Interview: The Statman
Have you ever thought about having a job that basically consists of sitting and watching F1 races? Well that’s how 31-year-old Sean Kelly has described his role in the sport for the past 10 seasons.
As Formula One’s prevalent statistician, the TV networks of the world turn to Kelly to provide all those geeky nuggets of information you hear commentators use during race broadcasts. Befitting such a self-confessed geek, he could even tell us that this weekend is 25 years since he first watched an F1 race. As he described to us, his is the story of an F1 anorak living the dream….
You have worked on many GPs , which one stands out in your memory as the most exciting or dramatic?
There have been many, but the one that will forever stand out in my mind was Silverstone 1987, in my first season as a fan. Nigel Mansell was my hero as a child and it really started with this race.
He had to make a pitstop for new tyres at around half-distance, which left him half a minute behind his (and my) nemesis at the time, Nelson Piquet. Our Nige hunted him down and passed him with 2 laps to go in that famous “sold him a dummy” move at Stowe, he wins the race, punches the air triumphantly like he just scored the winner in a World Cup final, runs out of fuel on the slowdown lap, crowd invades circuit, a hero is born in my mind.
People too young to watch Mansell might hear stories that he was miserable, melodramatic, a moaning git etc. Regardless of the truth of those accusations, one thing that’s not in doubt is that he was F1’s greatest never-say-die driver of the past 25 years. He left millions on the edge of their seats, and he’s probably a significant part of what got me so hooked on F1 in the beginning. I had the pleasure of lunch with him in the Williams motorhome at Spa last year, and he was telling me highly unprintable stories about those days that had me literally crying with laughter. Doesn’t seem like a moaning git to me!
What makes F1 so intoxicating for you?
This is going to sound strange. Many people say to me “you must have a real passion for it, you must love it”, but it’s not quite like that. Imagine how you feel about your own home. You don’t necessarily LOVE it, but there’s great comfort in walking in, seeing familiar faces again, knowing where everything is kept, feeling like you belong there and so on. That is what F1 is for me: a great reassuring familiarity in a life where many other people and/or things have fallen by the wayside.
Jimmy Clark – the purest genius ever to touch a steering wheel
Who is the greatest driver of all time?
Who is the best statistically? Of course it is Schumacher, but I don’t rate greatness by numbers. Schumacher’s career is aided greatly by longevity in a sport where there were fewer races and a much higher mortality rate in days of yore.
For those reasons, I was always more enamoured with Jimmy Clark, who I think is the purest genius ever to touch a steering wheel. Sure, only 25 career wins, but it was the all-time record when he died, and he only ever scored one second-place finish, illustrating that if the car held together – never a guarantee with Colin Chapman – he was going to win.
Of course, I never saw him race, as he died more than a decade before I was born, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realise that anybody who can make up an entire lap at Monza in the days before chicanes to retake the lead after a puncture (as he did in the 1967 race) must be pretty handy. Added to that, the only one of the first seven races that he failed to win in 1965 was Monaco – because he was away winning the Indianapolis 500 instead! One of those other-worldly geniuses that is once in a generation.
Who is the best of the current crop?
I think the 2012 grid is arguably as good as any line-up the sport has ever seen. Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen and Lewis Hamilton were clearly staggering talents from the moment they stepped into F1 machinery, and I think Jenson Button has conclusively proven the doubters – which at one point included me – that he’s very much in their league too.
Then we’ve got the interlopers like Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg, who have shown on their day that they can take the fight to the big boys, and then there’s the up-and-coming talents like Paul di Resta, Nico Hülkenberg, Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo, and the one I’m particularly big on, Romain Grosjean, if he cuts out the silly mistakes.
What is the greatest F1 car ever built?
There’s been so many versatile F1 cars, like the Maserati 250F, Lotus 49, Lotus 72 and Mclaren M23, that have won races in multiple seasons. We’ve also had ground-breaking cars like the Mercedes W196, Lotus 25, Renault RS01, McLaren MP4, Lotus 99T or Ferrari 640 that have achieved some sort of technological breakthrough.
Many would rank the 1988 Mclaren MP4/4 as the greatest ever because it won 15 out of 16 races. I don’t see it that way, because that was the last season for the turbos, and McLaren were the only team to build a brand new car for that year, knowing that they would have to start from scratch, potentially behind on development, in 1989. That gave them a big head start over Williams and Benetton (both went non-turbo in ‘88), Ferrari (updated their ’87 car) and Lotus (removed their active suspension).
Given that situation, I would say the greatest car ever made is…..err….umm… (?)
Phil Hill, 1961 World Champion
What is the best F1 story never told – or your favourite F1 story that you can tell?
Phil Hill, 1961 World Champion, was a guest of the stage show at the US Grand Prix in 2005, along with all of the commentary team for SPEED TV, the US broadcaster.
After a bit of a chat, the panel started taking questions from the large crowd, and one man asked the panel “who do you think is the best driver of all-time?”. There was a pause, before Phil said “….me?”. Of course we’re in America, so the crowd just lapped it up, it brought the house down.
A few hours later I was in the paddock with David Hobbs, and we bumped into Phil. We asked him how he felt the show went, and he said “it was great, but there was just one part that confused me. Some guy asked a question which I didn’t quite hear properly and nobody on the stage said anything. So I just asked if they wanted me to answer it….and the crowd went nuts. What was the question?”!!!
Gilles Villeneuve – perhaps the most spectacular driver that F1 has ever seen and more than enough talent to win a title
We have seen many champions, which driver stands out as capable of the title but didn’t get it?
The obvious choice is Stirling Moss, and the world championship will forever be a slight mockery if someone as brilliant as him didn’t win it. That said, for me, Gilles Villeneuve was perhaps the most spectacular driver that F1 has ever seen. Clearly he had more than enough talent to win a title, but as Jody Scheckter once said, he wanted to win every lap, rather than win races. Had he lived, I feel sure he would have been the 1982 champion, and if he’d moved to Mclaren as has been suggested, he would have had the TAG-Porsche car that was so dominant for Alain Prost in the mid-80s.
Keke Rosberg – rockstar racing driver
Which drivers dead or alive would you most like to have a dinner with, and why?
Well Stirling would be brilliant because he was a such a bounder. Keke Rosberg simply because the man was, and is, a proper rockstar racing driver. James Hunt just because you’d never be sure where the evening would end up going, and then maybe Special Constable Nigel Mansell, to give the statement to police if we get into a spot of bother….
What do you think of the historic racing scene? And should F1 do more to showcase its heritage?
Although I’m not a big historic racing enthusiast, I certainly make a point of watching whenever they’re on the F1 support bill, to hear them as much as anything. Modern F1 engines are emasculated by comparison.
By definition, F1 cars should be big, fire-breathing behemoths that make their pilots seem like mechanical lion tamers. Even compared to the last 3-litre era that ended in 2005, the current cars seem a bit hamstrung. I suspect this is the reason why F1 doesn’t seem to like thinking about the past, because it is altogether more spectacular than the current crop of cars.
Conversely though, the racing and competitiveness in F1 has never been better than it is now. You have to be careful not to overly-tint your rose-coloured spectacles at times, but I do think F1 needs to be more in touch with its past. The story that began with Farina, Fangio and Ascari is now being written by Vettel, Button, Hamilton and company.
What do you think about F1’s gradual move away from the European heartland?
I guess it is an inevitability, given the growth of the world economy. Europe and the USA used to be the global powerhouses, but now we have the emergent Pacific rim, and the seemingly endless money streaming from the Middle East.
Bernie gets a lot of flak from fans for stripping Europe of races in favour of these new places, but in all truth, he’s a promoter and it’s his job to find the money. If it wasn’t him it would be someone else. Heritage is a great thing, but in these times where entire nations are facing insolvency, I think Bernie deserves some credit for making sure the money is in the bank.
Having said that, the tracks in Bahrain, China and Korea are all shite, Istanbul was totally over-rated, and Singapore and Abu Dhabi would be too but for their night-race element. Only Sepang is a truly great circuit amongst the modern Tilkebores.
F1 is a spectacular show, but what would you do to improve it?
A few tweaks would go a long way. Getting rid of 3.0-litre V10s was a mistake, the cars must sound and act scary to the outside viewer. I’m really worried these turbo V6s will further sanitise a sport that thrives upon insanity.
Some things are very easily administered though. Put another 3 inches on the rear tyre width to give drivers something to lean on during out-braking moves. I’d also bring back drive-adjustable anti-roll bars, as it is imperative to put as much in the hands of the driver as possible because then there is more chance of cars being fast at different points in the race – and more chance of making mistakes.
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?
I don’t think Clark would have done so well with it. From talking to his friends and reading anecdotal evidence, I get the impression he was never more comfortable than when he was on his farm. I don’t think he would have appreciated press intrusion – and I’ve heard a few interviews with him where he was already complaining about it, even by 1960s standards.
Have you raced yourself? And if so what cars have you owned?
Much to my own personal annoyance, I’ve never raced in any properly-sanctioned motor race, but I’ve driven some interesting machinery, from Formula Fords, to oval Sprint Cars, to Tony Karts.
I’ve also driven Ferrari’s F1 simulator, which was incredible. The boy in me got so giddy when I drove out into “pitlane” and all the lights on the steering wheel come on just like the actual F1 car. I’ve also had a few professional drivers tell me I was good enough to have done it as a career. Now I can at least pretend my failed racing career was everyone else’s fault rather than because of my lack of skills and application!
As for ownership I’m fairly modest compared to F1 standards, I just have an Audi RS4.
James Hunt certainly would’ve kept Twitter lively in the ’70s
If social media existed in the 60, 70s 80s and 90s, which drivers would you follow?
Graham Hill, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Tommy Byrne, James Hunt, Eddie Irvine…. all drivers with whom there would never be a dull moment, but I suspect they wouldn’t be able to post much of it on Twitter anyway!
What is your “holy shit, how did I get here moment?
There have been many in the past decade, and I don’t believe anyone for whom it doesn’t still happen. I’ve stood talking with Jacques Villeneuve and Johnny Rotten, had to pick up and drive Jackie Stewart around, hung around with Mario Andretti and Michael Schumacher, and so on.
I was also once given the run of the Williams F1 storeroom at their factory. It’s not the public stuff in the museum, but all the old stuff tucked away in a dark room. Everything was under tarpaulins, and I would lift one up…oh look, 1982 championship-winning car….then the next one… 1986 Williams-Honda FW11… and in the corner a 1993 Williams FW15C gathering dust. Imagine yourself, standing alone, in a room full of these cars, with which you enjoyed a quasi-relationship at some point in your past. I was living my childhood dreams.
During a Grand Prix, how do you absorb what’s going on and feed the world with information?
All of the networks I deal with access a statistics feed through a secure server in their commentary box. While the cars are on-track I am forever drip-feeding stats as we go along.
You want to keep things on a need-to-know basis so as to not overload the commentator’s brain with anything more than he needs right then and there. You might think I’d have some sort of brilliant automated system, but it’s all done manually. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, there’s less chance of a mistake if you do things manually, and it is easier to react to unpredictable events – which are frequent in F1.
Do you watch other series besides F1?
I cover the GP2 and GP3 Series as well as F1, but as regards watching as a fan, I like the IndyCar Series, I’m always curious to see the big NASCAR races like the Coke 600, and Le Mans is always a treat.
Who is your favourite friend in Formula 1?
Two people in particular have looked after me more than they ever had to.
The first one is Frank Wilson, one of the top men at SPEED TV, who hired me as a totally-unproven 22-year-old in 2003 – partly as a way to get me to stop pestering him for a job – and has been a constant beacon of both support and advice about the inner workings of F1 and the TV industry. To say I wouldn’t be here without him is no exaggeration, because if he hadn’t hired me in the first place, I might have gone back to a 9-to-5 existence.
While Frank has acted as a de facto adviser to my career, SPEED’s longtime F1 producer Dan Shutte has become a firm friend, while at the same time offering no professional slack to me on that basis. He’s such a demanding bastard when it comes to broadcasts and doesn’t accept second-best. That made me raise my game too, and without that I couldn’t have become as relatively successful as I have been. Both of them have been friends of my career as well as friends of me personally. I owe them both a huge debt of gratitude.
What is your current state of mind?
What do I improve for the next race. Martin Brundle says that in F1 you’re always either applying pressure or feeling it. I know which side of the equation I prefer.
You are based in San Diego now, should there be more F1 races in America?
There should absolutely be more races in the United States, but F1 needs to understand that in America they have this crazy idea that if they spend $250m on an F1 project, they’d actually like to see some return on investment rather than just pouring money into Bernie’s bank account.
This notion that Americans don’t get F1 is bullshit – every F1 fan I meet in America is hardcore, because they have to get up at stupid o’clock to watch the races. In 1982 the United States became the only country ever to host three F1 races in the same season (Long Beach, Detroit and Las Vegas), so to say F1 can’t succeed in America is an insult to American racing fans.
Special thanks to self-confessed F1 geek Sean ‘Statman’ Kelly. Follow him on twitter @virtualstatman
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