The 10th anniversary of my role as master of ceremonies on the main stage at Autosport International, the world’s best racing car show, was packed with highs and distinctly lacking in lows.
For four days within the halls of Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, perched on a stool overlooking the all-new Ford GT World Endurance Championship challenger, the actual Le Mans 24 Hour-winning Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 beast, complete with lacquered-over La Sarthe grime, and Gordon Shedden’s British Touring Car title-winning Honda Civic Type-R, I again had the immense privilege of grilling movers and shakers from the motorsport industry.
The guest list comprised 66 key personalities, from youngsters just starting out – good guys to keep on side as you never know just how famous and well-connected they’ll one day become – to multiple world champions happy to look back on world-beating achievements.
‘Who was your favourite?’ is a predictable post-event question, which proves tricky to answer every time. All my “victims” have an important reason to be there, whether it’s to announce a new deal for the upcoming season or, in the case of the big weekend stars, give the assembled throng what it came for: a chance to hear first-hand the trials and tribulations of making it to the top and a bit of memory-sharing from those great days. Wallowing nostalgically in public, egged on by me, is one of the trappings of fame and fortune.
Here are some of my highlights.
SINGLE-SEATER STARS OF THE FUTURE
You’ll be hearing more from single-seater hotshoes Jordan King, Harrison Newey and Will Palmer in the future. They announced 2016 GP2, European F3 and Formula Renault campaigns respectively during the show, as a means of one day getting to Formula 1, so keep an eye on these young men in a hurry.
RALLYING TO THE CAUSE
Next-generation names to watch out for in rallying appeared, too. Elfyn Evans will be busy in the British and World Championships in 2016, and Evans’s BRC team-mate Max Vatanen has one of the most famous names in rallying. Both are keen to continue flying the family flag.
Sportscar superstars were out in force in the West Midlands. Outright Le Mans winners David Brabham, Allan McNish and Nick Tandy (sitting a few feet from his 2015 Porsche) were joined by two youngsters making their way in the prototype ranks, Oliver Turvey and Harry Tincknell.
The ultra-competitive GT class was represented by category veterans Oliver Gavin and Darren Turner and two guys joining the party for Ford in 2016, Andy Priaulx and Marino Franchitti.
Snapping at their heels in the long-distance discipline are sure to be Porsche scholarship winner Charlie Eastwood, factory Ginetta racer Charlie Robertson and McLaren academy aces Struan Moore and Andrew Watson.
WORLD CHAMPS’ WORKOUT
World champion of 1996, Damon Hill made four appearances during the weekend days, with a huge gathering of fans all-ears as he recalled life as a Williams team-mate to Alain Prost and all-too-briefly Ayrton Senna, as well as a bitter rival to Michael Schumacher. The Arrows and Jordan days were dealt with amusingly by the intelligent and articulate, limelight-shunning Hill.
1980s turbo F1 hero, World Sportscar Champion and Le Mans winner Derek Warwick was on top form as ever, reflecting on life at the top – in the cockpit and now as President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, owner of Silverstone. And he still has a handshake that could rip your arm off. That’ll be all those miles in a 1,500bhp BMW turbo-engined Brabham, then.
Ari Vatanen, WRC hero of the 1980s and World Champion in 1981, joined his son Max on stage to assure assembled fans he was not going to be a ‘rallying’ Dad by telling young Max what to do at every possible juncture. The charming, articulate and modest Finn, whom I watched, aged 14 (Henry, not Ari, ed), win the RAC Rally in the Group B Peugeot 205 T16 in 1984 is an utter delight who, despite all that charisma, bravery and success, remains disarmingly normal. And, were I Max, I’d be on at him at every possible juncture…
Vatanen rocks, of course, but for sheer stage presence, you can’t top former Subaru World Rally Champion-turned double World Rallycross title winner Petter Solberg. The effervescent enthusiast joked and joshed his way through several appearances each day, the Norwegian bigging up his Live Action Arena performances in a Citroen Xsara WRC and promising one final WRX push with his privateer team in 2016. Petter really does get better as he settles into life as a three-time FIA champion.
The two-wheeled world was represented by British hero Phil Read, eight times a world champion in the 1960s and ’70s with Yamaha and MV Agusta. Unsurprisingly, tales of racing against Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood and Barry Sheene from ‘The Prince of Speed’, the first man to win titles in the 125, 250 and 500cc class, went down rather well – particularly with me. He was joined by 1987 500cc Champion Wayne Gardner. The gritty Aussie, who raced the ‘unrideables’ – two-stroke crotch rockets with throttles like light switches – against Eddie Lawson, Randy Mamola, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and Freddie Spencer in bike racing’s greatest era, was there to promote the 2016 ‘Seniors’ Tour’, better known as the World GP Bike Legends series, which includes a round at the Silverstone Classic in July. I can’t wait for that…
F1 STILL THE TOP DRAW
Key members of motorsport’s Premiership came to Birmingham and it was thrilling to fire questions at our industry’s most powerful man, FIA President Jean Todt. The Frenchman talked about the state of F1, WEC, WRC, Formula E and road safety, as well as his relationship with Bernie Ecclestone. Monsieur Le President towed the party line, but with humour and without making me feel like the nervous first-timer. Todt was followed by Williams F1 Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams, one of the team’s current drivers, Brazilian Felipe Massa, Pirelli Motorsport chief Paul Hembery and the Force India team’s Chief Operating Officer, Romanian-born Otmar Szafnauer. Ex-Williams tester Susie Wolff was also on hand to reflect on her decision to retire from driving and promote her exciting ‘Dare To Be Different’ campaign to encourage more women into the sport. All were in relaxed mood and happy to put something back by engaging with fans – a concept that’s almost impossible during a GP weekend.
TINTOP TEARAWAYS’ TALKSHOW
British Touring Car championship title winners and race winners Rob Austin, Jack Goff, Andrew Jordan, Matt Neal, Jason Plato, Gordon Shedden and Colin Turkington all made several appearances. The banter between them – and sometimes me – was as entertaining as the series’ door-banging and paint-trading antics on the track. They all know the importance of putting on a show, which explains why they’ve got eight titles and 208 race wins between them – not to mention a big fanbase.
Two drivers who made the move to America, Swede Kenny Brack and Briton Jack Harvey, offered up fascinating cultural differences between racing in Europe and the States. They may be at different stages of their careers – Brack, at 49, was an IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner in the 1990s, while 22-year-old Harvey is trying to break into the top US single-seater category for the first time – but both were on top form. Brack is no stranger to Goodwood followers, of course, thanks to his RAC TT win in the Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupé in 2011 and Whitsun Trophy success in Adrian Newey’s oversteery Ford GT40 two years later. He’ll be back for more in 2016, he’s promised.
Harvey, a former British Formula 3 Champion and runner-up in Indy Lights for the past two years, deserves a break and is doing everything in his power to be the next successful Stateside racing export.
TV TOP NAMES
Not one but two Top Gear ‘Stigs’ shared a few secrets of life as the anonymous, mute and perma-helmeted tester and celebrity coach on the hit TV programme. Original, black-suited ‘Stig’ Perry McCarthy recalled his demise off the end of an aircraft carrier at the wheel of a nitrous-injected Jaguar XJ-S, and re-promoted his book ‘Flat Out, Flat Broke’ – an hilarious ramble through a life of much pain and some gain on the way up to an ill-fated season in Formula 1. Perry has a wit, charm and confidence unique to the human race and is always fantastic company.
His replacement, white-suited ‘Stig’ Ben Collins regaled the crowd with his best-and-worst Top Gear celebrity-pupil choices, while also cleverly mentioning his book ‘How To Drive’. The racer and James Bond stunt driver chose the show to announce that he’s joined the Goodwood Road & Racing crew as official road tester. Welcome aboard Ben!
Sky Sports F1 lead commentator David Croft made his annual appearance, ‘Crofty’ giving us his uber-enthusiastic opinion on F1 2015, the state of F1 generally and his tips and predictions for the future. He loves his darts, too, so couldn’t resist a few tales involving one of his heroes, ‘Crafty Cockney’ Eric Bristow. Not your usual motorsport chat, but great fun nonetheless.
WORLD CUP WONDER
Unusual but fun perfectly encapsulates an unexpected visit from Welsh Rugby international Scott Williams. The Scarlets player, who chuckled mischievously as he recalled beating England at Twickenham during last autumn’s World Cup, is a big rally fan (who knew?!) and revealed he’d been for a ride with Elfyn Evans during shakedown for last year’s Wales Rally GB. He’s planning on trying a few events from the driver’s seat, starting with an outing in a Ford Escort Mk2 at Pembrey. I agreed with everything he told me and didn’t ask anything too taxing – have you seen the size of him?
Thanks to all the guests – I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I did.
Photography courtesy of Autosport International and LAT