legs! And he did just that. Even when he was in his coma, his wife Daniella had ordered a BMW with hand controls. Smart girl.
To look at how he’s coped with life is just fantastic. He’s arguably the bravest guy I’ve ever met. Some guys are brave in their driving, but Alex’s bravery is incredible in terms of what he’s had to overcome. I get very emotional talking about him. I’m hugely proud of him, and that he’s a friend.
Images via Dedeporsche, ESPN F1, F1DB, Flickr, SkiddMark