Will Buxton certainly cannot be described as your typical motorsport journalist and commentator, admitting that a ‘hugely happy mistake’ led to a role as the voice of the GP2 and GP3 Series’ commentary world feed, a career change that ultimately propelled him into his current role in broadcasting Formula 1 with the American NBCSN network.
This cheery Englishman makes an immediate first impression. On the surface there are the bright trousers, designer belt and shoes, but that’s merely the gift wrapping for a vibrant, insanely energetic man who strides with purpose through the paddock and the F1 Media Centre.
Like many of us in the game, he’s espresso-fuelled – thanks Ferrari! – but you don’t need caffeine when you’re in his company; this man just oozes passion for what he does, and he’s rapidly become one of the leading lights in the ultra-competitive, cutthroat world of Formula 1 journalism.
Although his ascendance into commentating may have had some element of luck to it, his position in the Formula 1 paddock certainly did not.
Born in Portsmouth on Valentine’s Day – “the single worst birthday a man can have, because if you’re with someone, you’ve got to take them out to dinner on your birthday and buy them presents!” – Buxton’s first memory of racing came when he attended the Prescott Hill Climb at the age of five. It made an immediate impression on him.
“Motorsports actually physically affected me from the first moment. I still have the scars to prove it,” he quips to us, recalling the moment tripped over a hidden tent peg and gashed his shin.
His introduction to Formula 1 came watching a Grand Prix after a Sunday lunch “at a beautiful, stately home in Gloucestershire … My earliest memory were these red-and-white cars flashing past the trees at what must have been Hockenheim or Monza,” he recalls.
“That’s when I fell in love with Formula 1 and that’s where I love with Ayrton Senna, who was my hero growing up as a kid.”
Like many young boys growing up hooked on F1 in the early 1990s, a fateful day in May changed everything.
“So I’m 13 years of age, I’m a sweet angelic chorister. I go home after the morning Eucharist on Sunday and it’s the weekend of the San Marino Grand Prix. By the time I’ve got home from Evensong that night, I turn the TV on and it’s the six o’clock news and the first headline is that Senna is dead.
“I ran upstairs, locked myself in my room and refused to come for about two days. My mother had to phone the school and tell them I was ill. When I came back to school, no one understood it. No one got it, because they all loved football, not Formula 1.
“Then my dad bought me my first copy of Motoring News Autosport that week and I read in their pages all the things that allowed me as a 13-year-old kid to kind of come to terms with his death. It wasn’t just me that was that hurting. Everyone that cared about and understood the sport was, too. As a kid, I hadn’t really experienced death that much, so it was really tough.
“But I found a solace in those words and it was that week, age thirteen, I knew what I wanted to do with my life: I want to be a Formula 1 journalist.”
“I wanted other people, that geeky 13-year-old who I was, to know that he wasn’t the only person that loved the sport. I wanted to make other people feel the way that [Nigel] Roebuck and [David] Tremayne, who are writing, had made me feel. That’s when it started.”
The path to becoming a full-time Formula 1 journalist is long and bumpy, and Buxton’s journey is certainly no exception. If anything, it’s a testament to the qualities of discipline, hard graft and an abiding passion for his craft.
Today he has a high-profile role with one of the sport’s biggest TV broadcasters, but his formative years were spent in the print (and later online) spaces, barely surviving paycheck to paycheck.
“I did some work experience at the Times, in the graphics department,” he reflects. “When I went to university and asked what I should study, they said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do a Journalism degree. Don’t do Media Studies, because once you graduate, you’ll have the same identity everyone else. There’s no individuality, no uniqueness there. Do politics.’
“I was an argumentative little sod; I still am. I love history as well. So politics taught me to research and how to form my own arguments and conclusions. It’s basically being a journalist, but without being forged into a certain type of journalist; you keep an element of yourself. Plus, Formula 1 is an inherently political sport. So it actually made a lot of sense.
“I wrote my thesis on the politics of Formula 1 which my lecturers hated. I recently found it again and can see why they hated it. It was dire!”
The first breakthrough came when he met veteran F1 journalist David Tremayne at the Autosport Show.
“The official Formula 1 magazine had just been launched. There was a tiny little stage at the back of the auditorium, and I went up to it and there was David. I’m freaking out, it’s Dave Tremayne.
“So I walked up and I said, ‘Hello. I don’t know if you can help me but I want to be a Formula 1 journalist.’ DT looked at me and said, ‘Okay. Here’s my card, and here’s my personal phone number and here’s my personal email address [which he wrote on the back]. Not my work email. Send me a thousand words on Monday. On anything you want.’
“So I did and we stayed in touch and he advised me. I told him I wanted to write my thesis on the politics of Formula 1 and he said, ‘Okay, give this guy a try. Send him an e-mail.’ I did and that person was Joe Saward.
“The next day, Joe wrote 15,000 words to me on the politics of Formula 1. My thesis had to be around 12,000 words, so I was already in a good place at that point.”
To have the support of two of the greatest figures in the field is huge – we at RF1 can talk from our own experience! – but that was just the start: Will still had to prove he could earn his place.
“Joe knew I wanted to be a journalist and asked me to write something for him. I wrote a feature article every month, just from a fan’s perspective on Formula 1, which kind of got my name out a bit. It’s like gigging if you’re in a band at university; you play your free gigs and you get your name out there.
“When I left university, DT [Tremayne] offered me a staff writing position at F1 Mag. It was only a one-week job at the time, and I had to pen the news summary for that year’s F1 Annual. I quit my bar job and did a week’s work with DT, and at the end of that period I told him I wasn’t going to leave. He smiled and gave me a full-time job.”
And that’s how it started for Will: a staff writing opportunity translated itself into his first properly paid role at Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula 1 magazine in London, all at the age of 21.
“DT was working there and everyday I’d come in and he would grab one of those big Rainer Schlegelmilch photography books and he’d open it to a random page, point to it and say:
‘Right. What year?’
‘Okay, what track?’
‘It’s the Nürburgring.’
‘Right. Who’s in fifth? Why did they retire? What lap?’
“That was the education with DT. You had to know your history and you had to be over every element of the sport and really understand its political machinations too. It was never a chore. It was a joy to be under his tutelage.”
“I did one or two races a year for Formula 1 magazine. The magazine got a new editor in Matt Franey who took it to a very different direction. I personally loved the direction that he took it, and it was that at point that I think F1 Racing really felt they had a competitor.
“The format changed. We started to get really interesting features. I got sent out to Monza to go and camp with the tifosi for the weekend. At dawn on Sunday morning I had the ladder up against the circuit wall and was jumping over it and trying to escape the police and their dogs with all these crazy Italians. I had a paddock pass, but this was not something a typical paddock pass holder would do. It was a great fun,” he grins.
But the adventure was fleeting. Ecclestone wanted the magazine to go in a certain direction and a string of editors came and went. A week before the start of the 2004 season, the plug was pulled.
“The season was just about to start, and suddenly we’re all unemployed. I was 23 years old and I’d just lost my dream job. I had nothing. So what do you do? I went to my parents and asked if I could borrow some money, and they had some savings and lent me enough to buy a campervan. I was finally able to pay them back a few years ago.
“I phoned Richard Woods [the then Head of Media at the FIA]. He said, ‘If you can get an outlet, I’ll get you a pass.’
“So I went to Metro Newspaper – a free newspaper – in London and offered to be their journalist for next to nothing, provided they’d send a fax to the FIA every week so I would qualify for my press pass.”
It was a hard graft; Buxton lived in the campervan and drove from race to race.
“The first race I did was Imola, on the tenth anniversary of Senna’s death. My career had kind of come full circle at that point. By the time I got to Barcelona – the second race! – I had run out money.”
His story reflects that of many freelance journalists trying to make their way. He used that opportunity to stay at fan campsites within the European circuits whilst working in the paddock during the day. It was an unforgettable experience and one which he credits his writing style.
“I could only just afford petrol. I couldn’t afford to eat. I was starving and ill and emaciated and Tremayne said, ‘Right, I’m taking you out for dinner,’ and it was to one of the best restaurants in Barcelona near the track. To this day we have a tradition that every Thursday of the Spanish Grand Prix, we go to the same restaurant.”
Three quarters through the year, it was announced that Formula 1’s feeder series, the International Formula 3000 Championship, was being disbanded and would be replaced with a new category: the GP2 Series.
“I loved the vibe and atmosphere in 3000, and all those teams like Coloni, Super Nova, Arden, DAMS, Durango. It was a really good time,” he recalls.
“I got a call from Stéphane Samson who had been at F1 Racing. He was leaving to be Director of Communications at GP2, and he said: ‘Listen, GP2 is kind of rock roll. We’re trying to not do the normal F1 thing. I love what you’re doing in the campervan. Do you want to be our press officer?’
“I resigned from Metro on the spot. There were no journalists who had been given this opportunity. I was literally bankrupting myself doing what I was doing. I didn’t have to think twice.”
From campervan to glam rock…
“2004 was an incredible year from having that dream job, to its collapsing and then, by the end of the season, moving to Switzerland to start on this completely new journey. That was a really amazing year.”
A three-year stint as the GP2 Series’ number-one media man followed. The likes of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton became future F1 stars during this time.
The championship expanded to a (short-lived) GP2 Asia Series, and it was at this point that the pressures of constantly being away from home took its toll.
“My heart lay in journalism, and I was never going to be truly happy until I came back to it,” he reasoned.
“I left GP2 with nothing and didn’t know what I was going to do. Then I got a call from [photographer] Keith Sutton, who I’d been working with in the Formula 1 magazine days and with the GP2 Series, and he asked if I’d be an editor for a new online magazine they were starting.”
The magazine is today known as GPWeek.
“It was revolutionary at the time; this was before the iPad and tablet came to being such a life essential as they are today. It was a very new concept and I was really proud that, in my tenure there, we took it from nothing to getting ten million hits a week at its peak.”
And then came the moment in 2008 that changed it all.
The GP2 Asia Series was paired with the even more short-lived Speedcar Series – a championship featuring former F1 drivers racing ex-NASCAR machines – but when the Chinese Grand Prix (where there was no Speedcar Series) came along, there wasn’t anyone to give the commentary feed.
“FOM had already employed Tony Dodgins to do spotting for them on the F1 stuff and they asked him who they could get. Tony, bless his heart, and I’ve never been able to truly thank him enough for this, said ‘What about Will? He knows everything about GP2 and he’ll talk your ear off about it.’
“So FOM gave me a call, I went down and stood in Bakersville for the first time looking at all these monitors and screens. They gave me a microphone and a headset and told me it was only the practice session and they weren’t going to broadcast it. ‘Just talk and see how you go’, they said. So I did and at the end they came in and asked me if I wanted to do qualifying and the races.”
Buxton proved to be a hit and at the start of 2009, he was offered a gig to cover the rest of the GP2 Asia Series season (it straddled the Far East flyaway races that book-end an F1 season).
With a full-time British-language commentator on board, FOM could package and sell broadcasting rights to the championship to more overseas territories, and so began the growth in popularity of the GP2 Series.
Buxton’s star rose with it. As the series sole commentator during much of his tenure, he was the true voice of the sport, leveraging his close relationship with the drivers and the teams, and delivering soundbites that were real and honest.
“I always said I would never lie to anybody, in my commentary style with GP2. Some people liked it; some people hated it and I didn’t pull any punches. I was brutally honest. If the guy was driving like a wanker, I’d say, he was driving like a wanker.”
“Is that what a commentary should be doing? Probably not, but I never received any training. So I went in and just assumed I kept getting the call to do the gig every year because people liked what I was doing.”
His work quickly got him to the attention of the SPEED channel, which was broadcasting F1 in the United States.
“I get a phone call from America, from Dan Shutte who was producer of the F1 show on SPEED. They were going to lose Peter Windsor from his pit reporter role [he would attempt to set up the ill-fated USF1 project] and Shutte basically said, ‘We’ve been getting the feeds, British language feeds of your commentary for GP2, and it’s had us in hysterics. We loved it, we love your approach to the sport, we love your honesty. How would you like to be our pit reporter for Formula 1?’
It was a pitch Will simply couldn’t refuse. He stipulated that he continued to spearhead the GP2 broadcasts – “They gave me something when I had nothing” – and quit his post at GPWeek.
He continued the dual roles and – along with most of the SPEED team – joined NBCSN when it won the rights to cover Formula 1 from 2013.
His role and workload has expanded with NBCSN’s broadcasting investment, and it’s been one of the few markets globally where F1’s audience share has increased to the point that its audience figures are bigger than the country’s homegrown open-wheel championship, the IndyCar Series.
It led to Buxton’s eventual decision to quit his GP2 and GP3 Series’ commentary roles at the end of 2013.
“There were a few reasons I left. The biggest reason of all is that you can’t split yourself three ways and give 100 per cent to everything that you do. It’s impossible. I’m doing so much more stuff since the Formula One broadcast move onto NBC, and on a weekend where there was F1, GP2 and GP3, by the time I’d finished the F1 grid walk and the race was actually about to start, I’m knocked out. I was dead.
“NBC is putting the investment and the time into F1. I want to make sure that I am at the forefront of that and giving it the best I can, to grow F1 in America. If I’m not, they’d be within their rights to find someone who is.”
The changing landscape of the GP2 Series was another factor.
“How many times has anybody ever said, ‘Do you know what GP2 needs, more overtaking!’ I didn’t agree with the introduction of DRS. I couldn’t have done a GP2 commentary and pretended to get excited about an overtaking move created by DRS. That would have been disingenuous and I always promised I’d be absolutely honest.”
The GP2 Series is one of many championships faced with the challenge of trying to keep pace with the demands of its audience.
As Buxton will concede with many of his peers, Formula 1 certainly isn’t immune to its own structural and operational challenges. There’s been the recent controversies over the influence of the F1 Strategy Commission, the breakdown of commercial rights revenue, and indeed the very future and direction of the sport.
“I think if we knew the answer to F1’s problems then we’d already be on the path to it,” Buxton ponders.
“The fact is: Formula 1 faces an uncertain future. Bernie is F1 as we know it.
“He has taken it from a ragtag operation of not knowing who is going to turn up where and when to the most watched sport outside of the Olympics or the World Cup. There’s no getting around that.
“But nature dictates that it will end; Bernie won’t be around forever. And when that happens, what happens afterwards is key to whether this sport lives or dies.
“If the teams take over, does F1 have a future? You cannot have competing entities making decisions that are mutually beneficial. It doesn’t work because whether you are in a boardroom or on the race track, their job is to do what is best for them and to win. I don’t think the F1 Strategy Group is great either. You know, how many other sports are there in the world where the teams make the rules?”
“If you think direct democracy is going to work in sports, you’re utterly mistaken. Direct democracy doesn’t work in the real world, let alone in the sporting world.”
It’s a very real concern in the sport, and the influence of its main paymaster and shareholder, CVC Capital, isn’t helping matters either, Buxton argues.
“I fear they would draw the blood out of it and ultimately kill it. I think the only thing that one could hope is that somebody like Bernie comes along who is 1: at heart, a brilliant businessman; 2: a savvy politician; 3: has a love and an understanding of motor sports, 4: and something which is often overlooked with Bernie, is intensely loyal; and 5: understands marketing.
“And if you can have somebody that encapsulates all those qualities, then you have somebody who can take this sport in the direction that it needs to go because the teams won’t. The banks won’t. So you need someone.”
Formula 1’s other major challenge is with its relationship with the motorsport’s governing body, the FIA.
A major criticism of the FIA under the leadership of Jean Todt is that it has almost divorced itself from motorsport at the expense of promoting road safety.
“Jean Todt ran on the pledge of standing for one term and then moving aside, something which he reneged on. He has done good things for road safety and his focus has very much been on that, but – if I’m looking at the President of the FIA from a sporting perspective – I cannot see how anything that he’s done has been positive.
“The first meaningful change he made was to reverse the ban on team orders, because obviously, that was something that stung him in his time as Ferrari’s team principal [when he famously ordered Rubens Barrichello to cede victory of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix].
“If this is the way we’re going to go, it’s all going to be personal interest at this point. He is unable or unwilling to force through a budget cap. He can’t even get the teams to agree to increase the size of the numbers the cars. If a president of the governing body the sport cannot get people to agree on that, what hope do we have of anything else?”
“If the president of the FIA does not have control of the people over whom he is supposed to be presiding, if he cannot govern, if he is incapable or unwilling to do so, then he should stand aside and we should find someone who will. Some people didn’t like the way Max Mosley went about his business, but at least he got the job done.”
“If all Todt’s focus is on road and not on sport, then the sporting side suffers. Last year’s new engine regulations, for example; nothing was done to promote that.
“We’ve got this ridiculous thing with the super licenses where every FIA championship is given a weighting more than a non-FIA championship, which I’m sure the European Union will have great delight in looking up because surely that is anti-competitive.”
Given Todt’s focus on road safety, Buxton finds it curious that it has done very little to police driver safety in the races.
Take, for instance, the opening lap pile-up at the British Grand Prix, triggered by Kimi Räikkönen running off track and rejoining at considerable speed before losing control and crashing. As Buxton controversially wrote on his blog at the time, he feels the Finn should have been given a one-race ban for his actions.
“What he did was no worse than what Romain Grosjean did at Spa-Francorchamps the year before. He kept his foot in when he shouldn’t have done when off track came on, caused a massive accident. It’s a miracle no one was hurt,” Buxton fumed.
“The FIA’s handling of the Grosjean crash had set a very dangerous precedent because it cited that the reason he was given a one-race ban was because he’d taken out people fighting for the World Championship. That puts a value judgment on the worth of a driver and that is incredibly dangerous.”
“[GP2 driver] Sergio Canamasas should have been parked after his Monza crash, where he used his car as a battering ram. He did that numerous times last year.
“The FIA is too reluctant to hand down harsh punishments but people are only going to sit up and take notice if they do. Penalty points aren’t going to do it. Fines aren’t going to do it. Grid penalties aren’t going to do it. If you want to make a driver sit up, you make him watch the race at home on his backside thinking, ‘Damn it, I wish I was there.’ It’s just weak, ineffective governance.
“These are the greatest drivers in the world. If you can’t make an example of them, then you’re actually doing your sport a disservice because then everybody else thinks they can drive like that, whether in go-karts or Formula 3 or whatever.”
The structural challenges within the sport and its governance aside, Buxton has also been a part of the biggest evolution of all: how the media landscape has changed, thanks particularly to social media and the growth of the online coverage.
“I got myself into trouble with bloggers a few years ago after referring to a few of them as ‘bedroom wankers’ in a tweet or article I wrote,” he said.
“There are a few very well-known F1 websites out there that never attend races and who take everything off the news wires or off pay TV, and then there are those of us who, as freelancers, have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of our own money to get here to do the job, to get the quotes, get the interviews. It’s disingenuous on the part of the journalist that claims that they are at a race when they’re not, and in fact they are just taking everything off the internet. But that’s the nature of the beast now, unfortunately, because as soon as it does hit the web, it’s everyone’s property.
“These are websites that are taking sponsors, taking the money. They’re making a profit out of this, but they’re not putting that money back in. I didn’t have two pennies to scratch together in 2004 because I put every cent into doing it properly and being on the ground and being here.”
The other major challenge that the world of journalism – and this is not endemic to Formula 1 – needs to face is that anyone can be ‘a journalist’ with a smart phone and social media access.
Buxton agrees: “Twitter obviously has been huge and has led to the kind of the immediacy of information. The landscape has changed tremendously.
“As an example, the one thing I saw in Japan with Jules Bianchi’s accident was that people had to be first. They had to be first with the information, and a lot of it was wrong.
“This hunt for immediacy can actually be damaging. In the pursuit of being first, the pursuit of being right – which is why we’re here in the first place – was overlooked.”
It’s been a whirlwind journey so far for Will Buxton, and it’s one he reflects on every day he sets foot at a race track, picks up the microphone and dons his headphones.
What advice would he give to the next 13-year-old who reads a copy of Motor Sport or Autosport and has that seminal moment that they want to follow in his footsteps?
“If you want something badly enough and you work hard enough for it, it’ll happen. I’ve been incredibly lucky and I know that. And I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had everyday. And I never lose sight of the fact I’m amazingly lucky to do this job. And I think the second that it was to ever become blasé or that I was to grow tired and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ that would be the moment I’d walk away because there are a million people out there who would kill to stand in my shoes.
“Never lose the passion, never lose the fever. Some people out there see what I do on TV and they think it’s all fake and they think I’m just this annoying bouncy idiot who’s putting it all on.
“But I’m not. Because every time I walk through that gate, I feel like I’m 13 again and I’m living the dream I had from that age, because I am. Never lose that. Never lose the childlike wonder and enthusiasm – that’s what has kept me going.”
Images via Will Buxton and XPB Images