This time a week ago I was still at Le Mans, tired but elated at our Risi
Competizione GT2 win the previous day in the 24 Hour race. Monday was as
busy a day as any other in the preceding week as 11 tonnes of freight had to
be packed up and readied for the 7,900 mile journey back to the team’s
Houston base in the United States.
Every single item of equipment, every tool, spare part, nut, bolt and cog –
plus two race cars – had to be packed into 32 packing cases by team
personnel before they themselves headed for the airport on Tuesday morning.
It’s no small understatement to say that the team couldn’t wait to get back to
home soil. Try as we might in Europe to make our American cousins happy,
they aren’t as comfortable crossing the Atlantic west to east as we are going
from east to west. Our team members were away from families and home for
almost three weeks so I can completely understand their feelings, though the
different type and quantity of food that was available seemed to figure very
highly and recurringly on most people’s minds. Bearing in mind France’s
reputation for gastronomy…well, what can you say?!
I arrived at the track at 8.30 am with some work to complete and more than
willing to lend a hand where possible. I cleared the engineers/management
office, dealt with paperwork and then thought that it might just be worth
checking the drivers’ cabins which were their home-from-home during the race
Gimmi Bruni, in keeping with image of the energetic and efficient guy that he
seems to me to be, had pretty much cleared his cabin. There were some
empty energy drink bottles and a few bits of rubbish lying around so I tidied
that up so that Vanessa Burkhardt (who so brilliantly organises this area for
us) wouldn’t have too much more to do.
The cabin of some of our other drivers – who had best remain nameless for
their own sakes – was a different matter. They had left everything exactly as
they’d stepped out of it on Sunday afternoon …bags, race suits, boots,
helmets, sweaty underwear…you name it, it was there. I packed it all up and
lugged it over to the garage for inclusion in the freight, distinctly unamused by
this task. It wasn’t what I’d had to do, but it was why it had to be done.
This got me thinking about the various drivers I’d worked with over the 25
years I’ve been in this business, and I recently did a quick tot up. Because
I’ve concentrated on sportscar racing for most of this time, there were over
145 drivers on my list (as far as my memory serves me anyway!), some of
whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with again and again over the years.
And what names there’s been. Nigel Mansell and the late Elio de Angelis
were the first drivers I ever worked with, in Formula One, and it was a great
introduction. Chalk and cheese, the Brummie and the gentlemanly Italian
between them helped educate me (or educate myself perhaps) in how things
could and should be done from a public relations person’s perspective. If you
want a driver to sign a couple of hundred autograph cards when he’s just had
a horrible day on track, you have to pick your moment carefully and have a
bloody good reason for asking him to do it at that particular time. I also learnt
that a smile costs nothing, and that the words ‘thank you’ mean a great deal.
As I moved into the sportscar world with TWR I was blessed with line ups
over the next few years that were winning from every aspect you could
imagine. Real professionals such as Martin Brundle, Jan Lammers, Andy
Wallace and Derek Warwick, mixed in with great characters such as Bob
Wollek and Davy Jones to name but a few. We had a lot of fun, worked hard
and won lots. The era of the World Sports Prototype Championship was full
of names destined for bigger and better things, including Michael
Schumacher’s, and as we know sportscar racing is a friendly and close
environment. But, once you’ve seen an F1 (past or future) driver giving it his
all in a dancer’s cage at a night club…well, you just can’t treat them the
same, can you?
When TWR ran the JaguarSport Intercontinental Challenge in 1991 with the
Jaguar XJR-15, we had 14 drivers representing 9 different nationalities.
Champions, legends, household names, Yojiro Terada…we had them all.
There were a lot of egos there rubbing up alongside each other, and
potentially rubbing up each other the wrong way on the track, but the ace that
TWR had up its sleeve was Tom Walkinshaw. The boss had a clear
message for all his drivers, and it’s one that I’ve never forgotten. Drivers are
employees of the team just as a mechanic, engineer or PR person is. They
might be doing a job that is more dangerous, or skilled, than others, but they
are financially better rewarded for that. Treat them the same as you would
any other team mate was the message, and it’s a doctrine that’s worked well
for me. Respect what they do, even admire what they do, but don’t pander to
whims or tantrums and be firm but fair. Sounds much like dealing with small
children, doesn’t it…?
Having said all that, there have been a few that were somewhat iconic in
status, in my eyes. Mario Andretti was one, at Le Mans with Panoz in 2000
and Colin McRae with the Prodrive Ferraris in 2004 was another. I was facing
the prospect of working with Colin with some trepidation as his reputation for
dealing with the media wasn’t exactly glowing, but I couldn’t have been more
wrong in my misconceptions. He was not only treated as a ‘god’ in France,
because of his rallying exploits and the Playstation games, but we also did
more interviews than I’ve ever done with any other driver with TV stations,
newspapers, magazines and websites around the world. Uncomplaining, co-
operative and always quotable – a true superstar, in every sense of the word.
Through my husband’s role of team manager and chief engineer at Paul
Stewart Racing in the 80s and 90s, we were fortunate enough to not only get
to know but also be part of the extended Stewart racing family for 13 years.
Jackie Stewart was great at including significant others (and I later went on to
work for him) and as a result we met some incredible people and attended
some magnificent events. I didn’t work for PSR, but we’ve welcomed Gil de
Ferran, David Coulthard, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Jan Magnussen,
Allan McNish, Ralph Firman, Jonny Kane and numerous others into our home
and lives. It’s lovely for me to now see them so many of them regularly, or
occasionally, at sportscar races.
I try hard not to have favourites but inevitably there are some with whom I’ve
formed a special bond (they may well dispute this last statement!!). David
Brabham, Oliver Gavin, Jan Magnussen and Darren Turner spring instantly to
mind – drivers you’d go the extra mile for because you know they’d do the
same for you. JC-W and Nic Minassian are also great team mates from the
past few years. These drivers are the ones that open up to you and allow you
to really get to know them – and the better you know someone, the better
you can promote and publicise them. Getting publicity for anyone outside
Formula One is no mean task (Allan McNish’s bid for victory and result, and
Martyn Pass’s excellent handling of it, excepted), so it makes a driver much
more marketable if you know he’s passionate about green issues, or loves
remote controlled model planes.
Most drivers, by their very nature, are somewhat arrogant about their abilities,
speed and performance. If they don’t hold that innate belief about
themselves, who else is going to? But it’s a fine line between being a star
and a pain in the posterior. Some have the character – cheekiness or
charisma – to get away with tipping the balance one way or the other. Some,
unfortunately, do not. By virtue of having been in the business for a long time,
and having an extensive address book, I often get calls from team owners or
team managers asking my opinion about drivers. It’s easy to recommend a
driver who is quick on track, but one who is rapid, a good team player,
articulate and with good engineering feedback is often more difficult to find.
So what did I say to those drivers who so recklessly abandoned their driving
kit at Le Mans? I sent them an email telling them it was for sale on Ebay as
it had been found lying around, and suggested they should think about buying
Fiona Miller, June 2008