How I Got Here with Steve Matchett

Steve Matchett is now an analyst for FOX Sports’ coverage of Formula E. He’s seen here doing this interview during the recent NYC ePrix in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of FOX Sports)

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up next: Steve Matchett, an esteemed racing TV commentator who is also a well-known author and former championship-winning mechanic in F1. Though this interview is strongly recommended as a podcast, it is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.

Being relatively late to the racing world, I’ve only known you as a broadcaster, but you were a mechanic in Formula One. Was racing and working on cars the goal for you? Was that your boyhood dream?

No, it was most certainly not. I grew up in the middle of central England — not very far away from the Donington (Park) racetrack. So we had a racetrack that was very close to us, but my family had no involvement or interest in racing or all. And I never went to a motor race for many years.

What got me involved in the automotive industry was a school friend of mine. We were both trying to decide what we would do when we left school. Back in England in the 1970s — it seems strange now in comparison to the United States — but college and university were foreign words to us. We had no introduction to university at all. It was not long after the end of the second World War — ’70, ’75 — and the comprehensive school education in England at that time was all pushing people toward the trades. You were going to be a plumber or a mason or something to do with electronics. Or you would end up in the automotive industry. It was just a very different time. You could tell the whole push of the government was to get people working again.

So a friend of mine had an interest in cars and mechanics. And he had one of the original Austin Minis, one of the late-50s Minis. One day he said, “If you want to come down to the house, I’m going to be working on the car. Come see what it’s all about.” And that kind of caught my interest. But before then, it was a completely foreign subject to me.

I became an indentured apprentice. I looked around for opportunities to be a mechanic, because I wasn’t really sure what to do. You’re young, you’re 16, you’re not really sure what the world is all about, right? So this was a profession. It was something to do.

We were very fortunate nearby the down I grew up to have a Ferrari dealer. There were about three in the country at the time — one in the north, one in the south and one in the heart of the industrial midlands, which is where I was. It was called Graypaul Motors, which has now become a very prestigious Ferrari dealership.

I used to work at a little Mazda dealership literally just down the road from the Ferrari dealer, and enjoyed the work as an apprentice mechanic very well. To remove ego out of it, I was actually very good at it. The theory side of it and the practical side of it gelled with me very easily. All of the sudden, I thought, “You know, I kind of get this.” In a way, it was like most things in life — I’m really self-taught in most things, even being an indentured apprentice. To get to grips with the theoretical side, I would just take more time than some of the others. I just enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed the study side as much as the practical side.

Anyway, to go back full circle, there was the Ferrari dealer and I applied and applied and applied to them, and eventually I think they just got bored with me and gave me the opportunity. So I started working on Ferrari.

How old were you around this time?

About 26. I’d been around for awhile and I’d worked for a BMW dealer as well, but it was really Ferrari that caught my attention. I just loved the idea of those V-12s, those European exotic cars. As a young kid, it was obviously very appealing — and as a mechanic, even moreso.

It’s like Aladdin’s Cave. You go inside a Ferrari dealer and Ferrari owners have no shortage of cash. You can keep working on their cars and they seem quite happy with the bill at the end of it. Because back in those days in the 80s by that time, the car had increased more in value than the money we’d spent on the servicing end of it. So it was kind of a win-win situation.

I became very interested in doing restoration work on Ferrari and service work on Ferrari, and I cut my teeth on 308s, the carburetor cars and the injected cars and the 328s that came after that. The Testarossas, the flat-12 boxes. To take an engine out of a Testarossa — just to change the cam belts — was a fairly surreal experience, but it was all part of the servicing program.

So that got me involved in automotive engineering. And of course, from there you can see the connection to F1 — Ferrari’s F1 team. I knew I was never going to join Scuderia Ferrari’s F1 team. But that got me interested in Formula One. And then I just started applying to teams until one of them gave me a position — which was Benetton.

So you’re sitting at the dealership and thinking, “I’m pretty good at this and could potentially work on race cars.” It was just a matter of someone giving you a chance at that point?

I’ve always been a big believer in if you’re sensible, practical and have common sense — which a surprising number of people do not, as videos on the internet are a testament to — and you have a desire to do something, I’m a firm believer all of us are capable of doing whatever we want to do in life. I really do believe that.

So I was never afraid of undertaking bigger and bigger challenges at the Ferrari dealer. Whenever the next rebuild came around, I would volunteer to do it. I don’t mean that to sound egotistical, I was just keen to do it.

I had the same thought about Formula One. I had no race experience, but by this time I understood how engineering worked, how cars are put together. And it just seemed to me you’re always looking for the next step in life. And having reached Ferrari in the road car world, it was “Where do you go next?” Then you’re just taking sideways steps or you put the wrenches down and move into the managerial side of it, and that didn’t really appeal to me.

But working on F1 cars did appeal, and it comes with the added attraction of world travel — which is all very glamorous when you’re a young man. So what was wrong with that? Nothing.

I applied to every team that was English-based — which was pretty much all of them.

Just sending resumes out?

Just sending them out. I just laid it out that I’ve not had any racing experience but I’m very keen on working with Ferrari. I’ve had transfer gearbox experience, which was just breaking into the world of F1 back then. And to cut a long story short, Lotus offered me a position — which I turned down because Benetton offered me a position. I just looked at those two companies. Lotus are a huge name, obviously a very worldwide famous name in motorsport. But I just got the impression Lotus were on the wane and starting to go down, and it looked to me like Benetton were just starting to come up. I thought it would be more of an exciting chance to see something grow.

So Nigel Stepney, who was the chief mechanic at Benetton, took me on as a position of working on gearboxes in the sub-assembly department.

So you get hired there and get your foot in the door. At that point, was it a matter of proving yourself to get more responsibility?

To a degree, it was. But like I said, I’m always prepared to try something new. Carbon brakes were just getting started in Formula One. They were really ramping up; all the teams were seeing the performance advantage of having these very lightweight brakes on the car. Carbon brakes were not just about the brake efficiency, they were also light. So when you’re dealing with unsprung weights, there’s a great advantage to that.

The technical problem with the brakes was at that time, they tended to crack. Very small fissures would start to appear down the material. You had to keep your eye on them. They were terrific, but if you didn’t watch them, they would eventually lead to a brake failure.

Nigel, as chief mechanic, was looking after the carbon brakes as well as all his other responsibilities. He was finding it just too much. He wanted to have somebody from the factory take that over from him and look after the carbon brakes on the race team.

Well,  you could look at that in one sense and say, “This is a pretty minor position on the race team. It’s looking after the brakes. How exciting is that?” But for me, I figured this is a way to get onto the race team! It’s the next step. And the guys I was working with were adamant they didn’t want to be working with brakes — they wanted to be gearbox mechanics.

Nigel asked everybody else of seniority over me whether they wanted this position, and everyone turned it down. I put my hand up and said, “I’ll have a go of it, Nigel. Nobody else is going to do it. I’ll help you.” And I think Nigel really liked that. He liked the idea I was prepared to have a go, even if it was looked upon as somewhat of a menial position on the team. He liked I was prepared to try it. So instantly, I went from being factory-based in England to joining him on the race team.

And I went around the world. I looked after the brakes, and I had a few cross words with engineers who were insistent the brakes were OK when they were clearly not OK. Nigel was impressed by the face I wasn’t going to be trampled underfoot by their seniority, and he appreciated the work I did for him in that first year, in 1990. At the end of 1990, they were looking for a race team mechanic on one of the cars, and Nigel offered it to me. So it was just step after step after step. Great, good luck and good fortune. Most of my career has been based on that — accidental good luck. So now I was working on one of the cars.

So it was just four years later that you won the Constructors Championship?

We won that in ’95. And we won our first Drivers Championship with Michael (Schumacher) in ’94. We really should have had the Constructors in ’94 as well, but that’s a whole other podcast for you.

So yes. It was hard work, but I loved it. I loved the teamwork. I loved the idea of being part of something bigger than oneself. Working with the guys, working with the team, traveling with the team under pressure and the all-night work — yes, it’s exhausting, but you realize you’re working toward something bigger. I enjoyed all of that.

But at the same time, I was already looking toward the next step within myself. I’ve always been a big fan of literature. I’ve always been a big reader. And I always wanted to write. But as we just touched on at the start of our interview, with the lack of comprehensive education and not being pushed toward a university, nobody was giving me any encouragement to pick up thy pen and write. It just wasn’t going to happen. But I still enjoyed doing it.

I was writing little diary entries and stories. I was keen to keep writing, keep reading. Working on the race team, it was an epiphany: Nobody is writing about what’s happening within the teams. All the books in motorsport and F1 are about the drivers. Nothing wrong with that — journalists write about what they have access to, and journalists have access to the drivers and the drivers are the heroes of the sport.

But I thought there was an unexplored niche about what was happening behind closed doors. Who was the chief mechanic? Who are the mechanics? What do they do on a daily basis? So in ’94, while we were fighting tooth and nail with Williams for the Drivers Championship, I write my first book — Life in the Fast Lane. I have no idea how I had time to do it now, looking back at it. I was exhausted to begin with. I’d write this book from midnight until 3:30 in the morning and grab a couple hours of sleep. But when you’re a young man, it’s a whole different thing, right?

I managed to get a publisher and got the book published. And then I moved onto the next stage.

Cover art from Steve Matchett’s first book, via the book’s Amazon page.

What year did you leave the race team?

It was ’98.

And at that point, you figured you were going to be a writer and that was going to be your life?

Yes. That’s pretty much exactly how it was. I was enjoying myself on the race team, but I also realized this was a young man’s profession. I realized there were two options: Make Formula One work for you, or Formula One will eventually kill you. It’ll force you out of the industry out of exhaustion and fatigue. I didn’t want to be around forever doing Formula One. And we’d won the Constructors Championship. What do you do after winning the Constructors Championship? Sure, you can go for two or three or try and eventually beat Ferrari’s 16. But that’s an entire lifetime spent in the pit lane.

I very much enjoyed writing. My first book was published, and I was being offered more and more magazine work through Autosport, F1 Racing, On Track in the states. So I made the decision to quit Formula One — retire — and try to make a career as a freelance writer. I really wanted to be an author, but I knew when it came to paying the bills, magazine work pays infinitely better than writing books — unless you happen to be J.K. Rowling.

So I looked around and pondered what I should do. I realized England was too expensive to go from a steady salary to nothing. But France, at the time, was much more economical in terms of housing. So I did the Peter Mayle thing — which was the classic romantic image of going to France — and bought a rundown farm. It hadn’t been lived in for 40 years and had no running water, no electricity, no drainage — it was effectively a barn. And I started restoring the house. I had bought it for next to nothing. Even the locals in the little village didn’t it, because they thought it was too far gone. When I arrived as a stranger in this village, they looked at me like I was from another planet. I would spend all day banging away at this house — trying to repair the roof, trying to repair the walls, trying to install rudimentary plumbing, rudimentary electrics. And at the same time, I was writing magazine articles and working on my next book — The Mechanic’s Tale.

So once you were writing for awhile, how did the opportunity to be on TV come about? Did you ever picture yourself as someone who would be on TV?

No. Absolutely not. It was never in my future to work in television. My future, in my own mind, was to finish the restoration on the house, finish Book 2 — The Mechanic’s Tale — and then hopefully work on Book 3 and Book 4 and Book 5 while staying in France. It was a very remote corner of France, between Cognac and Bordeaux — so it had obvious appeals to be there. Cognac is famous for one thing and Bordeaux is only famous for wine. Beautiful country, but very remote and quiet. But for me, I loved all that. My childhood was spent in a very quiet little English village, so that sort of isolation was always appealing to me. I always had a very romantic idea of France — the wine and the cheese and the sun and the relaxed life — so I was living that.

It was a very sort of hand-to-mouth existence; there wasn’t an awful lot of surplus (with money). I can remember selling a magazine article and being so thrilled, I went out and bought some wood for the fire! It was that sort of existence. But it was fun.

So how did I get into TV? Mr. Frank Wilson, who was at the time working for Speed Vision, he managed to get ahold of my email address from On Track magazine. He was stuck for an announcer in 2000 for the Canadian Grand Prix. David Hobbs and Sam Posey were going to be in Le Mans, and that left Bob Varsha on his own in the booth. So Frank Wilson, who was a producer of the Formula One coverage in the States, was scratching his head and thinking, “What are we going to do about this?” He’d read my first two books and some magazine work I’d done. And he said, “You know, Steve offers a different perspective. We’ve never seen this side of the sport covered like this before.” Typically, motorsport announcers are former drivers. It’d been like that seemingly forever. But there’d never been anyone who said, “Well, the cars are built this way for this reason” and “Look what’s happening now on the pit stop” and “That’s a bad pit stop because this happened.” That kind of got glossed over.

So one dark and stormy night in the middle of nowhere in France, I was tapping away on the laptop and an email pinged onto my screen from Frank — who I didn’t know at all.

Wow! Just out of the blue?

I thought it was a joke. I thought it was some old friend from Benetton winding me up. But Frank said, “Hey, we’re stuck for an announcer. Would you mind flying over? Would you consider helping us out for one race?” And as we’ve touched on several times now, I’m not afraid to try something new. So I said, “Sure. What’s the worst that’s going to happen?” If they didn’t want to offer me any more work, I’d go back to France. So that was it. I went over and helped them out for that one race — and here we are 20 years later, having a chat.

Steve Matchett, right, was part of SPEED’s great F1 broadcast team along with David Hobbs (left) and Bob Varsha. (Courtesy FOX Sports)

That’s remarkable. But you had to Charlotte from France at some point to do this. Was it tough to give up that lifestyle?

That first race I did was from their Stamford (Conn.) studios. But I was still living in France. So every race, I would fly across the Atlantic — commuting. That soon became a long and tiresome commute. Because thinking back a bit now, it wasn’t just the length of the flight — which was six or eight hours. But from door to door, from leaving the hotel in Stamford to opening the door of my old farmhouse in France, was 23.5 hours. Because I was in the middle of nowhere, so it wasn’t just a matter of catching the flight to London or Paris and commuting down. I’d disembark in the north of Paris, catch the Metro through Paris to get to the south of Paris at Montparnasse train station, wait four hours for the next TGV — the next fast train — to take me down toward Bordeaux. (Laughs) If I knew I was going to be working in TV, I would never have moved to this remote part of France. But life doesn’t work that way, you know?

So after a period of years, Speed Vision was acquired by FOX and FOX wanted to relocate everyone down to Charlotte for the NASCAR connection. I spent the next 12 years or so working down in Charlotte. At one point, I said, “Enough. I’m going to buy some property over here.” So I had to sell the property in France.

It was a tough time to do it, but there comes a point where you just know life is leading you somewhere else. You come to a series of crossroads in life, and it’s “Do you turn left or right?” And I’m very happy I do live in the States. I love the life here. I certainly miss the life in France, but I love the life here and Charlotte is a great place to live. It’s getting busier all the time and more and more people are moving in. There was a time when there were no road jams, but Charlotte is getting very busy.

You mentioned you’re someone who has constantly challenged yourself. Is there a next thing at this point, or is life good and you’re enjoying doing this?

Well, life is good. But I’m getting older; I’m 56 now and beginning to slow down. I enjoyed working with FOX and Speed Vision and I very much enjoyed the five years I was covering Formula One with NBC. If the deal with NBC hadn’t have expired and gone to ESPN, I’d probably still be working with NBC covering Formula One now.

But that’s come to its natural end. And as soon as it did come to an end, Frank Wilson was on the phone to me saying let’s go out for a beer. He said, “We’ve got this interesting new thing we’re doing — Formula E. Come have a look at it.” Hence here we are today. And I like this. I like what I see from Formula E. I still enjoy the technical aspects of the cars as much as the racing. As long as the guys are happy for me to indulge my passion of looking around cars and speaking to a camera and telling that story, I’m happy to do it.

But at the same time, I continue to write. I’ve just written Book No. 4, which is a selection of short stories called These Desired Things. It’s the first deliberate move away from motorsport writing. I feel that side of my life is beginning to come to a close; it’s a natural phase. I’m not upset by it. It’s just the way life works.

I’ve also been doing audiobook recordings of the earlier works as well — and I love doing audiobook narration. I like that work very much. I’ve just recorded The Mechanic’s Tale with Tantor Media up in Old Saybrook, Conn. Had a blast of a time doing that with the guys up there and they seemed very happy with the finished product. We had a chat and I said, “Hey, if anything else comes up where you need a guy with an English accent, I’d be more than happy to consider doing more audiobook narration.”

So when you ask me what does the future hold, I think that’s where it’s going. I still like to be around motorsport and I’m more than happy to help Frank Wilson out — Frank has been a huge inspiration and help to me over the years. I adore writing, so I’ll still continue to do that. And the audiobook narration work, if that continues, I’d be a very happy man.

Social Spotlight with Formula One’s Frank Arthofer

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to share their thoughts on social media. This week: Frank Arthofer, the global head of digital and new business for Formula One.

I noticed you came on board in June. As you get started here, what are some of the immediate challenges that you want to tackle, and what do you see as something you want to steer toward improvement?

As you know, and as our fans most importantly know, we’re not really engaged in making a big investment in the digital space to serve fans. I think our platform is a little bit dated in terms of and the F1 app. We have a team of — you wouldn’t believe it — less than five who are running all the content on our website and our app. We hasn’t participated in the fantasy gaming space at all.

So there is I think a lot of opportunity to deliver an experience to fans that makes us a core part of the way they interact with this sport and the digital space. That certainly exists on our own platforms, and even moreso probably on the social media space. So to me, that’s probably the biggest opportunity: Just investing to drive engagement and ensuring that when fans wake up every morning and Formula One is an important part of their life, that we’re a part of that life and we’re making it better.

So you come in and see these areas of need. Where do you even start? You don’t have huge staff and you don’t have all these things. What do you decide to tackle first?

I guess you sort of start with what your North Star is, which is I guess a strategy question. I’ve spent a dozen years in media tech, sports and entertainment, and for me, it’s going and looking at the big governing bodies who do this really well — the NBA is a great example — and kind of understanding what it is that makes them great.

Do they act as a media company and try to cover the sport somewhat independently as an example? Are they invested deeply in the platform and the technology side of the house to ensure that they’re personalizing and experience to fans, serving up the right content at the right time to the right people? So that’s kind of where we started. What are the people who do this best doing, and what are the common elements that we want to try and take and make exist in the Formula One world?

People in the F1 world, from what I understand, have gotten used to doing things a certain way for a long time. Did you meet any sort of resistance when you want to change this, or say “I’d like to do this, we want to improve this?”

Yes and no. I would say that all the incumbent staff who are in place in Formula One, almost to a man and woman has embraced changed in a material way. So internally, I think there has been very little resistance to it and, in fact, most of our best people have been waiting for this moment.

I think the challenge is in changing perceptions outside of Formula One, our relationship with teams and drivers. I think we’re slowly but surely working to build a more collaborative one. I think certain sponsors, probably in the old world of Formula One, wouldn’t have been interested in participating in the sport given some of the challenges in terms of the way it was operated. I think now it’s sort of moved to where actually we can be leading.

The brand is really strong and improving; we’re one of the most technologically sophisticated sports in the world, which really helps us given the way the market’s moving. So I think it’s more about the external educating process. And the most important of those constituents are the fans, and they too are rightly a little skeptical when we say, “Hey, we’re gonna invest in a big way in making great digital content.” Because we haven’t really done that for them at the league level — teams more so (have invested) than we have in some cases — for decades. But I think we’re cracking away at that foundation across the board.

In the NASCAR world, it seems like people are fans of certain drivers, but overall they’re fans of the sport. I don’t know how that compares to F1, but how do you present content to your audience with that in mind?

I think we’ve done a really good job building our foundations of being fun, being interesting, providing fans unique access on social. But I do think there are two things that make our sport unique and are both an opportunity and a challenge.

The first is the global nature. After the NBA, we have the second most fans of any annual global sporting event in the world. And if you take the U.S. out, we’re bigger than the NBA. So if you look at it through that lens, that’s a great opportunity — but it also means you need to be relevant to different tastes, different cultures around the world. And I think that’s something that we need to start to bring a little bit more to the way that we program and develop and deliver content on social.

The second piece is we have largely a very unique and exclusive rights position, particularly as it relates to what happens on the track, and we work closely with our broadcast partners to ensure that they have de facto exclusivity aside from us in most markets. I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of taking advantage of that, frankly — that opportunity that exists from a video rights perspective. If we’re the only place aside from broadcast partners in the market where you can go and get great data around the race that’s live or get the official highlight at the end of the race that’s immediately available — which we are — I think that’s a really great unique selling proposition for fans. It’s a reason for us to be a part of their daily or weekly cadence with the sport, and we haven’t really elevated that enough. So I think that’s probably the second opportunity or challenge that we’re faced with.

I read your bio and it seems like you’ve done a lot in the OTT space, which is “Over the Top” streaming content. How do you see that evolving for the future? All of our habits are changing so rapidly.

Well certainly it’s obviously disrupting the media business in a material way, no more so than here in the U.S. as we sit in the Austin Grand Prix in the Haas tent. But I think for us as a sports right holder, it probably more than anything presents an opportunity, right? There’s more competition in the market for rights, which is a good thing. I think there’s more ways to reach fans through the Internet, which is a good thing, particularly in markets where cable TV isn’t as mature. And I think it presents an opportunity for us to go direct to consumer and build a subscription service that for our hardest-core fans who will always be the most important to us, super-serves them, and deepens their experience in relationship to the sport and with Formula One. (Note: F1 is planning to launch a subscription streaming service.)

Where is this all going? Are we even going to be watching TV as we know it in 10 or 15 years from now?

We’re getting into a philosophical conversation about the future of TV now. How much time do you have? (Smiles) Yeah. People will continue to watch TV. I think it’s an impossible question to answer because it’s so broad, right? Video viewing time is going up, so the value of premium video content will, in my mind, continue to grow. The ways people watch it, the devices on which they watch it, the ability for advertisers to reach consumers in the way that they’ve always done is going to change.

If you take advertising as an example, you’re gonna see more and more branded content on TV. It’s become the ad sales “soup of the day” from a digital content perspective. There’s not any big RFPs (requests for proposals) in the market nowadays that don’t come with some kind of branded content element that’s editorially authentic to the fan but also integrates the brand in a way that makes sense. You’re going to see that on TV, it’s not always going to be 15-to-30-second TV spots for two minutes every 10 minutes. And that’s the break in the content.

So we’ll see that in other spaces for sure, but I think it’s all sort of rooted in the notion that if you offer a premier piece of content, people are going to care about it and continue to watch it. Technology is unlocking more ways to consume it rather than disrupting that in a material way.

Do you have a sense for what kind of content F1 fans like? And I’m asking this from a place of pure ignorance. Are F1 fans in general more into the technical aspects of it, where they love the telemetry and the data? Do they want driver interviews? What does well for you guys?

So not all fans are the same, obviously, and I think it depends on what platform you’re on. Social, by nature, is going to be a broader platform, and you need to appeal to a wider set of tastes. Then your own platforms are, by nature, going to be a slightly smaller group of people as you’re further down the funnel. And as you go even further, the subscription products, you’re even further down the funnel and you have an even smaller audience base.

So I think the hardest-core fans that are the least price sensitive who want to spend more time and money with Formula One are going to be the ones that understand every element of the sport deeply. They want the (NBA writer) Zach Lowe-style piece for Formula One — statistically driven, really data driven, almost like I’m in the strategy room making the decisions around the car and how it gets set up.

And on social, I think access … to some of the lighter elements of the sport. We like to say we take F1 seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. I think that’s probably a space that appeals to a broader range of people and can be kind of viral and shareable. That’s fun. We want to be fun on that platform and it’s required, because we’ve got 15 million followers on social versus a million or so that use our platforms on a weekly basis. It’s just a different group.

In the NASCAR world, the drivers have sort of been conditioned to play along with social and be really a big part of that. How willing are the F1 drivers to accommodate the requests you guys have if you have a pitch for them? Are they in that mode yet, or do they have more work to do to get there?

I would say at the moment, we don’t pitch to drivers directly because we try to build that relationship with teams. I will say that there are a lot of drivers who want to work directly with Formula One and sort of see the direction we’re taking in terms of investing in capabilities, investing creatively and editorially in this sport. And I think equally there are teams who support that, too, and kind of look at it as, “Hey, if F1 can help us grow this sport, that’s a good thing for everybody.” It’s not so much, “We have to grow the Red Bull team only,” or the Ferrari team only.

I guess the short answer is varying degrees. But I think most have kind of come around to the notion of social media presence, digital presence, direct relationships, interactions with fans. It’s pretty much net positive from everybody, from a commercial perspective, from a sport perspective and from a brand perspective — even if your brand is Daniel Ricciardo. So I don’t think there’s a lot of education to do; it’s more about finding the right operating model to work together on it.

I know the hot topic around here, or at least I’ve heard about it this weekend, is what F1 can do to get it more relevant in the United States. It seems like a long road, since motorsports in general is struggling at times in the United States, NASCAR included. Is there anything from a digital standpoint that you guys see that can help, or is it something that is going take time?

It’s funny, I was walking around Austin yesterday and I saw so many F1 shirts and hats. I heard people talking about it. I heard store owners commenting on how busy they were because F1 was in town. So it feels to me like Austin’s pretty healthy. I know that the sales have been incredible this week.

But yeah, obviously we’re not in the zeitgeist in the same way that other major sports are, and the same way that, frankly, we are in most other countries in the world. I think digital will help and the presence of OTT will help. I think our ESPN relationship will help, as that’s always been a great platform for growing sports. And I think in general, the presence of social media and the investment we’re making in that space, given how mature that is in the states, should help, too.

So I think it’s a lot of things. It’s not one silver bullet, it’s more like a collection of a lot of small initiatives that will hopefully lift this sport. I mean, it is the greatest racing spectacle in the world, so I think it’s more about getting fans to try and understand it than it is about really anything else. So we’ve gotta do a good job there.

What else do you want people to know about the efforts that you guys are doing that you just want to pull out there? Do you have a message to your fans?

Continue to give us feedback from a fan perspective. We look at Reddit every day and we see the fan forums, so it’s helpful to know how everybody feels about it. And then I should also plug the Susan G. Komen Foundation; obviously we’re going pink this week in Austin and it’s a really important initiative for us in Formula One, and it’s near and dear to my heart, actually. So those are the two big messages, I’d leave you with.

Formula One Diary: Weekend wrap-up

I followed the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the seventh in a series.

Here are some “cleaning out the notebook” type items after a fun weekend in Austin:

NASCAR-style intros

Prior to Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix, Michael Buffer announced the pre-race introductions and the drivers came out of a tunnel. If you’re a NASCAR fan reading this, you’re thinking, “So what?” After all, that’s pretty standard for NASCAR (even the Buffer part, since he shows up at the Bristol night race every year).

But it actually created a bit of a stir in F1, as evidenced by writers asking about the intros after the race.

To wit: Red Bull boss Christian Horner was questioned what he thought of all the pre-race “razzmatazz.”

“It’s America, isn’t it?” Horner said. “We’re under new ownership now. We have to be prepared to try new things. If that engages the American public, then why not? It didn’t detract from the race. It seemed to get the crowd excited prior to the grand prix.”

Still, Horner said that wouldn’t be a good idea before every race.

“I don’t think it would be everybody’s cup of tea,” he said. “I can’t see that working at Silverstone, for example.”

Lewis Hamilton liked the intros and said it felt like an NFL game. But then again, he loves all things America, so that might not count.

But Sebastian Vettel said those type of pre-race intros wouldn’t work elsewhere, like in his home country of Germany.

“I think Germans are very difficult to get excited,” he said. “I think Americans appreciate that sort of atmosphere and entertainment a lot more. I think Germans are maybe a little slower on that front.”

Give Haas a chance

You may have seen recently where Haas F1 Team owner Gene Haas said he wouldn’t stay in Formula One for long if he couldn’t win.

So I asked him on Sunday morning whether he really meant that or if he was just trying to send a signal to F1 that it needs to level the playing field a bit.

His answer? Pretty much the same thing he said before.

Realistically, if I don’t have a chance to win, what am I here for?” he said. “And I’m not saying I want to win every race, but I just want to have a chance maybe in one race out of 20 to have the opportunity to be competitive. And we don’t have that.

“If we don’t have a chance of winning here — under some strategy or randomness or whatever — then yeah, I don’t think I’m going to run in the back forever.

“I’m not here to have a five-year plan of staying in the back. If I don’t have a chance of winning once in awhile or at least being competitive, I don’t think it’s really what I’d call a fair race. You have to have that chance.”

Haas, like some of the other mid-pack team owners, is hoping to see Liberty Media (F1’s new owners) get some new rules in place to help make the sport more competitive overall.

Spending cap?

A possible spending limit has been discussed in the F1 world, just like it has in NASCAR (Richard Petty Motorsports owner Andrew Murstein recently proposed such an idea).

But I’ve always felt that wouldn’t work, because how would it be policed? You really think teams who try to find ways around every rule would be honest about what they’re spending?

However, Haas team principal Guenther Steiner told me Sunday morning there’s definitely a way it could be successful.

“There needs to be an outside accounting firm — one of the big ones — sitting in each team to control it,” he said. “I see it like this: The tax authorities know pretty well what we’re doing, so why would an outside firm not be able to do that? If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

He makes a good point.

NASCAR has the right idea

McLaren boss Zak Brown says NASCAR does a couple things (in addition to driver intros) that F1 could learn from.

First, he believes NASCAR does a good job getting the word out that a race is in town — something F1 doesn’t always do as an industry.

You go to the China Grand Prix, leave the circuit, you’re in Shanghai — you don’t know there’s a Formula One grand prix going on,” he said. “NASCAR does a good job of lining up all their trucks outside the city and then they come in and it’s the ‘circus in town’ type of (thing). So NASCAR, there’s a lot to learn from the theatrical elements of how they put on a show.”

In addition, Brown says F1 drivers only have contractual obligations to their teams for appearances; there’s nothing required by F1 outside the track, like with NASCAR’s winner circle program (where drivers have to make appearances to promote certain races).

That’s something he’d like to see changed.

“Moving forward, so it doesn’t take out of our (appearances) allocation — because we need as much driver time as we can get — it would be a good idea that when a driver is issued a superlicense (to race in F1), with that comes a certain amount of obligation to the sport,” Brown said. “And then when the sport wants to go do a promotion in London or Austin, they can say, ‘You owe us six days as part of our superlicense contract.'”

So although F1 does some things better in terms of publicity (particularly in requiring every driver to speak to the media after a race), NASCAR is ahead of F1 on some other promotional aspects.


Sunday night diary on inconsistent officiating in both F1 and NASCAR

— Sunday morning diary on how to follow F1 as a new fan

— Saturday diary on the fan reception for Haas in Austin

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Sunday night

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the sixth in a series.

I’ve spent the past four days documenting some of the differences between Formula One and NASCAR while experiencing my first F1 event. At times, it seemed very foreign — not just the accents, but the racing itself.

But fear not: Sunday’s United States Grand Prix actually showed how similar F1 and NASCAR can be.

Don’t believe me? Check out these quotes below and see if you can tell which were from the NASCAR race in Kansas and which were from the F1 race in Austin:

1. “The rules have got to be consistent. You can’t apply them differently to different instances. That’s our frustration out of today.”

2. “The problem is, we all spend an awful lot of money going racing. You want it to be consistently refereed — professionally refereed. And when you get decisions like today, it’s difficult to understand where the consistency is.”

3. “Where do you draw the line? For fans and casual viewers, it needs to be clear.”

4. “Don’t say everyone else can run off the track anywhere you like and never give any penalties — then I do it, and you give me a penalty.”

5. “I don’t know what any of the rules are. Seems like we’ve got a lot of stuff that kind of gets changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it.”

Think you know the answers? Let’s see how you did.

— The first four quotes were all from the F1 race. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner made the first three comments, and No. 4 was a comment Max Verstappen made to NBCSN.

— Quote No. 5 is what Matt Kenseth said after a penalty for too many men over the wall ended his championship hopes at Kansas.

So there you have it. It took until the last lap of the F1 race, but it finally felt like someone was speaking my language.

Rules are a funny thing in racing. The complaints often turn out to be about the application of the rules rather than the worthiness of them.

For example: Martin Truex Jr. was penalized on a restart early in the Kansas race for going below the white line. That lit up NASCAR Twitter for two reasons — first of all, that penalty is not called very often (if ever); second, Kevin Harvick — the car behind Truex — did the same thing, but was not penalized.

According to reporters at the track, the rule was discussed in the drivers meeting and it only applied to the front row, so NASCAR probably called it correctly. But that sort of thing drives fans absolutely crazy, because getting it right this time means they’ve missed it in the past.

If there’s going to be a rule, all fans really want is for each driver to be treated the same — every time.

A similar scenario happened on the last lap in Austin. Verstappen, an electrifying 20-year-old racer, chased down Kimi Raikkonen and made a sick pass in the second-to-last corner of the race to earn a podium finish.

The fans were thrilled, and Verstappen was understandably giddy with glee on the radio. It was a fantastic moment!

But it didn’t last long, because F1 officials — or “stewards,” as they call them here — decided Verstappen had not stayed within the “track limits.” He used the inside of the turn and “left the track” to make his pass, which resulted in a five-second penalty.

Raikkonen got third place instead.

Now, was the penalty called correctly? By the letter of the law, yes. But it was a head-scratcher, since fans immediately started posting images on social media of several other drivers using the inside of Turn 19 (as well as Turn 9) without any penalty.

Horner, the Red Bull exec, worried that since F1 is trying to gain fans in the U.S., the inconsistency of the penalty would be a turnoff.

“Formula One is still immature in this country; and it’s a big race,” he said. “With the lack of consistency in the decisions, I should think all the viewers and fans watching today should not understand why (Raikkonen) was on the podium and not Max today.”

Don’t worry, Christian. American race fans are already used to inconsistency.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, lower right, tells reporters about his view of an inconsistent call that cost Max Verstappen a podium finish.

Just look at two weeks ago in Charlotte, when Jimmie Johnson’s crew was allowed to fasten a lug nut while the car wasn’t inside the pit box — something NASCAR later acknowledged was a rule it hadn’t even informed all the teams about.

It’s no wonder, then, that situations like Truex’s black flag or Kenseth’s penalty — where he had too many crew members working on his car in a crash damage situation — appeared questionable.

Both were actually the right call. In Kenseth’s case, that’s the rule and has been all year, and it was just enforced during last week’s race at Talladega.

But fans are so used to inconsistent enforcement of the rules, they assumed the calls were incorrect.

NASCAR — and F1 as well, it turns out — doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt that it’s making the right call. That’s something both forms of motorsport should strive to fix.


Sunday morning diary on how to follow F1 as a new fan

— Saturday diary on the fan reception for Haas in Austin

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Sunday morning

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the fifth in a series.


I had the chance to chat with a group of Formula One fans at the tweetup this morning, and they gave me an education on the best way for casual fans to start getting more into F1.

First, you have to pick a driver or team from the top group — Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — or you’ll likely never get the satisfaction of a win. Drivers from the top three teams have won all 16 races so far this season, with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel combining to win 12 of those.

But then fans also need to choose a driver or team from the second group — which is why those people were attending a tweetup on what’s known as Haas Hill.

Though most of them were wearing the gear of their primary driver, the fans said they’ve chosen Haas F1 Team as their underdog pick — and they find that makes the sport more enjoyable.

That jives with what Haas team principal Guenther Steiner and team owner Gene Haas told me Sunday morning when I asked what new fans should know about Formula One.

“The top three teams are typically going to be one to two seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field — but the rest of the field is within a second,” Haas said. “So you can find a lot of excitement watching the cars in the back dice it up, because they’re trying to beat the cars in that group.

“You really have two different races going on here at the same time.”

Steiner said new F1 fans need to pay attention to what’s going on at the front of the field and who is going to be champion. But when they look further down the running order, the appreciation of the mid-pack battle can really add to the viewing experience.

“They need to look at who we race,” Steiner said. “We are not racing for the win, we are racing midfield. There is a big fight going on in the midfield — with Renault, with Toro Rosso, with Williams — which for a new team is quite surprising.

“In the last 20 years, all the new teams who came in are gone already. And all together, they made maybe three or four points (points are only awarded for top-10 finishes in F1). In two seasons, we’ve gotten more than 70 points — and we keep on going. So they should cheer for us.”

In addition, Haas said the pit strategies and tire strategies (there are several different compounds teams use in the race, which are distinguished by color) enhance the experience once fans figure out the complexities.

“If you can start to understand a little bit about that, the whole sport really becomes very interesting,” he said.

But ultimately, one of the biggest differences between F1 and NASCAR is the fastest car almost always wins. And the 10 fastest cars are often the top 10 finishers.

So every single position gained is an achievement against the best of the best, with teams and drivers who travel around the globe to compete at the highest level of motorsports.

“Nobody here gives you a break,” Haas said. “Nobody here would give you a helping hand when it comes to winning a race. So you know when you beat these people, they gave it their all and you gave it your all, and at the end of it, whoever finished ahead wasn’t something that was given to you. You had to earn it.”


Saturday diary on the fan reception for Haas in Austin

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Saturday

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the fourth in a series.

Inside a van with Haas F1 Team drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen and development driver Santino Ferrucci, one of them has a discovery.

Whoever was in the van before them left an iPhone in the backseat.

Immediately, the drivers start trying to figure out if they can discover the owner. The phone isn’t password protected, so they learn the language is set to Spanish.

Another piece of evidence: It also has an image of Fernando Alonso on the lock screen — and Alonso is on the stage at the Saturday afternoon Fan Forum where they’re currently headed.

So it must be Alonso’s phone, Grosjean decides.

“It’s in Spanish, so there are not too many it could be,” Grosjean says. “Carlos (Sainz) or Fernando.”

“I don’t think Carlos has a picture of Fernando on his phone,” Ferrucci says with a laugh.

“You have a picture of me on your phone,” Grosjean cracks back.

Thinking he could prank his veteran F1 colleague, Grosjean begins to snap a series of obnoxious selfies with Magnussen and Ferrucci for Alonso to discover later.

The van pulls up to the backstage area of the amphitheater where the Fan Forum is being held, and Alonso is just finishing up. He walks toward the Haas drivers on the way to his vehicle.

But…it’s not his phone. It belongs to one of the women who work for McLaren, not the driver himself.

“Oops,” Grosjean says with a laugh, realizing he left a bunch of selfies on a stranger’s phone. “Enjoy.”

Romain Grosjean, right, and Santino Ferrucci, left, laugh with a McLaren employee after the woman received her phone that was left behind in a track van and discovered by the Haas F1 Team.

At the Fan Forum, the drivers — along with team owner Gene Haas and team principal Guenther Steiner — emerge onstage to loud cheers. They are America’s only Formula One team — the first in decades — so this is their chance to soak up some of the hometown love.

But that warm welcome turns out to be nothing compared to what’s waiting for them a few minutes later at a place called Haas Hill.

The vans, now with a police escort, pull up to an open fan area overlooking Turn 19. It’s the primary gathering spot for Haas F1 Team fans, and it literally has #HaasHill painted on the grass.

The drivers walk through a large crowd of people who are very happy to see them and step into a gazebo area with fans gathered on all sides. As fans wave flags, hold up Haas F1 Team scarves (some while chanting like at a soccer game) and yell out things like “THANK YOU, GENE,” the drivers and team executives sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Haas himself gets as big of an autograph crowd as the drivers, with the fans seemingly thrilled to get an up-close interaction with the man who gave American fans a home team to cheer for after so many years.

It’s odd to see Haas in this environment. At a NASCAR track, he’s just another team owner — even despite owning the cars of popular drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing.

But here? He practically gets the rock star treatment from fans.

Gene Haas signs for fans gathered on Haas Hill at Circuit of the Americas.

Then came the coolest part of the day for the drivers — who otherwise aren’t having a very enjoyable weekend on the track (they’ve combined for three spins and neither made it past the second round of qualifying).

As police cleared a path, the drivers walked down the grass to the bottom of Haas Hill for a pre-publicized photo opp. Think of it as one big team photo — with fans included as the team.

With a photographer on an elevated lift giving the OK, fans cheered loudly as they showed their support for the second-year team.

Personally, I was blown away and hadn’t expected to see that many people. I thought there might be a couple dozen Haas fans to greet the drivers, but there were hundreds.

Clearly, American F1 fans are all-in on the team — it’s just that outside F1, the team still hasn’t made much of a dent in the consciousness of the mainstream sports fan. Heck, they’re not even on the radar of many NASCAR fans — which seems to be a shame, given the American pride associated with NASCAR.

Back in the van, Ferrucci has a discovery: Another phone left behind by someone. This time, Grosjean can’t solve the mystery; it has British settings, so it could be anyone.

Ferrucci proceeds to take selfies anyway, having learned from his senior teammate.

Santino Ferrucci takes selfies with Romain Grosjean on a mystery phone after they discovered it in the backseat of a track van.

As it turns out, the owner is eventually found: A staff member with the Mercedes team that is currently dominating Formula One with Lewis Hamilton.

Given the Mercedes cars qualified first and third in advance of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea for the Haas drivers to give the phone back.

A ransom in exchange for technical information might have been a better idea.


—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Friday afternoon

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the third in a series.

For an organization in only its second year, Haas F1 Team is doing quite well. Twice this season it has had double-points finishes — where both drivers finish in the top 10 — and that’s extremely rare for new teams in an ultra-competitive sport.

The paddock has noticed. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso said Thursday that “what Haas has managed to do in the last two years is quite impressive.”

“Two consecutive years in a very demanding sport like F1, competing at a good level, is a great achievement,” Alonso said, also calling Haas’ success “a very good thing for the sport.”

But there are also growing pains for a young team, and one such instance was on display during a rough practice session on Friday afternoon.

In Formula One, teams are allowed to design fancy-looking pieces that help generate downforce. They are attached to the nose, the sides, the floor and even the rear to redirect the exhaust. Unlike NASCAR, there’s no template to measure such things, so creativity rules.

One such instance was a new design tweak Haas brought this weekend. As I mentioned in the Friday morning post, Haas made a big change to a piece of the car called bargeboards, and the enhancement had created some buzz amongst the media this weekend.

The thought was Haas’ design could help its cars perform better in the race. And while that still may be the case eventually, it’s not what happened in practice.

An up-close look at the new bargeboards. The piece to the right is what came loose.
After Romain Grosjean spun early in the second practice session, he told the team via radio it had a “massive, massive, massive” aero problem.

“I don’t think I can do anything,” he said. “(Another run) is not going to work. It’s pointless.”

So what was the issue? Well, after he came back into the garage, the team discovered part of the bargeboard actually fell off. One of the team members thought they saw it on TV sitting somewhere in Turn 20.

That meant the team had to spend valuable time replacing the brackets that held the bargeboards in place — not just on Grosjean’s car, but also Kevin Magnussen’s.

The team had to scramble during practice to replace the new bargeboard brackets, which required removing the nose of the car.
Grosjean said later it was unclear whether the bracket just couldn’t handle the additional load or if the bargeboard fell victim to one of the track’s many curbs. Either way, the team will need to come up with a solution to secure them better.
But that wasn’t even the most dramatic part of practice. After Grosjean spun out, Magnussen almost ran into the back of him while trying to pass later in the lap — and had to dart to the inside of a corner to avoid contact.

“Get out of the way, please!” Magnussen said on the team radio (though Grosjean couldn’t hear him).

“Extremely intelligent there from Kevin,” Grosjean said sarcastically.

Magnussen, who also spun out later in the session and flat-spotted his tires, said in an interview afterward the near-incident was just a “miscommunication.”

“There’s no problem there,” he said twice.


“It was a bit close, but that was fine,” Grosjean said in a separate interview, adding the two drivers didn’t discuss it. “Not a big deal.”

Ultimately, Grosjean finished the session in 20th — last — and Magnussen was 14th. Fortunately, there’s one more practice on Saturday before the all-important qualifying later that afternoon.

“Yeah, it wasn’t our best Friday,” Grosjean said.


Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day