Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Martin Brundle’s grid walk, a much-loved segment of Formula 1’s pre-race programming. Here, we look at how the grid walk has evolved, from inception to present day.
The origins of the grid walk go back to the late 1980’s. It was the 1989 British Grand Prix, Nigel Mansell’s first season in a Ferrari, when he played a part in the first ever grid interview. But, things did not quite go to plan between him and BBC presenter Steve Rider.
Writing in his book, Rider recalled “Nigel caught my eye, winked and nodded, even though he was still wearing a full-face helmet. At exactly the same moment the floor manager indicated that Murray Walker had handed down to me with Nigel Mansell.”
“I had to go for it. I shoved the mike into his helmet and he seemed to be giving me a lucid, animated reply, although with no off-air sound I had no idea what he was saying.”
“But, suitably encouraged when he stopped talking I asked another question. It went on like this for a few minutes, and it was only later that I was told that Nigel, in fact, was talking to his pit-crew and was desperately trying to get me to shut up.”
For a variety of reasons, logistics notwithstanding, the BBC did not attempt a full Formula 1 grid walk in their original stint up until the end of 1997.
“We didn’t think of doing a proper grid walk at the BBC, and it’s also the fact that you were restricted as to where you could go by FOM,” explained Tony Jardine, who worked as the BBC’s pit lane reporter at the time.
“I was literally arrested by Pasquale Lattuneddu, Bernie’s number two man, by going over some yellow line, and had to sit outside the [Formula One Management] office for several hours like a naughty school boy!”
In the BBC’s later years, the broadcaster interviewed selected British drivers on the grid. As time went by, the gates opened to the introduction of a fully fledged grid walk, which ITV used to their advantage, starting in 1997. Louise Goodman, ITV’s pit lane reporter for the duration of their coverage, watched events unfold.
“It was ITV’s first year of covering Formula 1, and we wanted to do something special to mark our home race, the British Grand Prix,” Goodman noted. “We wanted to do something new, bringing the viewers closer to the drivers and cars, making the sport more accessible not only to current fans, but to bring in a new audience to Formula 1.”
The responsibility was placed on the shoulders of Martin Brundle, who retired from Formula 1 racing at the end of the 1996 season, having started 158 races. Being at the forefront of the sport for the previous 15 years meant that Brundle was well equipped to interview the stars of the show, even if there was trepidation to begin with.
“When Neil [Duncanson, executive producer at Chrysalis] first floated the idea to Martin, Martin wasn’t actually that keen on doing it,” Goodman tells me. “It’s an unpredictable live TV situation, and Martin was only in his first year as a broadcaster at that point, so I can understand why he was a little bit apprehensive to do it.”
Of course, walking the grid was not just a Formula 1 thing. At the same time in the mid-1990s, Jonathan Green and Steve Parrish started doing the same for Sky Sports’ coverage of World Superbikes, as did other personalities elsewhere in the motor sport spectrum, but it was arguably Brundle that took the concept mainstream.
“People think that Martin is just wandering around on the grid, but there is a lot of organisation that goes into it. You’ve got to have that knowledge to fill those moments where you are just wandering around looking for your next person to talk to,” explains Goodman, who herself has been in the grid walk role now for the past nine years with ITV’s British Touring Car Championship coverage.
“It is a daunting task to have a camera on you for five or six minutes. I remember when I first did it for touring cars, it was like ‘oh my god, I’ve got to fill all that space!’ And now, everybody does a grid walk. It was Martin’s character and personality, alongside his knowledge that made it what it was.”
“During the grid walk, you have three or four other people talking in your ears, so you’re trying to hear the driver, but you’re also hearing all the production chat that’s going on.”
“You learn to go with the flow of it, you could have had an interview set up, and when it comes to it, and this happens quite frequently in touring cars, the driver you planned to start the grid walk with, his car is not there, so you then make it up as you go along, grab somebody else, the first person that comes to mind. It’s a very fluid environment.”
For Jardine, Brundle’s knowledge and expertise shone out prior to his ITV days. In 1995, as well as car-sharing with Aguri Suzuki at Ligier, Brundle spent the remainder of races alongside Murray Walker and Jonathan Palmer in the BBC commentary box. “Martin could explain technical things in a very simplistic manner, not talking down to people, but just bringing it to a language you could understand, and maybe even have a little quip to boot.”
“Towards the end of the BBC’s tenure, Jonathan was with Murray in the commentary box and they brought Martin in as a third commentator. Brundle saw the race unfolding, and made a prediction which Palmer disagreed with, and the rest of it. But, what Brundle said was concise, he had a great idea of the strategy, and it was a great drivers’ perspective of what was going on.”
“It was a no brainer for ITV to bring him on-board. He took all that incredible knowledge, wit, wisdom, connectivity with drivers into the grid walk which we know and love. The art of good broadcasting is that you make it look easy, but believe you me, when you’re actually doing it, it’s not.”
Although Brundle’s first grid walk at Silverstone 1997 was prone to technical difficulties, the foundations were there for years to come. Fast-forward over twenty years, and the grid walk is now a staple of motor racing television worldwide. Imitation here is absolutely the sincerest form of flattery.
Natural progression and evolution suggests that grid interviews would have become commonplace at some point in time, but Brundle helped stamp his authority on the segment that no one else has since.
Brundle made the format his own, with memorable grid walks across his years at ITV, BBC and now Sky Sports. One of the Brundle’s more memorable grid walks that garnered attention worldwide came with the 2005 United States Grand Prix, Brundle attempting to play peace keeper whilst the Formula 1 spectacle imploded around him.
Many broadcasters have walked in Brundle’s footsteps, including David Coulthard, Jennie Gow, Neil Hodgson, Will Buxton and Goodman herself.
Because the grid walk is now so frequent across all motor racing output, it has lost some of its edge that it had in the early years. However, some of that is a result of drivers being heavily PR trained rather than anything a particular broadcaster has done wrong.
Despite the drivers being more media savvy than yesteryear, the grid walk still creates memorable, special, off the cuff moments that broadcasting rarely has in the modern age.
As for the next twenty years? The aim of the grid walk in 1997 was to bring fans watching around the world closer to the drivers and the cars, which remains ever true today. Since then, and into the digital era, broadcasters have gone beyond the grid walk.
In 2014, Sky went behind the scenes with Williams at the Italian Grand Prix, following their every movement immediately before the race, from garage through to the starting grid, removing a barrier typically there for viewers.
And as 2018 begins, fans have access to every single car through F1 TV Pro, a service that aims to revolutionise Formula 1 viewing. But, for everything that changes, the basics remain the same.
The grid walk is ingrained into motor racing broadcasts that it is difficult to see it disappearing. At least, not just yet…