In conversation with Simon Lazenby

The F1 Broadcasting Blog kicked off the AUTOSPORT show weekend yesterday by chatting to a familiar face. Simon Lazenby (@SimonLazenbySky) has presented Sky’s Formula 1 coverage since its inception in 2012 having previously anchored their rugby programming.

Here, we chat to Lazenby about his tenure with Sky, including how he found the transition to Formula 1 and who within the broadcasting landscape was on hand to give him advice…

F1B: How did you start off in the media?

SL: I came straight out of University, where I was studying biochemistry and I became a commodity trader for about a year and a half. My sister, who worked in TV and still does now, works for Channel 4 funnily enough as one of their Heads of Entertainment. She was having such a great time on the initial stages of The Big Breakfast, I thought “that looks like a lot of fun”, I’d like to get into that.

F1B: This was about the mid-90s then.

SL: She got in around ‘97 and I came across from Cargill around 1998 as well. I started off doing some work experience, making the teas and coffees at Sky in rugby. And then after three months, I moved back in with my parents and got a job as a runner, and then an editorial assistant job. At that point I said “can I have a go at reporting” and that led to a bit of presenting. I remember I was in an edit suite one day and they said “go home, you’re on this evening!” After an hour’s training with autocue, they put me on Sky Sports News, I should imagine the tape exists somewhere. I’ve never been so nervous.

F1B: Would you like to see the tape again?

SL: I don’t know, it probably exists somewhere, but hopefully they’ve burnt it!

F1B: That seems like a similar way for people to get into the industry, I know your colleague Ted Kravitz came through the ITV F1 route, similar kind of thing.

SL: Yeah, he was in radio with Capital and then into ITV. He’s always been there [for me] and Ted is one of my closest friends. On the circuit, we hang around a lot together. He has a good habit of stitching me up in interviews, so if you asked me what his bad habits were, I’d probably point out a few! He got into the industry in a similar way to me. He’s an absolute nut for anything mechanical whether it flies, goes on water or as a car, if it moves, he loves it.

F1B: You became Sky’s rugby presenter in the early 2000s and you were doing that gig for a good ten years.

SL: Yeah, we were doing that for ten years. And then we got the [F1] contract, and Martin Turner who was my boss on the rugby, asked if I would be interested in it. I said “of course I’d be interested in it”, I mean who wouldn’t be interested in it! It’s an amazing sport. You know how quickly this sport changes, so you come in and think “wow, I’ve got a lot to catch up on.” When I was in on a Sunday, I’d always watch the race, half the time I was working. I got into it in the early 90s like most people did with [Nigel] Mansell. I love the way he drove in that era of so many greats. He epitomised the British spirit. He was strong, brave, everything. And then Damon [Hill] came along, he’s become a really good friend of mine now, as is Johnny [Herbert] and Martin [Brundle]. It was a good era for British sport. Williams had an extended period of success, and of course McLaren earlier, it was great to see.

F1B: During that time, you were honing your presenting skills and so on and so forth, you did a lot of studio based work. Did you think about jumping ship before the F1 offer came along?

SL: One of the frustrations of being a TV presenter is that, depending on your time slot, you might be squeezed into two hours for rugby. I might go all the way to the ground, to “hello, here’s the commentators”, to three minutes at half-time and then straight off at the end. That can be a little bit frustrating, so when I found out that we were going to have a dedicated channel [for the F1] with loads of time to talk around the issues, that was really exhilarating for me, but also one of the biggest challenges.

Everyone when we came in, you’ve done it yourself, Sky versus BBC, you get your fair share of criticism, I do understand that because people have got to get used to you and you’ve got to work on your on-screen chemistry.

SL: I remember at the time, you’ll know that the sound of the V8 is a lot different to the sound of the V6 Hybrid, that first race in Australia, the nerves were massive with the start of a new channel. Trying to hear what you were doing in the pit lane with all that going on around you was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in presenting. I still think it’s one of the toughest things in sports broadcasting because it’s such a movable feast, anything can change at any point. That’s one of the things that gives you a real high, a real adrenaline rush.

F1B: Was the transition from rugby to F1 more difficult than you expected?

SL: I think inevitably when you come in to a new sport from something else, people are used to what’s gone before. The guys at BBC and ITV did a fantastic job, and Channel 4 continue to do so. I think what we’ve always said is that we hope we offer something different to them and I think they hope to offer something different to us. We know from the information that we can gather now, from demographics and the way that TV is so digital now, you can get information on the type of viewer that you are getting. Everyone when we came in, you’ve done it yourself, Sky versus BBC, you get your fair share of criticism, I do understand that because people have got to get used to you and you’ve got to work on your on-screen chemistry. It inevitably takes time, I hope five years down the line, we’ve got it reasonably honed into a good product now. We’ve been nominated for a broadcasting award for Best Sports Programme last year, we’re against the Paralympics and the Olympics, it’ll probably be a tough category to win. It’s nice to know that people appreciate our product.

F1B: It doesn’t matter whether it is rugby in the studio or F1 in the paddock, it’ll always be the same, if you put out a bad show, people will criticise you.

SL: It’s like anything David. You’ve got to accept that not everybody is going to like what you do and that doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re the President of the United States, or the incoming President of the United States, or your muggins like me! I consider it a great privilege to have this job and I love it. I find myself institutionalised, it’s only taken three or four years but I get to the off-season now and I think “oh god, when do we get going again?” It becomes very, very addictive, the travel, the friends you make, it’s just a great thing to be involved in.

F1B: You found out that you’re getting the presenting gig in 2012, did you go to anyone for advice, did anyone give you advice?

SL: There’s a good story here actually. It was New Year’s Day in 2012, I have to admit I was a little bit hung over. I had a text, I woke up, and I laughed out loud! It was a text from [former ITV F1 presenter] Jim Rosenthal saying congratulations on the job. I was up in Scotland with my wife and I couldn’t believe it, Jim texting me to see if I wanted any advice. We met and he said it’s a tough gig. Jake [Humphrey] said some very kind things to me and said how difficult it was, when he started and there were people gunning for him. I faced the same, Steve [Jones] faced the same. It’s about knowing that you’ve been put in that job for a reason and that you can do it. You just hope people accept that you’re trying your best and that’s all you can do.

F1B: I guess the moment doubt comes into it, is the moment it’s a slippery slope.

SL: Maybe. I try not to doubt myself. One of my producers joke about the day you get the ‘presenting yips’ i.e. you come on, camera goes on, and you forget what you need to say. If it happens, you’ve just got to laugh your way through it. You get yourself into tricky situations, but you battle your way through it.

F1B: Walking into the paddock for the first time, seeing everything around you. How was the emotion?

SL: The first time is intimidating. People think “who is this?” The one thing about the paddock is that it takes you time to earn respect. I think it was Andy Stevenson of Force India, again a really good friend now. He said it can take you three years to win the respect of people in the paddock You must remember a lot of the things that get thrown at us is because we are pay-TV, and a lot of the fans that had it for free, we understand that and we’re not arrogant about it. We just want to do a good job and hope we have a product that people want to pay for and if they don’t, fine, that’s their choice and they’ve got another option. I hope we do give you what your money’s worth.

F1B: With 2017 coming up, what sort of preparation do you do going into the season?

SL: It starts now, the AUTOSPORT show is here. It’s great to see some people again and dust off the cobwebs after Christmas. December goes like that, and all of a sudden testing is on the horizon. We’ll probably have some media days, it’s about keeping across everything that is happening and right now there’s a lot still to happen! There’s a lot to fall into place which will affect the championship. There’s new regulations to get your head around. It never stops. There are events to host and other bits and bobs to do.

Jake [Humphrey] said some very kind things to me and said how difficult it was, when he started and there were people gunning for him. I faced the same, Steve [Jones] faced the same. It’s about knowing that you’ve been put in that job for a reason and that you can do it. You just hope people accept that you’re trying your best and that’s all you can do.

F1B: How have you found it over the past few years building the relationships with both drivers’ and teams? Not every driver is the same, when interviewing them I imagine some are a bit coy.

SL: What you find is, a general rule of thumb, the more well-known they are, the more difficult it is to have a personal relationship with them. The exception is Daniel Ricciardo.

F1B: Ricciardo’s probably one of the best personalities around at the moment.

SL: Yeah, he’s great for the sport, he’s everything we want from the sport and so is Max [Verstappen]. They will all talk to you, but a lot of them only talk to you when the camera is on because they are so acutely aware that anything said out of context these days can get turned into a story because everyone is around with a microphone. I understand that as you get more famous, everyone wants a piece of you. That’s the good thing about having done it for five years, is that in some cases you’ve been there longer than they have, you’ve seen them come in from GP2. I think the respect works both ways.

F1B: Looking ahead to the future, do you see yourself in the paddock in five to ten years?

SL: I hope so! We’ve signed a contract until 2024. I’ve got two children, one’s very young, ten weeks old.

F1B: Congratulations! Abu Dhabi baby?

SL: Rosie was born in between Austin and Mexico. I went to Austin, flew back on the Monday, Rosie was born on the Wednesday and flew back out on Friday. It couldn’t be further apart. Hopefully my wife will maintain patience with me!

F1B: Any final thoughts or comments heading into 2017.

SL: I think it’s going to be a great season. Last year, you knew it was going to be Mercedes again but this year anything can happen. What if we get a double diffuser situation? We know the cars are going to look a lot cooler. Between you and me, I’ve just had a sneak preview of what the McLaren is going to look like and it looks very cool. Zak [Brown]’s really excited about what’s going on there. I hope McLaren are going to surge forward, so many British fans want McLaren to do well. I think they’ve got realistic ambitions.

F1B: It’s one of the things actually, you can deliver the best programming that you’ve ever done, but if the race isn’t good then there’s not much you can do about it.

SL: One of the things I notice from reading your blog is that when the ratings go down, you’re quick to say this is the reason why, and quite often you’re very right with it. The one thing you have to pin it on more than anything is what is happening on the grid. If that’s going well, then the figures go up. I do hope the right decisions are made by the sport going forward. I hope that Chase Carey and Liberty Media do listen to those that have gone before, but are also bold enough to take it in a new direction to make it appealing to the fans. We’ve got to have racing at the front, it’s got to be inter team rivalries rather than just intra team rivalries. We hark back to the Senna and Prost days, but they were lapping everyone, and yet they’re seen as the glory days, it’s rose tinted glasses. It’s like with icons after they’ve died, some stand the test of the time, so I’m hoping we get a little era now of really good racing between three or four teams.

My thanks go to Simon Lazenby for spending the time with me on the above interview.

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