Interview: James Allen
We recently caught up BBC Radio 5 Live’s Formula 1 commentator James Allen at The Malaysian Grand Prix. James grew up in a racing family and spent his formative years in the paddock with his father Bill, who was a works Lotus sportscar driver in the 1960s. He became ITV Sport’s lead Formula 1 TV commentator in 2001, having deputised for the legendary Murray Walker during the 2000 and 2001 seasons.
James has written books on Nigel Mansell, and two on Michael Schumacher. His biography of Schumacher, The Edge of Greatness was published in 2007 and is considered the definitive book on the seven-time world champion.
James studied at Oxford University and joined the Brabham team as press officer in 1990. He joined Autosport as news editor in 1992, and from there went into broadcasting.
James is a hugely passionate, articulate and knowledgeable, and that comes across in his commentaries.
Your Dad Bill was a racer, tell us a little about him and how he influenced your career?
Well enormously, I think I would have probably been doing something completely different if he had not been a racer. He raced for Lotus in the 60s, he was a works driver in Sportscars and he raced at Le Mans in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Colin Chapman at that time was getting more and more involved in Formula 1 and my Dad was a grown up, he was a lawyer by training, so Colin left the management of the Sportscar team to my Dad and Chapman’s father Stan. So he was driving and also collecting the start money and negotiating with the organisers at Le Mans and all that sort of stuff.
They were wonderful days for him and he had a great time and he won his class at Le Mans in 1961 with Trevor Taylor. Growing up in a household with that going on… When I was born he was still racing Lotus Cortinas at events like the Spa 24 hours and that sort of stuff, and then he got involved in organising some of the early historic championships in the UK, racing D Type Jags and 250F Maseratis….so that’s what I was doing when I was a little kid! He was a huge influence, but always, through all of that, you know it was clear that Formula 1 was the highest expression of motorsport and I was always fascinated by it. I am not a complete encyclopaedic knowledge sort of guy, I’m not like an ultimate nerd, know all, about Formula 1. I love it and I am passionate about it because I understand racing and I understand the mentality of racing drivers, because I grew up with them.
James’ father Bill won his class in the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1961
James you have been to hundreds of Grand Prix, which ones stand out in your mind as the most exciting or dramatic?
Phwoah, yeah, it must be getting on for 400 now I think, certainly well into the three hundreds… It’s a lot isn’t it?! There are many….. I particularly remember the race where Räikkönen came through the field and passed Fisichella on the last lap, which was at Japan 2005. That was an incredible race and Räikkönen at his absolute best.
He provided another great memory which was at Spa 2002, where he plunged into the smoke after Panis had blown up at the top of Eau Rouge, and Kimi was in a duel with Schumacher for pole and he didn’t even lift! He just went straight into this huge pile of smoke without lifting, which was incredible. Obviously some of Schumacher’s successes….you know he sort of dominated my career really, I started a year before him and so when he won his fifth World Championship, that was a pretty amazing moment, because growing up I never thought anyone would equal Fangio.
And obviously some of the Senna races, ‘cause Senna was my hero as a kid growing up and when he won Donington, I was there, I nearly lost my voice that day, I had a cold going into the weekend and the weather was horrible and I was shouting a lot in the pits working for ESPN TV and I nearly lost my voice by the end of it, but what a RACE!
Who is the greatest driver of all time?
Who is the best of the current crop?
That’s a really difficult question to answer, I think we are blessed with probably as exciting a line up of drivers as we have had since the ‘80s, and I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true. Yes, we have six World Champions, but they are all still on it, even Schumacher and Räikkönen as you can see here and I think anybody who wins now completely deserves it. I think Hamilton is probably the most talented, I think Vettel is the most intelligent and arguably on his way to becoming the most complete. I think Alonso probably is the most complete, but he isn’t the fastest over a single lap. I think Button is very savvy and these rules work for him. I think you always have to remember the rules change and the cream rises to the top, but last year for example Vettel found a way of driving thes cars with the exhaust blown diffuser and nobody else could get close to him and that’s gone now and you can see a little bit of the result of it here. I still think he is one of the best drivers in Formula 1, but that margin he had last year was just about the circumstances and circumstances change all the time.
What is the greatest F1 car ever built?
Phhhwwww. I don’t know its…….(Ed: well your favourite?). It is a difficult one to say I mean in terms of its sheer shock and awe, I suppose the active Williams of the early 90s was just in a different class from everything else, so in that respect, what an amazing car! I mean the current strand of Red Bulls are pretty impressive, but if you are talking about emotively what is my favourite car, my two favourite cars are the John Player Special Lotus of the early 70s, the 1972 Fittipaldi car and he Fangio Maserati 250Fs of ‘57,’ 58 that was just a beautiful car.
Do you have a favourite interviewee?
Senna was my favourite interviewee, yeah definitely. You could ask him one question and he would still be answering it 10 minutes later, and every word would be pure gold. He had the most amazing mind in a racing driver. One of the most amazing minds I have ever met, and it happened to be in the body of a racing driver, but he was so much more than a racing driver.
Which drivers dead or alive would you most like to have a couple of beers with?
Well Senna again I suppose. I did have lunch with Fangio once, which was one of the great experiences of my life, in 1990 or’ 91 in Adelaide, he came over because he was with Mercedes. Peter Collins looks like quite a cool guy, he raced with Hawthorn in the late 50s and Jim Clark, my Dad was good friends with him and he sounded like a bit of a dude, although he was very introverted, he was obviously an incredible racing driver and I would love to get a sense of what he was like as a person.
What do you think of the historic racing scene and could F1 do more to showcase its heritage?
Yeah definitely. As I said before my Dad was one of the first people to organise historic races, he organised the JCB championship in the early 70s in the UK and raced in it, so I grew up with old cars and I think a sport that has a history like ours does needs to always remember that and showcase it. And you can’t really have a football match using great players of the 1950s from Real Madrid ‘cause they are old blokes now and there is nothing they can do….all you can do is watch videos of them, but you can actually put the F1 cars on the track and let people see where these cars have come from and how they evolved from the first rear engine cars and so on. So I absolutely believe the sport needs to do a lot more to reconnect with its history.
What do you think about F1’s gradual move away from the European heartland?
It’s inevitable isn’t it. All F1 is doing is following the money. Football obviously is a bit different because the Premiership has to take place in the UK, because it’s the English Premiership by definition, and this is a World Championship and the money and the interest was always in Europe, a little bit in America a little bit in Australia and other countries . Countries have come and gone over that time, but for sure there is a lot of interest and a lot of money in Asia that is why we are here at the moment.
F1 is a spectacular show, but what would you do to improve it?
I think what we have got this year, having gotten rid of the exhaust blown diffusers is very good Formula 1 racing. It’s very close, you can see how tight it is, a few tenths separating the top seven here in Qualifying in Malaysia. So I don’t think there is a lot wrong with the racing. They have the DRS wings, so overtaking is possible now. I think what you need to do in terms of improving it isis improve the TV product as that is how most people consume it. So that means giving people much more access to data, access to what the teams are saying and raise the standard. I mean the standard has improved in the last 5 years, but let’s keep on going.
How long has the internal combustion engine got as an F1 power plant?
A while yet I think! Electric racing series will run in parallel with Formula 1, but I think it will be a long time before we move to a different engine
What is your favourite racing log or livery?
The JPS livery of the 1970s
Who are your real life racing heroes?
Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi, I never met Gilles Villeneuve, but I saw him once at Silverstone, he crashed and he managed to get the car round to Stowe and I was down there when he got out of the car and walked off. He was a real hero of mine as I was a kid, I loved Villeneuve!
What is your idea of perfect happiness ?
Being with my wife and my children, a long, long, way away from a race track, but knowing that I have another race coming up soon to go to! I really love my work, but my idea of happiness is my family.
by Rich Fowler