James Allen is one of the most experienced and popular broadcasters working in Formula 1 today, serving as the voice of Formula 1 commentary on the BBC 5 Live broadcasts, on top of his TV work for Australia’s Network Ten and his own efforts running his eponymous F1-dedicated website.
Born into a racing family – his father Bill was a works Lotus sports car driver in the 1960s – James studied at Oxford University before joining the Brabham F1 team as its press officer in 1990. The following year, he would serve as the main media man for drivers Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell, with whom his career has been intertwined for many years since.
When the Brabham outfit collapsed in 1992, James switched to journalism, working as the news editor for Autosport magazine, and later landing himself a gig as ESPN’s pit lane reporter for the American broadcaster’s F1 coverage between 1993-6.
His work saw him move to ITV’s F1 coverage when it won the British broadcasting rights from the BBC, and his intelligent – and often witty – analysis of teams’ strategies because a popular addition to the TV commentary headed by the legendary Murray Walker and Martin Brundle, who had now retired from F1 racing.
He was promoted to ITV’s lead commentator in late 2001 when Walker announced his retirement, and he and Brundle became a formidable duo in the post-Murray era. The pair, with ITV, won three consecutive BAFTA awards and the Royal Television Society’s Sports Programme of the Year award.
In 2008, they won a special Autosport Award for their coverage of the championship-deciding 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, in which Lewis Hamilton claimed the crown on the final corner of the final lap of the race. It would be ITV’s last time on the F1 grid, losing out in a bidding war with the BBC for ongoing TV rights honours.
That marked the end of Allen’s tenure in the TV compound, and he has very successfully turned his focus to radio commentary and his tremendous writing skills. After co-writing Nigel Mansell’s autobiography, he went on to pen two highly-acclaimed biographies on Michael Schumacher, with the second, The Edge of Greatness, considered the most complete portrait of the controversial seven-time champion.
Today, James devotes his time across a variety of broadcast media, as well to a host of philanthropic projects, including as a Trustee of the Grand Prix Mechanics Trust, as well as serving as a patron of the children’s engineering challenge, F1 in Schools, for over a decade.
A fixture of the travelling F1 media brigade, James kindly afforded RichardsF1.com an exclusive interview earlier in the season during the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend, where he discussed his amazing career and the background behind the seemingly motorsport-inspired names of his two sons, Enzo and Emerson…
Where did the passion for motor racing come from? Was it from your motor racing father?
It was, yeah. My dad was a works Lotus driver in the 1960s and competed in the Le Mans 24 hours, Spa 24 Hours, Nurburgring 1000km and all the classic sports car races in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was also involved in running the team. Colin Chapman was getting more and more involved in Formula 1 at that time so he left the running of the sports car team to my dad (who was trained as a lawyer before he went into racing) and to Colin’s father Stan.
So my dad was the ‘grown up’ really who went and collected start money and made sure everything was dealt with the scrutineers and that sort of stuff. But [he] also drove the cars. He was a driver first, but also helped out on that side. He raced with Trevor Taylor, who went on to be Jim Clark’s teammate in Formula 1 and raced with Clark and Moss and Graham Hill and all those guys.
He had a few big accidents in the early 60s, and so by the time I was born in 1966 he was sort of semi-pro and was racing Lotus Cortinas and touring cars and various things like that. Then he went more into admin really. He was on the RAC motor sport council for most of my childhood until I was in my 20s. And he very successfully organised one of the first historic racing championships which really got that historic racing thing going in the early 1970s.
So a lot of my experiences as a kid were going to Grands Prix where those races were on the support bill, my dad would be racing a Ferrari or a D-Type Jaguar or something. Not his own cars, always someone else’s! So I grew up with racing and I grew up with racing drivers being around and racing people and it was always something I was very passionate about. I watched the races and I was really into it and I read a lot about the history of it, going back to the 1950s with the Mercedes Silver Arrows and that sort of stuff, and it’s just something I’ve really enjoyed.
Did you ever dream of becoming a racing driver yourself?
No. I could tell fairly early on that I didn’t have the skill set to do that. Of course I’m quite big, and my eyesight’s not good enough, and I’m not talented enough and a whole bunch of other reasons! I didn’t really want to have an unsuccessful career. I would rather be successful in something I’m good at rather than unsuccessful at something I’m bad at.
How hard was it to get into motor sport journalism back when you started compared to what it’s like today?
To be honest with you I don’t know what it’s like today other than that I’m in my mid-40s now and that was the age that one or two people were when they helped me when I was in my early twenties. I’ve helped a few people now, gotten them some opportunities and given them a chance, particularly with my website and other things.
So I’m kind of in that phase of my career where I’m helping to put something back by helping some young people come through which is really really important otherwise there won’t be any. Obviously it’s difficult now because it’s so expensive to cover Formula 1 because we’re at so many more races that are far away from Europe. That’s speaking from a European perspective or a British perspective even.
I think on the one hand it’s much easier because obviously the internet opens up far more opportunities than when I was around. But on the other hand it’s more difficult because the media is fragmented at such an extent that it’s difficult to see where the money is really.
So I think it is quite hard for young people to come through now. There aren’t particularly any commentators coming through for example, and that’s a bit of a concern, I think. But you know we’re sitting here in the press room in Kuala Lumpur and I’ve never seen it this full. I’ve been coming here for fifteen years and I’ve never seen this many people in here. I think it’s probably because of websites being encouraged to come in, which is great!
As you said, the internet wasn’t around when you were younger. You obviously see it as a good thing then with the immediacy it brings?
Well it is. In the old days there were monthly magazines, weekly magazines and the daily newspapers would come with fairly limited television. But if you look at the depth of TV coverage now that’s being offered by quite a lot of the broadcasters, Sky have got 60 people here doing all kinds of things.
The depth of the coverage across the board is much better. Obviously websites are great because they can focus on certain areas so that the fan can have a much better perspective. Where you really notice it is when you go to America.
I started when Phoenix had the American Grand Prix. I broadcast for a number of years with ESPN, it was my first main TV job in Formula 1, and I was aware that there was perhaps 1.5-2 million people in the States – particularly down the two seaboards – who were really into Formula 1 and knew a lot about it. But where did they get their information from? They had to wait for Autosport to come in the post a week later or whatever it may be.
Now when we are in Austin, I was completely aware of the fact that your American fans sitting in the grandstands at Austin, have just as much access to all the same information in the same real time as any fan in Britain or Europe or Germany where the heartland is of Formula 1.
So they’re so much more connected to the sport now. And that is a fantastic development and one that Bernie is very aware of and that’s one of the reasons why Austin will succeed where other US Grands Prix have failed because if you harness that and you keep the people connected, you keep them attracted to Formula 1. He’s boosted the coverage in the US now with NBC. So the internet allows you to do that, and if ever there was a sport that was a perfect fit to go with the internet, it’s Formula 1.
How was the difference working for ESPN compared to a British broadcaster ITV, who were able to invest significantly more in their F1 coverage?
Obviously the bosses of ESPN at the time thought Formula 1 was a ‘minority sport’, but the people who were in charge of Formula 1 at ESPN were very passionate about it and they worked hard to make it exciting.
And it was exciting, because we had much more freedom [with] camera access and various things like that. Things were much less restricted in the early 1990s than they are now. So we could cut to own our own live camera in the pits, our own live camera on top of the grandstands in every race and then we had our own feed of onboard cameras, so the director of our show could actually mix his own program and make it as exciting as he wanted, which he did.
That stopped in the mid 1990s and now you have to take the ‘world feed’ and there is nothing you can do about it. You can’t cut away from it at all. So in terms of the way they presented the sport, I learnt my ‘trade’, if you like, from the Americans which was great, as they were always looking to really extract the entertainment value to provide the insight.
At the time the coverage in the UK was fairly ‘old fashioned’, so when ITV started in 1997 one of the reasons I was hired was because I had all this experience of how to really bring a sport to life. I was working mainly in the pits at that stage as a reporter, so that’s what I brought to the ITV coverage which was obviously broadcast in Australia and other English-speaking countries as well, and we did that for twelve years.
That period was obviously how most Australians got to know you. Was that a dream job at the time to be able to be working in the pits of Formula 1 with Murray Walker in your ear broadcasting to the world?
It was brilliant to work with Murray, of course it was, it was fantastic! Working on air with him was one thing but travelling with him was the thing I remember the most and I always will remember about him because he’s a fantastic companion on the road and very very funny.
I will tell you a story: he didn’t really like driving outside the UK. He is a demon driver on the road and when I have been driven by him in the UK he goes really fast! But when we were abroad, and particularly driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road, he didn’t like it so I used to drive him around everywhere, so to and from the circuit and the hotel. So we spent a lot of time together over the first four years at ITV. That was just great.
I can’t honestly say that I learnt loads from him because he was completely unique in the way he did everything. But I picked up some things from him, some aspects and certainly the way he conducted himself with people I learnt a lot from him. He was brilliant in a room of people. I’m not anything like as good as he is but I learnt a lot from him. He could really work a room of people! That’s from his advertising experience and that business he worked in.
So it was great fun, but I always wanted to be a commentator and at that time that was kind of the objective. All I’ve ever really wanted to do is be part of communicating the sport and try and help people. I’m not an ego-driven broadcaster, I’m not there because it’s all about me and I want everyone to celebrate. I wouldn’t mind if anybody didn’t know what my name was. It’s much more about helping fans and people who are passionate about the sport or are learning about the sport to get more from it. Everything I’ve ever done if you look through my whole career, particularly with the website, is all about that.
A lot of our readers are obviously familiar with your website James Allen on F1 and of course you have published two books on Michael Schumacher. Was the reason for setting up the website a way to still communicate with the Formula 1 fans after your commentating role on ITV had wrapped up?
Well it came about obviously because the ITV contracts came to an abrupt end, two years before it was due to, which obviously caught everybody out. I wasn’t really looking at doing that for the next 20 years; I wanted some fresh challenges anyway. I would be lying though if I said I wasn’t hoping to carry on because obviously I didn’t expect it to stop as abruptly as that!
But what I did realise at the time was that it was really important to have your own platform in the changing media environment. I could see that what had been the powerhouse of magazines and newspapers would be declining, and the opportunity was there to create something that I knew was giving people what they wanted, and to work in a way that I could see was the best way forward which I would have control over and it would be my own thing.
We also hear you most races as the voice of the unilateral press conferences, how were you first approached for this role?
I think it’s one of things – like Martin Brundle doing the podium interviews – where if you’ve been around long enough and you build relationships and you become ‘part of the furniture’ of the place really in a way.
I’m obviously a very experienced broadcaster and there are things that need doing centrally, whether it be podium interviews that Martin can do because he is an ex-driver and he has that experience as a presenter and a broadcaster or press conferences that need moderating and energising and all that type of thing. Then that’s how you get the request.
What are your thoughts on the podium interviews and will you ever get a chance to go out there and interview the drivers on the podium?
No, it’s only going to be drivers who do that. I think they’re great provided they remember what they’re trying to achieve, which is to give people an insight into what’s just happened in the race they’ve seen and how the drivers feel. Some of them work better than others…
A lot of countries with F1 broadcasting seem to be going the direction of pay services for Formula 1. Do you like this and do you think it’s the right model to have to pay for Formula 1 coverage?
I think it’s a transitional phase. If you look at the story of Formula 1, it’s basically due to its success and its global reach. If you look around this room now and went from table to table and asked what country they come from, I reckon you would end up with a total of about 40 or 50 different countries. That’s not including all the TV people you have outside in the TV compound. That’s Formula 1.
It’s unique because it’s got this global reach. On the one hand they’ve been ‘future proofing’ themselves by putting races into markets that are real important to the businesses that are involved like the sponsors and the manufacturers. The races take place in markets that they’re really interested in.
However, we’re definitely in a phase now where the model of free-to-air television is broken basically for every sport. So they are obliged to at the moment to get the money and obliged to do what they are doing. And I think you will see more of it.
But I don’t think it’ll last very long because obviously it’s quite a risky thing to do in terms of declining your audience. So as long as you’ve got a free-to-air broadcaster who is going to take the highlights, that’s ok. But the numbers are quite significantly down in those markets that have gone that way from what it used to be like in the free-to-air days.
But I think ultimately what you’ll see is the sport having a direct relationship with the fans via the internet. The infrastructure that has been put into all the Grand Prix venues is now being built up. This is going to get more and more powerful for them to have direct relationships with people so you can actually get Formula 1 direct to your tablet or to your mobile device or your television. I think probably in five to ten years from now that’s probably how people will be watching Formula 1.
Buttonmania: James Allen goes wild when Jenson Button claims his breakthrough win in 2006
You obviously are very famous for getting a bit excited during Jenson Button’s first win in Hungary in 2006, as well as your award winning call with Martin Brundle during the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. What has been your favourite race you called throughout your commentary career?
That’s a good question! The 2005 Japanese Grand Prix was a real classic, I really really enjoyed that. Raikkonen got Fisichella on the last lap that was a fantastic race!
The Hamilton championship race in 2008 was obviously the most kind of ‘iconic’, I suppose, just because Martin and I got that commentary just right basically on that last lap. It was a big moment and it needed the right soundtrack on it and luckily we did.
One of the guys who helped us with that is actually sitting right behind us here [in the Malaysian media centre], Mark Hughes, he worked in the commentary box with him and me and Martin, and he still works with Martin right now on Sky. So we were on it and relied a lot on his input as well just to keep track of where everyone was because Trulli hadn’t pitted and was still on the slicks and it was a very complicated picture on the last 1 or 2 laps of the Grand Prix. That’s probably the thing I’m proudest of.
With Button’s first win and how excited you were it was very similar to Murray Walker getting emotional during Damon Hill winning the World Championship at the 1996 Japanese Grand Prix, did you find it hard to not get excited when a British driver would do well during your commentary career?
I don’t know why I got so excited that day. I like Jenson and have always gotten on well with him but there is nothing particularly unique there. ‘Britishness’ isn’t that important to me, I mean it’s obviously good. Better that way than not that way, as it doesn’t do any overall harm to business [given the TV audience was predominantly British]. But I don’t think I’m massively patriotic in that sense.
I don’t know what it was really, I think it’s just the way he did it really and the fact that it had been so long coming. I knew how down he had been about how it was all going and maybe his career might ultimately end up in disappointment. So I don’t know what it was, I can’t really put my finger on why I got so excited! Maybe I had too much caffeine before the race!
Given your two books we mentioned previously were written on Michael Schumacher, would you ever call yourself a Schumacher fan?
I wouldn’t say I was a Schumacher fan. I wrote the books on Schumacher because he was an interesting character and I had the access. I saw the opportunity with a good subject after he crashed into Villeneuve in 1997. Not only was he trying to win the championship which had still eluded Ferrari, but he was also trying to buy back his image. He had done a lot of damage to his image.
I thought that was an interesting story and I went to his people as I was quite good friends with the guy who was looking after him at that time, Heiner Buchinger, and I said to Heiner: ‘Look, I think this would make a very good book,’ and he said ‘Yeah, I agree with you!’.
So we did it and Ferrari played ball. Jean Todt and Ross Brawn also played ball and it was a terrific book, I’m really proud of it.
Then obviously after that happened, he was the driver who has gotten the best numbers ever and he’s quite a polarising and interesting character, so there was scope to do something closer to a full-scale biography.
So I did that and again they co-operated with it. It would be a mistake to say I was a fan: the Schumacher biography in particular shows both sides of him no doubt about it, but what it definitely does do is shows others the sides of him that people didn’t realise. The attention to detail, the amount of care he gave to all aspects of his game and his approach to winning.
What were your thoughts on his comeback?
Disappointed. I was slightly disappointed he did it as it was never really going to hit the peaks of before, but with a record like his he’s entitled to come back if he wants to. It was good to have him in the field, it would’ve been much better if he had a more competitive car, obviously, so it’s one of those things that just didn’t work out which is just a real shame.
We see you now every race weekend on Australian TV through your role on Channel Ten, how did this role come about?
This is now the fourth year [with Channel Ten]. How did it come about? They just asked me! Obviously I broadcasted in Australia for many years, and I’m very fond of Australia. I’ve got family there, and I spent a very happy gap year there once I left school before I went to university. So I’ve got a very strong feeling for Australia and when they asked me I thought it was great.
It’s a job that suited me, and I have to say of all the things I’ve done I’ve probably enjoyed working with those guys probably more than any people I’ve ever enjoyed working with. Michael Heaton, who is the producer of the program, is an absolute superstar! He is a fantastic fantastic editor. And you know Rusty and Daz [Greg Rust and Darryl Beattie] and those guys, it’s just fun, it’s great fun. We were in the Oaks the other day putting a steak on the barbie; you know having a beer after that race! Just great people!
How hard was it to convince your wife to name your sons Enzo and Emerson? Is she a motor racing fan too?
No she’s not, but there’s a good story behind this! Enzo actually isn’t named after Enzo Ferrari; he is named after a character in the film called The Big Blue. She said to me ‘Won’t everyone think it’s because Enzo Ferrari?’ and I said ‘I would rather he have the right name for the rest of his life than that people thought something about why I chosen that.’
But Emerson is quite funny because my wife had a different name in mind, which I quite liked. We went to a party just before he was born, knowing this one was going to be a boy as well, and someone suggested Emerson. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a great name, a fantastic name.
But when he was born, we didn’t name him for nearly six months! She wanted to call him one name and I wanted Emerson, so it just kind of went forwards and backwards really and we couldn’t agree.
It was then clinched when we were in Canada at the Grand Prix and Emerson Fittipaldi was there. I was in the McLaren hospitality area, and I said to him ‘Can you help me out here?’ and explained the situation. And he suggested we call her! So we called her up and she answered the phone he said ‘Hello Pip? This is Emerson Fittipaldi. Listen, you’ve got to call your son Emerson, it’s a very good name!’ So she felt she had been done over really!
Images via Autosport, BBC, ITV, LAT