Interview: Gerald Donaldson
Gerald Donaldson was born in Almonte, Canada, and is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art. He worked in advertising and freelance journalism and has for many years covered Formula 1 racing internationally as a TV commentator, journalist and author of books about – among others – Juan Manuel Fangio, James Hunt, David Coulthard and Jacques Villeneuve. He is best known as being biographer for Canadian F1 legend Gilles Villeneuve. Gerald has written more than 20 non-fiction books. Racing is his passion, as we discovered when we spoke to him at the 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix.
By Rich Fowler
You have been to hundreds of Grands Prix, which ones stands out in your memory as the most exciting or dramatic?
The first one that comes to mind is 1993, Donington. It was one of the wettest races ever, Senna ran away with it. I remember the media centre was leaking, it was the first and only modern Grand Prix at Donington. We were soaked but nobody cared, because of what was happening on the track with Senna. So that ones stands out!
Then there is Gilles Villenueve’s first win in Canada, at his home Grand Prix 1978. I remember being on the pit straight at Montreal. Actually I wasn’t working as a journalist, I was there as a fan. He had a Ferrari V12 and the fans’ noise drowned out the sound of his car. That’s a nice memory!
What makes F1 so intoxicating for you?
First of all it’s the racing, sometimes we forget that because the media tends to get bogged down in the politics. Fortunately last year – and (so far) this year – there hasn’t been as much politics. We have some people now in charge who are less headline happy and don’t want their name in print so much, and they are letting the racers do their racing. So the racing is the main attraction. Then there is the striving for excellence all the way up and down the pitlane, everybody who is here, drivers, teams, journalists, work so hard to be good and to continually try to improve. In not so many endeavours does that happen.
Who is the greatest driver of all time?
I would have to say Fangio. He won a larger percentage – he only did 52 race – than any other driver. I wrote a biography on him so I am very familiar with his exploits. He was 47 I think when he retired, so he was much older than the others. He was a generous, spirited, man, a gentleman, and yet had astonishing achievements on the track.
In fact I’m just writing about him today as it’s hot in Malaysia. In the 1955 Argentine Grand Prix in Buenos Aries it was 36 degrees, the track temperature was 52 degrees, 12 drivers collapsed with heat exhaustion. The race lasted three hours and two minutes. The winner was Fangio, aged 44 earning US$2250 a race from Mercedes-Benz.
Who is the best of the current crop?
I think Sebastian Vettel is. Everybody talks about Alonso being a real fighter and he’s good. At the moment in Formula 1 there is probably a better class of driver than we have ever had. There are six world champions, yes, but we have some other guys who might have been champions if they had the right cars and they might still do it. I should also say that the driver who has impressed me the most in the last few years in Jenson Button, who has improved himself over the years like no other driver. Don’t forget Jenson was put on the scrap heap, he was fired by Flavio Briatore, who called him a silly playboy with no talent. He called him a bollard or something like that. Well he has come back!
What is the greatest F1 car ever built?
The one that springs to mind is the Lotus 25 of Jim Clark. I like the look of those cars they were pure missiles! I see vignettes in my mind of when I was a fan – I wasn’t writing then – of them going through a landscape and just rising and falling on the suspension at Watkins Glen, Mosport and British circuits. So yeah, to me that is the car.
You have seen many champions, which driver stands out as capable of the title but didn’t get it?
Well you would have to say Stirling Moss. Everybody says Moss, but he was an outstanding talent. But he didn’t win partly because it wasn’t such a big deal in those days. (Ed – when winning wasn’t everything?) Exactly. He could have won the title if he didn’t help Hawthorn. Hawthorn became champion because Stirling helped him.
Do you have a favourite interviewee – and why were/are they special?
Aytron Senna. He was the most thoughtful introspective, articulate – even in his second language, English – of any driver I have ever spoken to. Plus he had a magnetic personality. All of those things. You got so much material from him, he worked so hard at it. If you interviewed him, he would be focussing so intently, it was sometimes kind of frightening… One on one with him, or even in a media centre with 100 people there.
Which drivers dead or alive would you most like to have a few beers with?
Gerhard Berger was always fun. I did have a few beers with him once or twice, because in his era you could fraternise. I never really met Fangio, I have been in his presence, and I would have liked to have met him. I’m not sure that he drank much, but it would be fun.
What do you think of the historic racing scene? And should F1 do more to showcase its heritage?
I love the historic scene, because it brings back memories and I think Formula 1 should endorse it. I think they should have a series – the FIA should. It would attract all new fans and do things like your magazine is doing, opening up that world to a whole new audience and it’s exciting. One of the big shocks is how hard these guys race. They are not parading.
What do you think about F1s gradual move away from the European heartland to races in Asia?
I don’t like it. I am all for new circuits and so on. This particular one in Malaysia is not bad, it’s the first Tilke-drome and the track is interesting, but they don’t have the ambience and atmosphere. This was a former jungle. Then we have the desert races. I love places like Melbourne, Montreal, Monza, Monaco, where the background is part of the event. These things (Sepang) are just tracks stuck in the middle of nowhere, I don’t like that, I like the history, the tradition, the atmosphere the ambiance.
F1 is a spectacular show, but what would you do to improve it?
Maybe somehow bring the sensory overload factor to the TV audiences. The sights, the sounds, and the smells that you don’t get on a TV screen. I’m not sure how possible it is. I think NASCAR in America… I come from Canada and when I’m there I watch it. NASCAR stuff – its boring racing – but they make it entertaining, they bring it closer to the audience. They have good camera locations.
How long has the ICE engine got as an F1 powerplant?
I think indefinite, because electric cars are a bit of a fad. I’m not sure it’s ever going to work. And if it ever did happen, I couldn’t bear the though of silent Formula 1 engines, because the sound is such a huge attraction.
Today’s drivers have additional pressure from corporate interests and intense media scrutiny, which star drivers of the past do you think would have struggled with the demands of the modern era?
Well I think of Jacques Villenueve and it wasn’t that long ago in this environment. He called all his peers “corporate robots that were afraid to speak their minds,” which is true. James Hunt wouldn’t have lasted very long in this atmosphere…well he might have lasted, he just wouldn’t have done it. We are fortunate this year that Kimi Raikkonen is back. He is the complete opposite of what corporations would like their modern drivers to be… Which is why everybody loves him.
Have you raced yourself? And if so what cars have you owned?
I started racing in Canada, I did maybe three or four years. I started with a Sprite I shared with another fellow. Then I had a Honda S600, chain drive, redline 14,000rpm, that was fun. Then I had a Formula Ford, a Lotus 51 which I rented from a dealer.
If social media existed in the 1960s, 70s 80s and 90s, which drivers would you follow?
I’d be tempted to follow them all! They were more interesting, well-rounded personalities, because they didn’t have to devote their whole lives totally to their sport in those days. They were mature individuals, we don’t have many of them these days. One of the few is your countryman Mr Webber, who has been around a bit, lived a bit, but yeah, I’d follow them all!
Which recent F1 cars do you think will become future classics?
I guess one of Adian Newey’s creations. The cars certainly aren’t very pretty this year. Maybe what was it the (Redbull) RB7 from last year…that will be a classic…Kinky Kylie!
Who are your real racing heroes?
I guess they would have to be people I didn’t know… I shouldn’t say that, I knew Senna, I admired Senna he was a hero. I knew James Hunt pretty well, but he wouldn’t want to be called a hero. So those are guys I admired. Gilles Villeneuve, genuine hero, yup, that’s what made him famous, he was heroic.
If our readers should have one motor racing book in their library, what should it be?
You mean one of my own? The one that got the most accolades, and that I am best know for is Gilles Villeneuve’s biography. It is astonishing the effect that had on people. All I did was tell a story, but it was a classic ‘rags to riches’ fairy tale that ended in a tragedy.
And my James Hunt book has also got a lot of publicity, because he was such an amazing character.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A twisting road and a sporting car!
Special thanks to Gerald Donaldson, check his books out on Amazon. Follow him on Twitter here
Gilles wins (about 3 minute mark)