Interview with James Allen: Voice of Formula 1, blogger and LMH alumnus29th January 2015
I loved LMH and had an absolutely brilliant time there. I wouldn’t have wanted to be at any of the older and windier colleges in the centre because the rooms were modern, comfortable and there was a fantastic spirit there as well. We had our own punts on which I went out maybe three or four nights a week. We loved to grab some food and a few bottles of wine and just went chugging about. For me it was the perfect place.
Hockey was always my sport. I played for the college and we went up from the third division to the first division while I was there. I can remember playing a college rugby match against David Kirk, former All-Black captain and World Cup winner, and I couldn’t get anywhere near him. I got involved at the Vincent’s club when I started playing lacrosse, essentially three-dimensional hockey, with my friends from the US. I found I could play it quite well even though I had never played it before and ended up playing and winning against Cambridge. Sport was always a big part of my life here.
On sports journalism
Without a shadow of a doubt, Oxford helped me with my career. Before I came here I knew exactly what I wanted to do, which was to become a Formula 1 broadcaster and do what Murray Walker had done. My father was a racing driver so I grew up in motor racing and I knew that side of it. What I got from here was a rigour, discipline and from my study of English and French, an ability to take in enormous amounts of material and information and condense it down into what really mattered. I still think today that that is the most important skill for a journalist beyond knowing your sources and your contacts.
On taking over from Murray Walker
It was difficult. You don’t fill his boots and you’d be a fool to think that you were going to be able to. It was what I wanted to do and I had the confidence to believe that I could do it to the best of my ability. I never really worried about it too much, but at the same time obviously it was difficult because you are following somebody who was a legend. It coincided with a tricky period initially, Schumacher was dominating and it wasn’t necessarily that interesting for people to tune into. Hamilton came in, who was an exciting talent and most importantly British, which made things a lot more exciting.
Murray has a unique character. I spent a lot of time with him and I travelled with him a lot. He didn’t like driving abroad so I used to drive him about. When we were in Germany he would give us a running commentary of rivers that he had crossed in a tank when he was heading towards Berlin at the end of the Second World War. His stories, particularly his war stories are just legendary. He never really gave me any advice, beyond watching out for the Italian national anthem because its twice and long as you think it’s going to be! I went and had lunch with him just before Christmas and see him from time to time. He is still in great form and yes, a great man.
On the 2008 season finale
The reason I got into this job is because I wanted to be in the moment. I knew I wasn’t going to be the driver and protagonist in the sporting story and never really wanted to be. I was very happy to be the chronicler of it, the person to put a soundtrack on it if you like. All of that was perfectly summed up by that race and that final lap. It was a very complicated situation, there were changing conditions from wet to dry, cars out of position, cars that hadn’t changed tyres and some that had. Hamilton had to get past Timo Glock, who was running in fifth place, and if he could finish fifth he was going to win the championship. Massa won the race, which is what he needed to do, it was then down to what Hamilton could do. We spotted that he passed Glock on the last corner of the last lap and it was like the ‘they thinks its all over, it is now!’ moment. It was such a dramatic conclusion to an amazing season. From our point of you it was very poignant, it was the last race as ITV. The BBC had taken the rights over and I wasn’t a part of that. Politically it wasn’t acceptable and I knew that would be the last one for me for a while. I was completely at peace with that.
One of the most memorable moments in Allen’s commentating career has to be the remarkable final lap at Interlagos in 2008 where Lewis Hamilton clinched the world title at the last possible moment.
On Bernie Ecclestone
That is an extremely difficult question to answer. The people who are the majority shareholders in Formula 1 now, can’t answer that question either. He’s laid a lot of golden eggs over the years and made them a lot of money. Just over Christmas, they had lined up an alternative plan involving the former CEO of Diageo, Paul Walsh and at the last minute they backed down. Bernie has taken it from what it was, essentially a bunch of amateurs driving around, to a multi-billion pound sport. Clearly, and by his own admission, he doesn’t really get the connected world and doesn’t really see where the value is, despite always having able to do so. Unless someone does something dramatic then I think it’s going to take its natural course.
On Russia and Bahrain
Where do we draw the line? It’s extremely unfortunate that the first Russian Grand Prix coincided with the invasion of Ukraine. It’s very hard to justify when on one hand you’ve got sanctions going on and on the other you’re bringing a multi billion-dollar motorsport there. Bahrain is another interesting one as nothing has really changed; it’s a Sunni country with a vocal Shia minority. They had a big uprising which was brutally suppressed which was a huge mistake by the regime that runs the place. It’s not for me to say whether we should go racing in Bahrain, it was fine racing there until the uprising and then since the uprising it’s been problematic.
On costs in F1 and Formula E
Motorsport has always been a laboratory for the automotive industry. F1 has gone to hybrid turbo engines where the automotive industry has very much moved towards. At the same time the idea of it is to use the high-pressure environment of competitiveness to drive technological innovation that then finds its way back into the automotive industry. That justifies the spend for Renault, Mercedes and the others. Formula E is the same; they need to have Toyota and Audi amongst others pushing the boundaries of innovation to improve the technology.
You have to say it’s completely out of balance in F1, but it would be impossible to make it have a completely equal budget cap. Is it fair that a new team such as Marussia or Caterham should get the same money as Ferrari? As Ferrari is Ferrari, it will always be able to attract more sponsorship because brands wants to be involved with Ferrari as they can do more with that sponsorship. Equally, Red Bull has got a bottomless pit of money from a privately owned company that turns over billions a year. There needs to be a joint effort to sort it out.
On the 2015 title race
Hamilton will win it with a few races to spare. Hamilton had a few wobbles in qualifying after Rosberg mentally undermined him in Monaco and he took a long time to adjust after that. Once Rosberg drove into Hamilton at Spa, the mentality shifted and Hamilton went on a run to clinch the championship. He consolidated his Saturdays and his Sundays to put together a number of complete weekends. That’s what you need to do to win titles
Car wise, Mercedes if anything might be further ahead this year than they were last year. They’ve made tremendous gains on the engine side and on the chassis front they have always been very strong anyway.
On rookie drivers in 2015
I watched Verstappen quite carefully on his Friday runs. He learns quite quickly and he looks like a talented racing driver. Its unreasonable to think you can go into F1 at 17 and mentally be able to cope. It’s a pressure cooker and I think that even if starts well he will find it very tough mentally. Sainz I don’t think is anything too interesting. The guy who has most excited me is last year’s rookie Daniil Kvyat. If Red Bull looks after him properly in the next two years they will have another Riciardo on their hands.
On 2015’s biggest surprise
I don’t think it will be a surprise if Ferrari struggle because they have essentially turned everything upside down and started again. I’m interested to see how the Honda engine goes. They’ve had a bit of good fortune in that they are now allowed to make developments in the season which they perhaps weren’t expecting. McLaren are long overdue a good chassis and Alonso is just an animal. I think the biggest surprise for most people is that Red Bull will struggle to win a race. I just think Mercedes will be hugely dominant and Williams will build on where they were last year.
PHOTOS / David Barker, Paul Lannuier, Tim Wang and J. H. Sohn