Simon Lazenby was able to spare some time to catch up and talk candidly with Badger GP at the Autosports Show, and Sarah Merritt met with him in the Williams Motorhome, and quizzed him on how he started out at Sky Sports, and what it is really like travelling the world with the F1 circus.
Sarah Merritt: Simon, I’ve done a bit of research and read about how you joined Sky Sports in 1998 on work experience, and you’ve been there ever since….
Simon Lazenby: I have, I can’t escape! I’m institutionalised!
SM: So how did you get from joining on work experience and doing a runners job, to being a presenter?
SL: I left Durham University, and went into trading commodities. I’d say in the city, but because it was agricultural commodities it was up in Lincolnshire. My first job was in Tilbury Docks, and I remember driving there on a damp October morning, and thinking “oh *@%$, no way, this is where I’ve got to go.”
My sister was in TV and she was having a lot more fun than I was, and I thought I’d like to have a go at that. So I got in to do a bit of work experience, and I started making the teas and coffees. Sky was reasonably young then and had only been going around ten years, so were bringing people through and giving them opportunities.
I started working on Sky Sports News, doing a few shifts on that, and then presenting cricket, and golf, and bowls and tennis – all of them! The strangest thing I ever did was on one of the first shifts. They were just moving me around the sports, and I did a sporting shift in the morning then I had to do a game of rugby, also that morning, but for the Southern Hemisphere. Then Keith Huewan (current BT Sport MotoGP commentator) hadn’t turned up to do a show – I can’t remember what the race was, but it was some sort of endurance race from Donington– and literally they said “you need to go in, you’ve got half hour to prepare”. Perry McCarthy was in there, and I remember saying “what’s the format?” and then it was go! That was my introduction to Sky and Sky’s motorsport. They didn’t have much back then.
SM: That’s something I was going to ask; you’ve covered rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, but did you have an interest in Formula 1 before this? Or did you have a really steep learning curve to get used to the speak and the language required?
SL: Yes to both of those, I’d say. I’ve always watched Formula 1 on a Sunday, on the sofa, scratching parts of my anatomy, like most people do!
I would tune in if it was at the right time, but then when you start working in sport, weekends are hardly ever spare weekends. For the last 10 or 15 years, the amount of grand prix I saw wasn’t as much as it was when I was a kid. I grew up watching Nigel Mansell, watching Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and the glory years I’d say I was watching it was probably from Niki Lauda’s last title through to Mansell’s.
I loved that ‘92 season, it was brilliant, wasn’t it? Fabulous! And then obviously you took an interest when Damon was winning things in ’96 and having his battles. But from 1998 onwards I’ve been working in sport so you get into the paddock, and of course there’s a lot to learn. Because the technology moves on so quickly, unless I’m like you guys who have the time to watch it every weekend, you’ve got to learn. But you pick things up, and hopefully we’re up to speed.
SM: What would you say is the most enjoyable part of your job?
SL: What do I like about working at Sky most? We get to travel the world with a group of friends, and they are, you know. I’m really close with Ted [Kravitz], with Crofty, Damon [Hill] and Johnny [Herbert] are great friends, as is Martin [Brundle].
We tend to go out at least one night on a weekend as a group for dinner. We know the places to go now because we’ve been doing it for four years as a group, and so 100% that’s the best thing about it. Also, I love it when there’s a new story breaking whilst you’re on air. You’ve got to be able to deal with it, and we’ve got good coverage.
SM: Do you still get nervous before you go live on air?
SL: It’s really weird, I get more nervous getting up on stage doing something like hosting the Hall Of Fame Awards or something like that, when you’ve got a live audience out there. You know instantly whether you are sounding like a lemon or not, whereas you don’t get that feedback, apart from on Twitter….”
SM: I’d be so worried that I’d say something stupid and that people would be picking up on it instantly!
SL: Oh, I have done, Sarah, you know that, but we don’t talk about that anymore!
We’ve all done it, but it’s because we are human. Now everyone is watching all the time. Everything is so instant that you’ve kind of got to temper it.
You are a version of yourself when you’re on TV, because you know that you can’t actually be yourself – otherwise I’d be taken off air within seconds!
SM: I’ve read that growing up, because of your Dad’s work, you lived all over the world – Canada, Australia, America – do you think that helps you embrace the “jetsetting” side of your role maybe better than other people that aren’t used to it?
SL: I’ve always travelled, I love it. My wife and I spent our honeymoon – which was 6 weeks in the off season in 2012 travelling – and we did Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand. I’ve always done backpacking, so I’ve done South America by myself. I love travelling, but when it comes to sitting still I’m less easy at that. But now I’ve got a little boy, it’s getting a bit easier.
SM: On that note, what’s your favourite city or race on the calendar, and what’s your least favourite? I’ve got a bet here on what they are going to be!
SL: Of last year’s calendar?
SM: Of any of the races you’ve done.
SL: Well I’ve done 4 years, so I’ll pick any from those 4 years. It does change a little every year…
SM: You’re going to say Austin is your favourite…
SL: Course I am!
SM: And you’re going to say Korea is your least favourite…
SL: Course I am! That is very impressive!
SM: Boom! I’d written it down here too…(shows Simon)
SL: I must just say, honourable mention to Budapest. It’s my favourite European race. It’s cheap, great nightlife, great restaurants, and a beautiful city. I love going to Singapore as I’ve got friends out there from my former life as a trader, so that’s good, although you sort of live like a vampire as you’ve got to stay on UK hours.
SM: There are lots of great personalities in the Paddock, and lots of legends all around you, who do you most enjoy interviewing?
SL: Niki Lauda, every time! Because he tells it how it is. He’s one of the few out there who hasn’t got an agenda, he’s seen it all, and he’s done it all. I get on very well with Florian, who he works with on RTL. We’ve played a bit of golf together. I love Niki, and I think he’s a real character. He’s fabulous.
SM: I was going to mention the interviews you’ve done at the end of the seasons with Jenson. You made me cry at the end of the 2014 season, and this last one at the Hilton was great – they are all such big productions.
SL: Well this last one is the first one I’ve done for my production company that I’ve started up, called Roadrunner, and so that was a long time in the making. But we had everything thrown against us!
It was the first storm in Abu Dhabi for the year, so there were traffic jams. We were going to have Jenson zooming along in a McLaren with a drone up filming. The drone couldn’t fly because of the weather, the McLaren couldn’t go anywhere, then we had a speed boat for him to go in and it was too choppy for that to go out!
It was a bit annoying, but Jenson is brilliant – he’ll always give you an interview. That was 20 minutes of being brutally honest. He’s a top man and a very down to earth guy. Everything he’s been through, in the last year, and how he’s come out on the track and off the track, what a professional.
What I would hope he does moving forward? If he carries on for the next 2 years he will exceed Rubens Barichello’s record of most grand prix; he could take that if he does another year after this one that he’s contracted to.
(You can see the full 20 minute interview here)
SM: Going back to the interviewing; Niki is your favourite, who is your least favourite?
SL: Oh, that’s a tough one. Inevitably Kimi is very difficult. I’ve interviewed him a few times in the pen, but I’ve never done a sit down with him. Generally Ferrari are quite hard to get time with, but that’s because they are as they are. They are primarily an Italian national team, and that’s who gets the priority.
I don’t really have a least favourite – anyone who gives you the time of day, and for a lot of them, I feel sorry for them because there’s nothing quite like it in sport. They have to go through the motions time after time after time, answering the same questions. Sometimes it is mind numbing.”
I’ve not actually interviewed Bernie – I’ve still got to do that. Ted is his favourite at the moment, so Ted gets special access, and Bernie was so impressed with Ted’s interview of him, by all accounts, that he said he could do the podium in Canada!
SM: We’ve seen Crofty get the opportunity to drive an F1 car – would you like to do that?
SL: Do you know, I got my racing licence year before last, and that was fun. But now I’ve had a kid I’m a bit nervous about doing a race. I’d love to get in an F1 car and do one of those things somewhere like Palmer Sport where you can’t put it into anything!
I’d just like to mention at this point that when Crofty and I did do Palmer Sport in the single-seaters, I was five seconds per lap faster than him, ok? Five seconds! He said “oh that’s because you’re lighter”, and it might be, but five seconds is five seconds!
SM: Quick fire questions to finish off. Best hospitality?
SM: You’re only saying that because we are in it!
SL: I’m not, it’s because they have a rooftop bar that does Martinis! McLaren can be a bit clean and clinical. Williams is the most welcoming, Ferrari you can’t get into, Red Bull is quite busy with team members, but that can be quite good if they open it up to media. But I’m a Williams man.
SM: Highlight of last season?
SL: Silverstone. I thought that the start of that race, the way it had everything, it was almost like it couldn’t have be orchestrated. And a British winner is always good.
SM: Predictions for next year. Will it be Lewis again? Will McLaren get better?
SL: Maybe. I think there’s a few interesting things for this year – can Vettel and Hamilton have a ding-dong battle? That would be brilliant, I would love to see that.
Haas F1 – where can they come in? Because of the debutant teams – I’m talking about BAR, HRT and all that – none of them scored a single point in their first year, so that will be interesting to see if they can do that. Renault as well. I think they are going to struggle early on, they’ve got a bit to work on.
We often get accused of being a bit biased towards Lewis, by the way, and I’d just like to put that straight, on record here. We try not to be but we know that we have a different audience every time. We are not Lewis-biased, it’s just that we have a duty to assume that the audience is just watching us for the first time that season every time we go on air, so we have to tell the story.
It’s obviously great to have a British winner, but I really would like to see a mix up. I would love to see Ferrari right at them. And with the viewing public it’s a bit funny – it doesn’t matter what team it is, or what driver – that after a sustained period of success they want change.
So wouldn’t it be ironic if everyone was supporting Sebastian Vettel next year in a Ferrari? Because what a story that would be! I think it will be Lewis, but I’m hoping it’s a bit different.