Gerald Donaldson is sitting in the din of a jammed pressroom overlooking the front straight of a rain-soaked Nürburgring road racing course, site of the 1999 European Grand Prix. The course is carved out of the lovely Eifel Forest of west-central Germany, but on this dreary September afternoon, Donaldson’s concern is not with the scenery or even the weather – he just wants to make himself heard.
For the moment, Donaldson puts aside his laptop and picks up a microphone in his part-time role as colour commentator for The Sports Network’s telecast of today’s qualifying round. But he’s up to his earphones in problems. He’s trying to broadcast back to Canada over a modified telephone hookup in the middle of a room bursting with 400 people, all of whom are babbling in all the languages of Europe. What’s more, he can’t see how the cars on the course are doing. From the pressroom, Donaldson’s view is restricted to what’s happening on the front straightaway. The television monitors around the perimeter of the room, which show the cars qualifying, are of no use to him, because the pictures on them are different from the British television feed being beamed back to Canada. Donaldson has to depend on Vic Rauter, his partner in the TSN studio in Toronto, to describe the action he’s seeing.
Right now, there’s little action to describe. With the rain threatening to return, no team wants to risk a poor qualifying time or, worse, a wrecked car. Soon, though, the skies clear, the course fills with cars and Donaldson is back to flying blind. It doesn’t help that a big contingent of German reporters is in a lather because it appears their countryman, Heinz-Harold Frentzen, will qualify on the pole. When he does, the roof just about comes off. Donaldson chuckles and says, “Vic, there was just a standing ovation from about 400 objective journalists here in the pressroom.”
For nearly 25 years, Gerald Donaldson has covered Grand Prix racing as a full-time freelancer. Though he’s among the top journalists in motor sports, he’s little known in his native Canada, where – with the exception of a big splash of the Villeneuves, p?re et fils – auto racing is way back in the pack behind baseball, basketball and hockey. Worldwide, however, Grand Prix racing is huge. The TV audience for each of these 16 or 17 weekend races a year is between 350 and 600 million in 209 countries. Only World Cup soccer and the summer Olympics outdraw it, and they come up just once every four years. The Grand Prix circuit itself is an elite, glitzy, dangerous, big-money extravaganza that comes with a cast of more than 300 drivers, crew members and support staff – and at least 600 journalists.
Donaldson fits into this world like a hand in a driving glove. At 61, he’s gained a solid reputation in Europe and Asia as a good and knowledgeable writer about the sport. Which is hardly surprising since he lives it. In his 1990 book, Grand Prix People: Revelations from Inside the Formula 1 Circus, he introduces “a disparate lot, a group of strong personalities from many cultural and social backgrounds, united in a common cause: the quest for success at the pinnacle of motor sport. There is a great deal of camaraderie among them but, since the essence of this sport is competition at the very highest level, there is inevitably conflict and controversy among its players. There is also a great deal of humour and, perhaps surprisingly in such a mechanically oriented endeavour, some very deeply felt emotion.”
Grand Prix journalists, including Donaldson, have at least one thing in common with the rest of the circus: they have to have their regular racing fix. They put up with the endless travel, the separation from family and constant pressure to satisfy the race driver that lurks in all motor sport fans. In his book, Donaldson profiles 47 journalists, all of whom admit to being unabashed fans and drivers manque. Though lack of money, skill or courage keeps them in the pressroom, they can still, vicariously and safely, live out their fantasies 16 or 17 times a year.
Donaldson grew up in Almonte, Ont., near Ottawa. He caught the racing bug in his mid-teens, but it wasn’t that slam-bang North American favourite, stock car racing. Rather, it was the effete European kind, Grand Prix. Love it though he might, it wasn’t going to make him any money, so after working as a surveyor and hitchhiking across the country, he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art, where he studied advertising design. “I wanted to earn a living,” he says, “and painters traditionally starve.” After graduation, he worked in magazine art direction, but later switched to freelance copywriting for advertising campaigns. This was the beginning of his transition from pictures to words. To satisfy his love for motor sport, he took up amateur racing, but soon ran out of money. Looking for a way to get out to the track, Donaldson decided to put his newfound interest in writing to work outside advertising. The result was an article for Quest, a slick national magazine of the day. The opening scene captures the excitement and fearful anticipation that permeate any Grand Prix weekend: “The beautiful girls are there as always, sniffing the sexual scent of high-octane fuel and the chances of death in the sunny afternoon. George Harrison of the Beatles is there, unsuccessfully camouflaged behind a huge pair of shades, and so is Pam Scheckter who, in a few minutes, when the cars erupt into a series of scarcely controlled explosions, will turn her back to the track, not able to watch her husband, Jody, at work.” Once the piece was in print, Donaldson, for the first time, began to see how he could make a living from auto racing.
Grand Prix racing has long been a magnet for unlikely journalists. They’re men – almost exclusively so – with, to say the least, motley backgrounds. Stuart Sykes, for example, who was editor of the Paris-based magazine Prix Editions International until it folded, has a PhD in French and once held a senior lecturer’s post at Liverpool University. Mike Doodson, a Brit and a former accountant, wrote for Autocar and Motor magazine. Maurice Hamilton, an Irishman who used to sell drainage pipes, forged his first press pass and went on to write for The Guardian and The Independent.
Press passes are gold to these guys. You can’t report on a Grand Prix race without one – and they’re hard to get. The sport’s ruling body, Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, issues them only to journalists sponsored by media outlets that have a record of covering Grand Prix racing and are based in a country the FIA believes to be a significant market. Donaldson got his pass many years ago when the rules were less stringent. Today, he couldn’t qualify. Though Canada hosts a Formula 1 race every year at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, television ratings here are measured in mere thousands as opposed to the millions in hotbeds such as Great Britain. But even a press pass doesn’t guarantee a place on the circuit: You need money. Newspaper reporters get their expenses paid, but not independent operators such as Donaldson. He figures it costs him $70,000 a year – and that’s travelling economy class.
To cover that kind of cost, Donaldson, like all the freelancers, takes on a mixed bag of assignments and is always looking for more. He has his television gig, five stories for The Toronto Star from each race and regular reports for two Japanese magazines, FI Grand Prix Special and GPX Sports Graphic Number. From time to time, he’s on Toronto radio’s The Fan 590 AM or in the pages of the Brit magazines BBC Grand Prix and Auto Sport. He’s even ghostwritten a newspaper column for a retired driver. “I take on all honest work,” he says, “and worry later about how I’ll get it done.”
That can be a challenge on any GP weekend, when the pace of events seems to match the race itself. It all starts on Thursday at about 7 a.m. when the pressroom opens, and finishes around midnight on a weary Sunday. From interview to press conference to telephone to mike to keyboard, the rush is on, ending in the last tapped-out sentence on deadline.
The pressure is heightened by the love-hate relationship between the racers and the reporters. Though they need press, the drivers and their teams often brush off the reporters, especially when racers aren’t doing well or feel they’ve been unfairly treated. Yet without the media exposure no sponsor would pony up the millions needed to run a team. Recognizing this, the FIA puts heavy pressure on the drivers to meet the media. It holds press conferences on Thursday and Friday after practice, on Saturday after qualifying and on Sunday after the race. FIA reps draw ballots to determine which drivers will attend the Thursday and Friday conferences. The top qualifiers show up on Saturday and the top three finishers on Sunday. Attendance is mandatory – no exceptions. To be fair, most drivers make themselves available one or two times a weekend outside of the command performances. But not all. The late Ayrton Senna cut off some reporters for 10 years if they made his black list. Current star Michael Schumacher cooperates grudgingly, but complains that some writers “speak to me for three minutes about my exhaust and then go away and write my life story.”
As with any other big-time sport, if the reporters upset the stars they may find interviews tough to get. Yet the writers aren’t content to be unpaid publicists for Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Jean Alesi. The answer, Donaldson says, is to build a reputation for accuracy and fairness. But it took him 10 years to do that. When he was new on the circuit he was shunned as an outsider, mostly because he was a North American and therefore could not possibly understand the sport. Today, though, his work is respected throughout the pits, and many of the drivers who’ve read his books have become Donaldson fans themselves.
Donaldson is best known for his 1989 biography,Gilles Villeneuve: The Life of a Legendary Race Driver. This saga of the kid who rose from humble beginnings in Berthierville, Que., to Grand Prix stardom, only to die in a crash at Zolder, Belgium, in 1982, has captivated readers inside and outside the racing world. It has been translated into French, Italian and Japanese and it’s still in print in Britain and the U.S. Rather than pounding out a quickie book to take advantage of the death of an international sports hero, Donaldson took the time to write a knowledgeable and detailed account. “The Ferrari just kept flying,” he wrote of the crash scene, “and was airborne for over 100 metres before it slammed nose first into the earth, buckling the front end of the car in on the driver…The Ferrari chassis began to disintegrate with pieces flying in all directions. The driver, the seat and the steering wheel became detached and were hurled through the air…and ploughed through two layers of catch- fencing. Gilles’s helmet flew off and rolled to rest some distance away from his body.”
Donaldson and Gilles Villeneuve were friends. They broke into Grand Prix racing at about the same time. Over the years, Donaldson has stayed close to the Villeneuve family, so close, in fact, that other racing journalists consider him the Villeneuve expert. As such, he sees one significant difference between Gilles and Jacques: focus. Gilles, like so many Formula 1 drivers, focused on his career to the exclusion of anything else. Speed was everything, whether on the track, the highway or in his speedboat roaring along the Mediterranean coast near his home in Monte Carlo. Jacques isn’t as obsessed. He has outside interests such as literature and music. “Grand Prix racing isn’t everything,” he has said. To some journalists on the circuit, this explains his lack of success in the last seasons after winning the Grand Prix championship in 1997. They say he’ll never repeat it. Jacques Villeneuve is just one of many friends Donaldson has in the racing fraternity. He’s regarded as a real gentleman and a helpful guy. Pierre Lecours, who covers racing for Le Journal de Montreal, tells of being unable to get to the Japanese Grand Prix one year because his travel budget had run out. Donaldson called him after the race and gave him all the details he needed for his story. When Scott Higgins, a TSN producer, showed up in Europe trying to get interviews with racing teams, Donaldson set him up. Around the pits, that’s known as being a good bloke.
Still, being a good bloke doesn’t sustain a 23-year career. Week in, week out, Donaldson has had to deliver the goods to readers. One of his special skills is to put them behind the wheel of a race car. While most of his colleagues restrict themselves to race results, driver interviews and reports on Grand Prix politics, Donaldson takes his readers directly into the experience. In an award-winning 1984 piece for The Financial Post Magazine, he describes the start from inside the cockpit. “Berg’s head jerks backward to bang the roll bar as he pops the clutch at the green light…Berg’s right hand flicks the tiny gear-lever from first to second, then third, while his left is clenched firmly on the small padded steering wheel. His feet work the pedals, the left banging out a tattoo on the clutch and the right planting the accelerator firmly to the floor, but ready to stomp on the brakes in an instant. Already the sweat is pouring off his forehead beneath the fireproof balaclava and beginning to fog up the glasses he wears while racing…”
Again in James Hunt: the Biography, he describes the start of another race during which the famed British driver was suffering from a previous racing accident. “James’s forward view was confined to the wide rear wings and tires of the cars immediately in front of his car. He glanced at his instrument panel where the needle of the rev counter flicked up and down in response to his agitated right foot tramping on the accelerator pedal…Immediately, the discomforts of his churning stomach and splitting headache were obliterated in billowing clouds of tire and oil smoke and the blast of noise from 2,500 collective horsepower…The pack erupted forward in a melee of shaking metal and spinning rubber that spanned the full width of the road…”
For all his seriousness about his work, Donaldson isn’t above a bit of kidding in his newspaper reports. Last year, when there was little to report about Jacques Villeneuve and his new team, British American Racing, as they struggled through the season without earning a single point, Donaldson kept his readers abreast of Villeneuve’s technicolour hair changes and his romance with a gorgeous girlfriend. At least something was on track.
Donaldson is no crusader. He doesn’t rail against the loutish behaviour of some drivers and crews. “I believe in forgiving people their trespasses,” he says. Instead, he tries to see them in the context of the competitive and financial pressures they have to live with. That approach has helped him keep his perspective in what is, after all, a touchy political environment. Yet he’s prepared to say what he believes when the stakes are high enough. Last fall, a questionable ruling disqualified the first and second finishers, both Ferraris, from the Malaysian Grand Prix. Both cars, it was discovered, had side panels that were 10 millimetres too small. Knowing that the ruling could cost one of the drivers the championship, Donaldson wrote in The Toronto Star: “Fans will be deprived of a high drama of a showdown in the final race of the season, if Ferrari’s appeal is rejected. Beyond that, the ruling would make a mockery of what has been one of the most fascinating and closely fought title fights of the decade.”
Making a mockery of the sport that has been the driving force of his life for a quarter century is about the last thing Donaldson would tolerate. Grand Prix racing has given him his career, his quiet fame, his friends, his kicks. Even in late middle age, he’s got to have that regular racing fix.
It’s midnight. The European Grand Prix finished nearly eight hours ago. The track is dark, but up in the press booth lights still blaze. A sign on the door says that race-day hours are from 7:30 a.m. to whenever the last journalist leaves. Inside, there’s the sound of keys clicking as Gerald Donaldson taps out the last line of his story. He gives it one more read and then hits the send button. Outside, the night air is damp and a ground fog carpets the parking lot. Donaldson slips behind the wheel of the sporty little GM Opel he’s rented for the 45-minute drive back to his hotel in Blankenheim, where he’ll catch a few hours’ sleep before tomorrow’s flight to England. The road back is a wonderful stretch of two-lane blacktop that curves serpent-like through the hilly forest. Donaldson smiles, slides the Opel into first gear and takes off.