Today represents a special 30th anniversary for me, as what happened on Wednesday June 12th 1985 proved to be the catalyst for my career as a motor sporting journalist. It was around lunchtime on that day that I arrived at Le Mans railway station after an overnight trip from London. I caught a bus to the to the circuit, talked my way into the paddock without any kind of pass, and from there things escalated pretty quickly…
I find it hard to believe that 30 years have passed since that magical trip to Le Mans. The scary thing is that counting back from 1985 by the same number, you get to 1955 – a race that for me could have taken place a hundred years ago, so remote does it seem.
But let’s go to the start of my story. At the time I had recently turned 20, and I’d just come to the end of the first year of my university business studies degree. A devoted racing enthusiast, and obsessive reader of Autosport since I was 10, I was desperate to find a summer job in the sport. I guess at the back of my mind I had dreams of being a journalist – I’d mentioned the idea to a bemused school careers specialist when I was 15 or so – but it seemed about as achievable as joining NASA and heading into space.
But anything would do, and with my future business studies qualification in mind I wrote to the three F1 teams based within easy reach of my south London home, namely McLaren, Tyrrell and FORCE/Haas. Inevitably they all wrote back saying they had no temporary opportunities, although the letter from Ron Dennis at least said I should try again when I graduated.
I subsequently explored a few other avenues, including working at Brands Hatch – I’ll never forget the steely glare of the dragon lady on the circuit’s reception desk, who had no interest whatsoever in helping me. Then I came up with the idea of approaching Barry Bland, well known then as now as organiser of the Macau GP. I showed up one day at his London office. He couldn’t help, but referred me instead to someone who shared his premises, and who might need a helping hand.
That man was Chris Parsons, familiar more recently as a Le Mans pundit on Eurosport, but then a marketing man and racing enthusiast who had just set up OSCAR – the ‘Organisation for Sportscar Racing,’ a fledgling sort of FOCA for the then expanding FIA World Endurance Championship. To my surprise he suggested that he might indeed need some assistance at the upcoming Le Mans 24 Hours, so I eagerly offered my services, and began planning my trip.
Nearer the time when I rang up to confirm details Chris said the opportunity was no longer there. I told him I was by now committed to coming, and to placate me he said he would ask his pal Roy Baker – entrant of two Tiga Group C2 cars – if he could do with a spare pair of hands. That was all the incentive I needed. I just wanted a chance.
Thus sometime late on Tuesday June 11th I set off by train from London Victoria to Dover, having finished my last end of term exam earlier that day. I can’t remember much about the journey, but I got a ferry to Calais, followed by a train to Paris Gare de Nord. A trip on the metro took me to Gare Montparnasse, from where I took the train to Le Mans. On arrival I bought a postcard from a little tabac to send to my parents – in those pre-mobile and email days I wanted to let them know that I had made it. That postcard now sits in my office.
“I have just got off the train at Le Mans and I’m about to get a bus to the circuit,” I wrote. “Journey was okay. Weather is cool. I still don’t know if I can get in or not!” Not exactly a good calling card for a would be journalist, but I guess I included all the relevant facts…
After a long trek from where the bus dropped me I told the guys on the various gates I passed through that I worked for Roy Baker Racing, and my team pass was in the paddock. Anyway, I eventually made it to the inner sanctum.
And then for reasons I can’t recall instead of seeking out Roy and the team I was ostensibly going to work for, I looked for Chris Parsons, who was using a little caravan as base camp for OSCAR. I don’t know whether he’d forgotten that he’d changed his mind, or was just impressed that I’d actually shown up. But all of a sudden the (unpaid) OSCAR job was back on. I never did work for the late Roy Baker, but he was to become a good friend over the years.
OSCAR was running a sort of official news service for the championship, and my job was to run around and gather information for Mark Cole, the journalist who was actually writing the press releases. I would then distribute them around the paddock and media centre, and run other errands, like taking messages to team bosses.
From somewhere Chris managed to produce an ACO press pass – technically that weekend I was accredited by Mosport Park, venue of an upcoming WEC race! Meanwhile when it dawned on him that I had nowhere to stay – it never occurred to me that I might need to sort something out – he agreed to let me crash out in the official OSCAR caravan, on the basis that I was out of the way when it was needed as an office in the mornings.
So there I was, suddenly at the centre of the action at one of the biggest races in the world, dashing around the paddock, the pit lane and through the alleyways in the back of the old pit complex, still exactly as it was in the Steve McQueen movie. It was a dream come true. That weekend I met team bosses, drivers and journalists, and one of those encounters was to change my life.
Up in the old press tribune opposite the pits I bumped into Quentin Spurring. Known to everyone as Q, he was then the editor of Autosport, as well as its WEC correspondent. But to me, steeped in the magazine since I was a wee lad, he might as well have been God.
I told him what I was up to, and handed him a copy of that day’s OSCAR press release. And then out of my back pocket I produced a tatty copy of the rather amateurish CV that I had typed up before I left home, just in case it came in useful. There wasn’t really much on it, as I hadn’t really done anything up to then except study, so it didn’t take long for Q to scan it.
“You went to Dulwich College?,” he said quizzically. “Yes. And you went to Whitgift in Croydon,” I replied. He looked a little surprised, but impressed. I’d done my homework. Many times I had scanned the potted biographies of racing journalists in a handy reference book called the ‘Motor Racing Directory,’ looking for clues on how they had started their careers. And for some reason that little detail of Q’s education had stuck in my mind. I guess I caught his attention!
Anyway, the weekend came to an end all too soon, and on the Monday morning a guy I’d met from Canon cameras gave me a lift to Paris. He dropped me at his office, and I did the tourist bit at the Pompidou Centre before heading off to Calais and getting my ferry back to Dover, and finally a train to London.
That could have been the end of my motor racing adventure. But I badgered Chris Parsons by phone, and he said if I could get myself to the next WEC race in Hockenheim, I could help out there too. Not convinced about German public transport, I decided to try and get a lift instead. So I rang C2 team Spice Engineering and arranged to meet their motorhome at Dover a few days before the race.
I was standing at the gate of the ferry terminal at 11am on the Wednesday morning or whatever it was, and sure enough the aforementioned team vehicle came into view at the agreed time. I was on my way to Hockenheim – and it was free! Team boss Jeff Hazell was a bit surprised when he realised that I was also planning to sleep in the motorhome, but I managed to convince him…
I met Q again that weekend, and bothered the poor man with another sales pitch. Then the week after that came the British GP. A contact from Le Mans had put me in touch with someone involved in running the Silverstone media centre, and I landed myself my first F1 press pass and spent the weekend doing whatever odd jobs were required, and as usual, without payment.
Q showed up once again, and this time I surprised him by handing over a copy of report of the Hockenheim WEC race which I had written, just to see if I could do it. By now he must have thought I was his stalker…
But my persistence paid off, and a couple of days later the phone rang at my parents’ house. It was Q. Somebody at Autosport was going away on their summer holiday for a couple of weeks, and would I be interested in coming in and helping out at £2.50 an hour? There was no guarantee that I would last beyond the first day, but I didn’t need to think it over. I had a foot in the door…
So it was that on Monday July 29th 1985 I headed to Autosport’s ‘satellite’ base at its typesetters in an old industrial building near London’s Old Street station. Following the instructions I’d been given I climbed the stairs to the top floor, and I eventually found a dreary, barely furnished office. It served as home for the junior members of the magazine’s editorial team until the early hours on every Monday and Tuesday, when that week’s issue was being put to bed. The only things in the room were some tables and a collection of huge, manual typewriters. Scattered around were pages of that week’s magazine, in various stages of completion.
My three new colleagues were already there, working away. Their names, I was to find out, were Bruce Jones, Tony Dodgins, and Joe Saward. They acknowledged this wide-eyed interloper with an air of curiosity – who was this kid, and why had their usually sane boss Q given him a chance to join their profession?
I suspect that thirty years later all three are still trying to work it out…