Roughly 15 years ago, I fell asleep while watching a Formula 3000 race in front of the TV. I didn’t just nod off a little: I sunk into a deep slumber from which not even the sound of V8s bombing up to the NGK chicane could have brought me back around.
It was nothing to do with the racing. This was a wet day at the Nurburgring, which tends to make for action-packed competition, and the field included several soon-to-be-stars such as Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber.
But unfortunately, the commentary simply didn’t bring the event to life. I don’t want to criticise the guys who were calling that day’s race; after all, they were doing a much better job than I could ever hope to. Commentary is a difficult art to master, requiring confidence, intelligence and wit. You also need to be a few corners short of a circuit.
One man who meets all those criteria is Will Buxton. He has spent the past six years commentating on GP2, which replaced F3000 as the official F1 feeder series in 2005, ending his tenure at the close of the 2014 campaign.
And you can say what you like about Buxton – in fact I am about to do just that – but there was no risk of falling asleep when he was behind the mic.
Let’s get one thing clear from the off: Buxton is a good commentator. He knows his subject extremely well and usually delivers his words with the appropriate level of emotion. He’s not overly biased and he tends to be very fair in his summation of events. He’s an actual motorsport fan, not just an F1 nut. These are all positive attributes.
But he is also unashamedly mad, like a lone man on the dancefloor moving his body in time with a song that isn’t playing. It may not even be a real song, and there might not be an actual dancefloor, but still he twists and shakes to the music in his mind. And that has led to him becoming one of the most distinctive motorsport commentators out there.
His style is his own; when you tuned into a GP2 (and more recently GP3) race, you instantly recognised the voice talking over it. Buxton’s delivery lay somewhere between classic Murray Walker excitement and a desire to keep it real. Very, very real. This led to a lot of “Oh maaaaate”, with Will dragging out that vowel like it was his last drink before closing time. “Just calm it down, son”, he instructed an over-eager driver at Monza this year, sounding like a cartoon reimagining of Mike Skinner from the Streets.
But you could forgive Will for this, because it was interspersed with comments that showed a deep knowledge of and passion for GP2. He genuinely loved the series, having been around since its inception when he acted as press officer. He was and still is its biggest fan, and probably knows it better than anyone else.
Occasionally this led to one of Buxton’s downfalls: his apparent fondness for being every driver’s best mate. His post-race podium interviews could sometimes get a little cringey, making him appear like a groovy middle-aged science teacher, striding around in a blazer and trainers combo trying to talk to sixth formers. Sometimes it led to great conversation, but just as often it fell a little flat.
There was also a touch of over enthusiasm when it came to singing drivers’ praises. The way Will described the action, you’d be forgiven for thinking some utterly forgettable GP2 drivers were destined for F1 greatness. The word “beautiful” has not been so mercilessly overused since that James Blunt song.
But the most brilliantly bizarre development in the Buxton Commentary Style© was his use of an increasingly Italian accent to pronounce Italian drivers’ names. The best example of this was Raffaele Marciello, the Ferrari junior who joined the GP2 grid this season. Buxton reserved special vigour for pronouncing the youngster’s name, hamming it up in the extreme about “Lello”. By the season’s end, Will’s Italian pronunciations had him sounding like a man auditioning for the Dolmio TV advert. When’s-ah your-ah Marciello day, eh?
Speaking of other accents, Buxton was regularly joined in the comms box by an expert guest. There was former F1 driver Jerome d’Ambrosio, who sounded bored to tears by having to watch GP2; tech expert Gary Anderson, who played the grumpy head of the science department perfectly; and journalist Tony Dodgins, who with his chipper English accent sounded like Will’s father enjoying a ‘bring your dad to work day’.
But the voice we will remember as Buxton’s quintessential collaborator is a man indelibly linked with GP2: Luca Filippi, the series’ most experienced driver and runner-up to Romain Grosjean in the 2011 standings. They worked well together and clearly got on; mixing Luca’s knowledge with Will’s passion made the world of sense.
Then again, given Will’s fondness for Italian accents, one wonders whether Luca ever set foot in the commentary box at all. It is possible that Buxton was alone, providing an additional Italian voice, all along?
Okay, maybe not. But it is true that Buxton’s eccentricities – and his flaws – were fuelled by passion, and ultimately you can’t hold that against him.
Because passion is infectious. It’s like the friend who keeps telling you to watch this TV show, or listen to that band: yes it’s a bit annoying, but it comes from a good place and eventually you’ll probably give in and see what the fuss is about. Will made that happen with GP2.
And if he sounded like he was chatting to a bunch of mates, that’s because he genuinely felt he was. Like a guy you’ve never met who approaches you at a party and instantly acts as if you’ve known each other for years. He’s not drunk and he doesn’t want anything from you. He’s just enthusiastic and gregarious.
Buxton is not for everyone. You might compare him to Marmite, but no one ever became quite as agitated by a yeast extract as they have with Will’s commentary; then again, Marmite couldn’t reel off the name of every GP2 race winner and tell you something interesting about them. Will probably can.
Every year GP2 says a lot of goodbyes. By its very nature, the series changes almost half its grid each season, while team personnel are also fairly nomadic, moving on to F1, sportscars or tin-tops.
But in Will Buxton, it is losing something that is perhaps more important than all of these: it is saying goodbye to its biggest fan.