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Going off-grid with Martin Brundle, the face of Formula 1

editorsaward2024
editorsaward2024

When a second career in Formula 1 started for Martin Brundle back in 1997, the ITV co-commentary gig was very much not his first choice for that season – because he thought he still had a race seat with Jordan.

“When I found out I wasn’t racing, I very reluctantly went into the commentary box with Murray [Walker],” he recalls.

“I remember being in the box in Melbourne for the first race, the cars came to the grid and I felt a sense of panic because I wasn’t ready to start the race: they can’t start without me! I’d been hanging around F1 for 12 years at that point… But it went down quite well.”

Some understatement there from the always-modest Brundle, winner of the Autocar Editor’s Award for 2024.

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This accolade is given to an individual who has had the greatest success individually or for their company, and the world-leading standards Brundle sets in making F1 accessible to an ever-wider audience through his role as Sky’s lead pundit and co-commentator is why he is this year’s recipient.

Despite all his success and qualities as a broadcaster, Brundle admits that he has never watched himself back on TV – not even one of his legendary grid walks.

His training was as simple as a meeting with the late Murray Walker on the Edgware Road in London ahead of the 1997 season, when Walker said to Brundle: “You’re here to inform and entertain, and nothing more.”

“I’ve followed that mantra ever since,” says Brundle. “People don’t care about you. I use my experiences to sometimes explain something, but they don’t care about what you did. If you can, I like using a little humour because it’s a wonderful communication tool. But I’ve always stuck with saying what you see, being truthful and honest and knowing that you might upset a few people.”

Among those Brundle has upset is Michael Schumacher, who snubbed him for five years after something Brundle said was mistranslated into a German newspaper. “Then we got drunk in a nightclub in Valencia and got over it,” he says.

Brundle cohabits the commentary box for 16 races a year as a summariser alongside Sky’s lead commentator David Croft.

Brundle says he has never taken notes into the commentary box, and inside it is often just him and Croft, with an occasional additional summariser such as Anthony Davidson or Karun Chandhok, who dig deeper into the race and find out what’s not shown on the main feed.

The commentary team watches the same global broadcast feed that we as viewers have, so they always react to that, but they are also surrounded by all sorts of other timing and information screens.

“In the end, you can get too much information,” says Brundle. “I don’t think it needs to be a stat or fact fest. You’re always speaking to a very broad church of people.

You’re speaking to people who might have been out cutting the grass, it started raining, they came in and then put the F1 on.

You’ve got to give them some knowledge and understanding. “One thing I learned very early on is never to underestimate a sports fan. They want to know what’s going on.

They give up parts of their weekend to watch F1, and there are lots of those weekends now. They want to sit back and be, as Murray would say, informed and entertained. People get annoyed if they don’t understand what they are watching.”

Brundle’s inspirations are specific yet varied, and things clearly stick with him. He evidently understood the power of the spoken word at a young age, selling his first car, a Vauxhall Viva from his family’s car dealership, when he was eight years old.

Then there was a meeting with TV personality Denis Norden, who a somewhat older Brundle asked to define broadcasting.

“He said you can communicate with people as if the camera and the television set aren’t there. In other words, you connect with them.

“I like that. It’s the same when you’re on the sales lot: you suss people out quickly. With commentary, you’re in someone’s living room, their inner sanctum. Or now on their laptop or iPad. If you annoy them, they can get rid of you just like that.”

In 2011, Brundle had a year at the BBC as lead anchor alongside David Coulthard, but summarising is what Brundle does best and enjoys most.

His decision to move from the BBC (which took over F1 coverage from ITV in 2009) to Sky in 2012 was well timed given how the broadcasting rights to F1 have played out over the past decade.

But Brundle says the main reason for switching was the dedicated channel Sky set up for F1 and all the extra features he could produce, including driving a number of F1 cars (the tally currently stands at 68).

Brundle says assumed knowledge is “the enemy of commentary” so, whichever the broadcaster, he has always described to viewers the meaning of technical terms like oversteer and understeer, “because you can’t explain them too many times”.

His job has been made even harder by the dual audience F1 now attracts: hardcore traditional fans mixed with newcomers who have been drawn to the sport by Netflix’s Drive to Survive show.

Brundle credits Netflix as the biggest awareness booster for F1 since the death of Ayrton Senna, albeit for obviously very different reasons.

Netflix is credited with bringing the average age of an F1 fan down and increasing its popularity among female viewers.

Still, an envious eye is cast towards Netflix for being able to get access that Brundle could only dream about even after 27 years covering F1 on TV. “Literally fly-on-the-wall stuff,” he says. “They’re embedded in teams all weekend.”

There have never been so many eyes on the sport, for better or worse, but Brundle says he has “never loved F1 as much as I love it now”, particularly the drivers, although there remains regret about the hybrid era leading to such large and heavy cars.

“I was in a lot of those races they talk about in the 1980s and 1990s, and they were driven by reliability as much as anything,” he says. “Of course there were iconic moments, but you could be on the podium two laps behind. We’d laugh now.

“I like the drivers we’ve got now. They’re great characters and very media savvy. It’s like a massive boy band. The level of excellence among the 10 teams is far and away the best it’s been. The grid used to be spread by 10 seconds from pole. Now we think it’s a lot if it’s a second.

“Yet the cars have become too big and too heavy. I’d have stuck with the V8s and sustainable fuels, which shows integrity and technical excellence. We’d have still had the sound. That would have kept agile cars. Now they’re the same size as a Range Rover, at over five metres long and two metres wide.”

On the surface, there’s little difference between how Max Verstappen is dominating the sport and how the likes of Schumacher did before him, but Brundle says one key contrast is that “Lewis [Hamilton] in a Mercedes or Michael in a Ferrari were, for any number of reasons, more popular than Max in a Red Bull”.

Brundle continues: “[Max is] not, for whatever reason, as universally appreciated. British fans would appreciate Senna or Prost in a McLaren and didn’t just wave the Union flag at Mansell all the time.

“Max is brilliant, utterly brilliant, and some of the things he does in the car… Yet the crowd cheered in Melbourne when he fell out of the race [earlier this season].

"I think he’s a nice lad. But when he came in he was elbows out and a bit feisty. You don’t tell the fans what to think, and they know what they like and like what they know. But I think he’s every bit as good as Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton; his talent is beyond outstanding, in the rain especially. I’m pleased to be witnessing it, to be honest.”

The only thing that might stop Red Bull is the major regulation change for 2026 (or the implosion from the Christian Horner controversy) that will increase how much time the cars run on battery power and bring back active aerodynamics.

Brundle says such progress is important because F1 “has to stay relevant for the manufacturers”, and that has enticed Audi to come and Honda to stay. But he is concerned it will make cars “a bit heavier” again.

Other than the size of cars, one change Brundle would like to see is more of them on the grid, not least to give more young drivers a chance to race and learn their craft.

“Back in the day, you could get on the grid and show yourself and how you could perform, and learn your trade slightly out of the spotlight,” he says.

“If it did go wrong, you could tread water somewhere else then get back in, like I did. That’s all gone. We need 24 cars on the grid, that’s what the regulations allow for and that’s what we should have.”

F1 turned down an opportunity to have more cars on the grid by rejecting the application of the American Andretti team, and Brundle “wasn’t particularly comfortable” with that.

“Andretti is a big name, but that’s not what the F1 statement suggested,” he says. “I kind of get it. F1 didn’t want to slice the pie 11 ways instead of 10. They’re nervous because they’ve got good American sponsors [that Andretti could potentially take]. I think we should have tried harder to get them in.”

For Brundle, the old cliché of showing no signs of slowing down is particularly apt, given he is looking to compete in more classics with his son, Alex, once fully recovered from ankle surgery.

It’s an old injury, sustained 40 years ago in a race in Dallas, and it could have led to amputation but for the intervention of F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins.

It’s this injury that Brundle believes ultimately held him back in F1 because it prevented him from left-foot braking. Not that it stopped him from giving Schumacher a sterner test than any other team-mate of his in equal machinery ever managed, when the two raced together at Benetton in 1992.

“They didn’t say that at the time,” Brundle says with a smile when it is put to him. “Michael came in and was fitter, stronger and younger than any of us. He could drive every corner of every lap flat out. We had to raise our game a little bit.

“It’s nice when people say that; I did give Michael a pretty good run on race day. Qualifying day he was quicker than me, simple as that.

“There’s always some whippersnapper that rocks, like a Hamilton. Just as you get your big golden opportunity, a once-in-a-generation genius turns up. But that’s a good thing.”

That might have happened to Brundle the F1 driver, but nobody has got near to catching the sport’s best and most respected pundit 27 years after making his debut.

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