It’s an annual privilege to welcome young chargers, old hands, champions and heroes – past and present – to the stage at Autosport International, the season-opening motorsport show in the halls of Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre.
Henry Hope‑Frost’s Top 10 Autosport International moments
A chance to relive the great moments of yesteryear, while also looking ahead to the new season, with drivers, team bosses, circuit chiefs and industry bigwigs in a relaxed atmosphere among a large and appreciative fanbase makes my role as compere a real thrill.
And my 13th season on the Autosport stage, the nerve centre of the event, was no exception. In fact, it produced a record number of ‘victims’ for me to grill.
After reflecting on a four-day marathon of racing repartee, in which 116 movers and shakers had their moment under the lights armed with only a microphone and with just me for company, I’ve settled on my favourite moments.
Green light for WRC 2018
For the first time, rallying’s premier league hosted its pre-season launch on the opening day of the event. And all the big boys were there: Citroën, M-Sport Ford, Hyundai and Toyota. Every team boss, every driver and each of their co-drivers pulled the wraps off their 2018 challengers and joined me on stage for their reflections on 2017 and thoughts ahead of the new season. It was quite something to have winners Kris Meeke, Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans, Thierry Neuville, Andreas Mikkelsen, Hayden Paddon, Jari-Matti Latvala and Ott Tanak under one roof.
Mansellmania comes home
The buzz from walking out onto the stage to be met by a sea of enthusiastic and expectant faces ahead of a top F1-driver appearance never wavers. And when local hero and British motorsporting legend Nigel Mansell arrived the crowd went wild. The 31-time GP winner and 1992 World Champion was on top form, reminiscing about a golden era of F1 in the 1980s and early ’90s. And, when he almost set fire to himself during a trick (magic is his new thing) at the end of one of his four sessions, the sense of high drama that always surrounded him was heightened.
Guiding a great
Brazilian Gil de Ferran is probably the nicest guy in racing. His smiley demeanour, modesty and enthusiasm belie his status as a two-time Penske IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner. The 50-year-old, who’s among the best handful of drivers who never raced a Grand Prix car, was hired by McLaren boss Zak Brown – quite by chance he insisted – to mentor Fernando Alonso during the build up to the Spaniard’s Indy 500 assault. “Imagine trying to teach Fernando how to drive!” he quipped. Gil obviously got something right as Alonso came close to a debut victory at the Brickyard.
‘McPint’ ready to pull (wheelies) again
Isle of Man TT king John McGuinness was in typically mischievous form as he hobbled onto the stage still healing from the nasty North West 200 shunt that ruled him out of TT action in 2017. He still teases me about making my first pilgrimage to the island last year without him taking part. At least he was there for a spectators’ catch-up. Bike fans were thrilled to learn that the Morecambe Missile, 23 times a TT winner, had re-signed with Mugen to do the Electric race in 2018 and is considering his options for the big-bike races. Joey Dunlop’s record of 26 wins is tantalisingly close for ‘McPint’…
Tin-top tiaras and tantrums
“I feel like we’re in an identity parade!” joked three-time British Touring Car Champion Matt Neal as he led out rivals Gordon Shedden, Andrew Jordan, Colin Turkington and new superstar Ash Sutton for some annual BTCC banter. With 10 drivers’ titles and 180 race wins between them, these guys – good mates off the track, you might be surprised to learn – know all the nuances of Britain’s biggest series and how to get the most out of the cars and the rules. There was more mickey-taking and crowd interaction than serious Q&A work, although Goodwood and the joy of historic racing was discussed in detail, but the boys sure know how to work a crowd – and wind me up!
The real Cole Trickle
Fresh from tyre-shredding antics in the Live Action Arena aboard an 800bhp V8 stockcar, all-American NASCAR ace Bobby Labonte was happy to relive a 34-year career in which he amassed 21 Winston Cup wins and 10 Busch Series victories, as well as securing the 2000 Winston Cup and 1991 Busch titles. The Texan’s laconic style was classic NASCAR as he recalled favourite – and least favourite! – rivals, tracks and moments, as well as attempt to get his head round how slippery the Live Action Arena surface had been. We settled on ‘like a hippo roller-skating on an oily ice rink’!
Pundits and presenters
Nothing draws a crowd like the pinnacle of global motorsport, the Formula 1 World Championship, and the familiar names and faces who work in it, whether it’s drivers, team owners or TV personalities. It was a real coup to have Channel 4 presenter Lee McKenzie and ex-racer-turned pundit Karun Chandhok on the stage, sadly at different times, but both provided a fascinating insight into how an army of clever people go about beaming a Grand Prix weekend into our living rooms and the subtle differences between going live and pre-recording the show. Fortunately, neither has been afflicted by TV loveyitis.
Emanuele The Effervescent
Before I’d finished introducing Italian veteran Emanuele Pirro as the loveable livewire that he is, the former Grand Prix driver and five-time Le Mans winner had sprinted round to the front from backstage, with his mic, to heckle me from the audience. It set the tone for an amusing 20 minutes in which the 56-year-old emphasised the importance of passion – the thing that unites everyone in racing, whatever their role in it. His enthusiasm is infectious, especially his love for the three Goodwood events. No arguments there, Emanuele!
Superstar snapper’s secrets
Legendary F1 photographer Rainer Schlegelmich joined fellow snappers Mark Sutton and Steven Tee to discuss the way photography has changed in the sport over the years. Schlegelmilch has been capturing magic moments from the world’s fastest sport since the 1960s and has witnessed huge changes through his viewfinder. He recalled the relaxed atmosphere of the 1960s and ’70s, before the commercial tidal wave crashed through the sport, and how Bernie Ecclestone supported his work. Study Rainer’s famous driver portraiture and you’ll appreciate what an impact he’s had.
Sunday, April 16th, 2017 would be a life-changing day for 17-year-old Billy Monger. The young Brit was gravely injured in a Formula 4 smash at Donington Park, resulting in the amputation of both legs. This brave and humble lad would be quickly thrust into the media spotlight as the motorsport community and wider world came to his aid. It was a humbling experience to welcome him to the stage to hear him bat off the dramas of the past nine months and talk keenly about his plans to get back to racing. And with that, he was back into the Live Action Arena to donut a 500bhp V8 Jaguar F-type, while we all stopped wondering why he’s nicknamed Billy Whizz.
Photography courtesy of LAT Images
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