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February and October are probably my two favourite months of the racing year. February I like because generally speaking I know my plans for the year, I don’t have the pangs of anxiety (like I do every January) that no-one will be in touch. October likewise is great, there are always lots of fun meetings and the season is winding down nicely.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the rest of the year, it’s more that I have worked every single day of June for the last three years (this year will be no different) and big events flash by in a blur. The mid-season months are often such a rush of activity that sometimes it can be hard to sit back and enjoy them.
So, here we are in February and time to think about what I’m looking forward to this season and what I’m not. Now this isn’t a time to talk about how excited I am about a specific championship, but rather some of the quirks of spending on the summer on the road.
What I’m looking forward to:
Big events at Brands Hatch – being my home track I love working at Brands, and nothing quite beats rolling out of bed on a big race day (at a relatively humane time), the 45 minute drive to the track with the adrenaline beginning to flow, then sitting in the commentary box watching the crowd arrive
Saturday Edition – probably my favourite show on Radio 5 Live, always a good listen on the way home from Oulton Park
Holiday Inn Carrow Road – a mega hotel for Snetterton weekends, large rooms, good restaurant, abundant parking & it overlooks the pitch
Movie time flying to the GT Open – ‘Me’ time is generally pretty low during the race season anyway (try coming home on a Sunday night having not seen Mrs E for the weekend and switching on the TV – it’s life limiting) and now that I’m a new Dad its non-existent. My three hours on the plane en-route to GT Open rounds are a great opportunity to catch up with a DVD or two
The last three miles to a track – Nothing quite beats the feeling arriving at a track ahead of a day’s work. Once I’m off the motorway, the volume goes up on the stereo and I start to get ready to go.
Great Racing – Ok, boring, but the best thing about this job is that occasionally you get to watch, and talk about, races that take your breath away.
What I’m not looking forward to:
Long Delays & Safety Cars – really, it is not much fun talking to an empty track for 45 minutes while an oil spill is cleaned up
The A11 at Thetford – it’s been a good weekend at Snetterton, some great racing, time to go home. Or at least it is until the A11 goes down to one lane at Thetford. Even if the world’s most endangered species only surviving habitat was that stretch of woods, I’d still cut them down to make a dual carriageway. The same also goes for the southbound M40 at 6:30 on a Sunday night
Robbie Savage – After a day’s racing I don’t want music and I don’t want silence, so the radio it is. Nothing quite takes the edge of a good day’s commentating like Robbie Savage’s moronic muttering’s on 606.
Average Speed Limits on Motorways – Twenty miles of 50mph with nobody working at 7 on a Sunday morning, when I’m the only car on the road – great
Late night drives – Commentating whether at the track or a voice over gets the adrenaline going, however once that fades a long, late drive home is utter purgatory. A particular favourite is junction closures meaning a nice long midnight detour.
M&S Simply Food – Yes M&S sandwiches are tasty, the fruit salads fresh, but after six weekends in a row of M&S lunches (hastily purchased at 6am on the way to Oulton Park) can get somewhat tedious. Most years it takes me about two months before I can face M&S again, this time around I still haven’t recovered from last season.
Saturday’s horrific events at White Hart Lane brought back some unpleasant memories from some of the darker moments of commentary career.
Along with all UK sports fans I am hoping that Fabrice Muamba continues to improve and my best wishes are with his friends and family. Likewise I cannot praise the medical team attending on Saturday enough. Being married to a doctor I know just how important prompt and expert medical care is in cases like this and speed of attention almost certainly saved Muamba’s life and has given him the best possible chance to make a recovery.
Channel hopping between the 6 Nations and ESPN, I happened to join ESPN in the immediate aftermath with the presenting team being placed into the most difficult of broadcasting positions. I thought the whole team did an excellent job, remaining hopeful, whilst never flinching from the severity of the situation. Jon Champion has been criticised by some for some of his more direct remarks, but I have two comments on this. Firstly, there was a rare honesty to ESPN’s coverage, this was a life threatening incident and no attempt was made to present this as anything else. Secondly incidents such as this are incredibly rare for a sports commentator, especially in a sport where intense physical contact and high speed incidents are not part and parcel of the sport.
Finding the right words for incidents such as this is unquestionably the hardest part of the job for any broadcaster. After all it is one thing to add a commentary after the event or where such an incident could be anticipated (as in a news report) but quite another to do it on the spot when the plan for the afternoon was to cover a sporting event.
The ESPN team had my whole sympathy because I have had the misfortune to be part of the commentary team at an event where a fatal accident has happened. Likewise I have commentated on several incidents where there have been serious injuries and concern for the driver involved. Danger and risk have always been one of the core attractions of motor sport for competitors and spectators alike, and whilst there remain a number of incidents at any given race meeting advances in safety standards mean that these are generally of a rough and tumble nature with serious injuries the exception rather than the rule.
I will never forget the day at Thruxton when Jeff Leadley was killed racing in the GT Cup. I fortunately did not see the incident, I was in the pitlane with Ian Titchmarsh providing the main commentary. As on Saturday, medical attention of the highest quality was on the scene immediately and all the officials of the meeting performed impeccably. Tragically in this instance there was little that could be done. After a four hour delay where we periodically kept the crowd informed of events the meeting resumed for a handful of further races. Finding the right words and tone was amongst the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
A more personally disturbing incident was Chris van der Drift’s accident at Brands Hatch in 2010. In the event Chris escaped with comparatively minor injuries following a monumental accident coming down Pilgrims Drop. Again I was covering the pitlane, and as a result had interviewed Chris moments earlier on the grid, which made the image of his destroyed car in a garage monitor all the more shocking. The following hour was incredibly difficult. Ian Titchmarsh and myself were continuing to broadcast whilst also trying to find out information about Chris’s condition and when the action would get back underway.
I have also being doing the lead commentary on two occasions where there have been massive accidents and again the outcome was likely to be unclear.
The first of these was my second ever live TV broadcast of the World Series by Renault for Setanta in 2008. Fighting for the lead in Barcelona Marco Bonanomi did a backflip into the scoreboard on the main straight following a brush of wheels with another car. Agonisingly Marco’s head was slumped for several seconds after the car came to a halt, having initially landed upside down. For what seemed an eternity, although really only 10 seconds, I tried to fill time whilst waiting to see if he’d walk away. Fortunately Marco escaped without a scratch and joined me in the commentary box the following day.
The other occasion was Robert Wolk’s multiple cartwheel into Paddock Hill Bend in the 2010 Formula Ford Festival. Such was the magnitude of the accident that it seemed almost impossible that he would walk away. Again, it was a great relief when he walked away, but not after several moments of anxiety and time filling.
For myself, and I’m sure many other commentators, providing coverage for the sports we love is the next best thing to competing, but as Saturday proved, there are times when the fun stops and our passion becomes something altogether less enjoyable.