F1 Commentator Martin Brundle on Inventing the Grid Walk, Driving Legendary Cars, and Why the Sport Should Always Be a Little Scary
In his office at home in Norfolk, England, Martin Brundle sits in front of a couple of model race cars, a Ferrari and a Jaguar. He has driven both of them at life size, one of them in competition. Along with a wall-sized photograph of Brundle racing at the British Grand Prix in 1992, when he finished third in front of a crowd of his countrymen, they serve as reminders of what Brundle is at his roots: a race car driver. He cut his teeth in what many fans see as a golden era for Formula 1, racing between 1984 and 1996. He became a major rival to Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian icon whose on-track death in 1994 rocked the racing world. He was a teammate to Michael Schumacher, who held most major F1 records until Lewis Hamilton tied them or took them from him. Brundle stood on nine F1 podiums despite never driving one of the series’ fastest cars. His run in motorsport went beyond F1: He won two of the world’s greatest endurance races—the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1988 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans two years later—among numerous other races. The thing is, as Brundle points out, nobody cares about any of that.
Most who meet Brundle today know him not as a racer but as a commentator, a role he has filled since 1997, his first year out of an F1 seat. He now does the job for Sky, the British network whose telecasts air on ESPN, which makes Brundle a voice of the sport for American fans as well as English ones. Those of us who picked up the sport in this recent, Netflix-aided explosion of interest are much more likely to know Brundle for his pre-race grid walk, now an institution unto itself, than anything else he ever did on a track. In the moments immediately before a race, Brundle, on live TV, walks up and down the rows of race cars and puts his microphone into the face of, well, nearly anyone—a team principal or a driver, but much of the time a celebrity. Among younger, more internet-inclined fans all over the world, Brundle is more known for dusting up with one of Megan Thee Stallion’s bodyguard or asking Paolo Banchero if he was Patrick Mahomes or getting rejected by David Beckham than he is known for driving cars at great speeds.
“It just amused me, really, that being ignored on the grid by Megan Thee Stallion—or her henchman, her bodyguard or whatever—or DJ Khaled, it just travels so much further than winning Le Mans or the Daytona 24 Hours. Or maybe I’ve called some great races and some stuff I feel where I’ve really aced something in commentary, and it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t count. I just find it quite bizarre. Hence I think I made that comment on Twitter that you saw.” He does not watch his grid walks back on tape.
Not that he is ungrateful. He says he is lucky to have “had two careers in Formula 1 so far,” with the driving turning out to be a “fact-finding mission for my TV career.” He talked about both of them with GQ and found some time to weigh in on the state of the sport, its absurd cars, and all of those new fans.
GQ: Am I correct that you are the pioneer of the grid walk? That it didn’t exist before you started it up?
Martin Brundle: Not in the way that I do it. It happened in 1997. My guys said, “We’ve had an idea, why don’t you walk down the grid and just say what you see?” And I was the only one on the grid. And obviously we go live, and that is unscripted, unrehearsed car crash television. Whatever happens, happens. And I got to wing it. And I can’t throw it back to a studio or have the studio throw it to me. When I happen to find somebody, it flows. It’s got to go. And that puts a lovely sense of urgency into it. I once tried to plan it, and it just didn’t work. You’ve got to take it as it comes. So yes, we started it in ’97 and you see it now in all forms of motor support actually, two-wheel and four-wheel.
There’s nothing like the grid walk in a non-motor sport. I cannot go up to Tiger Woods and ask him whatever I want right before he tees off. It strikes me that if a golfer loses focus on the first tee, they might hit the ball into the rough. If a driver loses it into Turn 1, they might die. How would Martin Brundle, the racer, have responded to a microphone to his face right before the lights went out?
Interesting point, because you’re absolutely right. I couldn’t go to David Beckham and say, “Hey, just before you kick the ball, talk to me about this or that.” Roger Federer at Wimbledon, couldn’t do it.
So I find the drivers very compliant. I find them very eloquent. Bear in mind, they’re covered, and so if I stand and talk to a driver for a couple of minutes, all their sponsors are beamed around the world, because we’ve got a lot of English-speaking countries around the world. So there is a willingness, certainly, on the part of the teams. The drivers know me.
I’m surprised if any of them speak to me ever, frankly, when they’re in the zone. But if I think back to when I was on the grid: You’ve done all the work, the car’s set up, you’ve got the strategy sorted out.
I used to get quite nervous just before we drove onto the grid. But on the grid itself, I felt serene, because that was what I was best at. So whatever it is, they don’t tend to turn me away too often, which is lucky, unlike some of the celebrities,
Is there a language that racers speak to racers? Are you afforded some trust based on that?
Yeah, I think so. They know you’ve been there, you’ve done it, you’ve seen it, you’ve crashed the car, and you’re going to ask something relevant or personal. I never tried to dropkick them or get clever with the questions. I think that would be unfair. So it tends to be quite happy and smashy and nicey conversation. I’m not really going to be hitting them with an “I heard your contract is up soon,” or something like that. It’s going to be relevant to the race, but generally speaking, they trust me.
A few of them will just shake their head and then even apologize later on. Or some come up to me in the paddock and go, “You haven’t seen me on the grid for ages. Just come and talk to me on the grid.” And then others will never talk. Lewis used to talk to me a lot and then stopped. So we take it as it comes.
Has there ever been someone you’ve seen on a grid walk and you’ve thought, “No, this is not my day. I am not going to test this one and try to put a microphone in this person’s face?”
I thought that about David Beckham, and then eventually I did get in his face in Miami. I was being man-marked by a couple of guys in Qatar that didn’t want anybody near him there. So I was pretty determined to speak to him. And then when I did, I thought, “I don’t know why I bothered,” basically. I didn’t feel good about it, particularly. I don’t like bothering people. If they don’t want to talk to you, they don’t want to talk to you. There’s plenty of people who do. You’ve got to remember: I’ve been on a Formula 1 grid for 38 years, well over half the life of Formula 1. I’ve been to well over half the grands prix in the history of Formula 1.. So I feel pretty comfortable in that space. I feel it’s my territory.
So that’s perhaps why I’ve got a bit of a confidence in it and a comfort zone.
To the point about that confidence: You are quite comfortable scrutinizing the sport and criticizing the FIA, the governing body, over its management of races. Earlier on, it even led to legal threats. After last year’s wild finale at Abu Dhabi, you called the FIA’s decision-making “unacceptable.” We don’t get much of that from rights-holding broadcasters in the United States. I’m trying to imagine an NFL announcer going after the league office relentlessly, and it just doesn’t happen often. Is it a matter of British directness, or does it come down to your experience in the sport?
I think you earn the right, with all the things you’ve done and all the experience you have, to call things out. You’ve got to use un-emotive language. You can’t get personal. But if I see something I think is wrong, I think I owe it to the fans to say so. And if you’re going to get the trust of the fans, and if they’re going to believe you when you say positive things or shiny things, you’ve also got to tell it the way it is at other times. You can’t just be endlessly positive. And I’m not bright enough to start thinking too much around that. If I see something, it’s almost always: I’ve seen it before, it’s happened to me, or it’s happened to somebody close to me. So I’m just going to say it.
The end of that race was a hell of a good show. It was so entertaining, especially for those of us who are new fans and were getting a baptism in the chaos that can be F1. But it raised a big question about competitive balance and fairness. Drag reduction system overtaking and sprint qualifying races, along the same line, make F1 more of a show but change the competitive structure. I wonder how you feel about how F1 straddles the line between juicing the entertainment product and staying true to itself as a sporting competition.
We’ve got to try and do both. But the bottom line is: Are we a sport? Or are we entertainment? If it’s just about the sport and seeing who’s fastest, we’d do it on a Wednesday afternoon behind closed doors. There are rules. There are fouls. You got to have the rules of the game and a referee to police them. But it is about entertainment. That’s where we need wheel-to-wheel racing.
It’s why these young drivers are just energizing F1, ‘cause they’re so brave and fearless and they’re so unorthodox in the way they’re prepared to race wheel-to-wheel and go around the outside of each other. So you’ve always got to try to improve your show. I think it’s very competitive out there in the world of sport, or the world of entertainment, and how are you going to get kids offline? Or off YouTube, or gaming, to sit and watch somebody else do it on the edge of the sofa?
Why would they leave their online gaming to come and watch somebody else have fun unless it’s thrilling, unless it’s a bit scary and challenging? And that’s where F1 needs to be. Otherwise the young audience will die.
Do you approve of how F1 has balanced those two things the last several years?
Yeah. I think this is the best position I’ve ever seen Formula 1 in by some margin, actually. I would say it is really healthy. We’ve got 10 really strong teams on the grid. Now, I’d like to see 11 or 12. There’s no doubt about it: Drive to Survive has energized the age group. It’s like a marketer’s dream. Your average age of your audience has gone down 10 years, and the demographics are fantastic now. And the mix is just incredible. That’s any marketer’s dream.
Everywhere we go sold out, corporate business sold out, grandstands rammed, everybody talking about it. Our TV numbers are up on Sky. So if you put it all together, we are absolutely flying. I’ve never seen anything like it in our business.
This influx of new fans has been great for everyone’s pocketbook and for packing the stands and Netflix and TV ratings. But I wonder how it has been for F1 lifers, how this horde of us newbies has affected the experience for people who were already here. Do you see drawbacks when a new and somewhat less educated fanbase comes into the sport?
No, I don’t. I only see positives. It’s always a very broad church you speak to when you’re commentating or you’re trying to appeal as a sport—from people who know more about it than you, the real petrol heads, to somebody who was going to cut the grass and it started to rain and they came in and the grand prix was on. It’s a very broad church of people you’re communicating with, but young people keep you young, keep you fresh, challenge you. And in this digital world of ours, I think it’s really energized that side of the sport.
I’ve been going to the Hungarian Grand Prix since 1986. The very first one, I drove in it. I came out of the airport a couple of weeks ago, and I must have been surrounded by a hundred young people wanting my autograph. And I had never had that there before in Budapest. And it was 50/50 male/female, mostly young people just really interested in it. They find out which planes you’re on, and I’m like, “How do you know me?” Because they don’t get the Sky feed there or whatever. But again, it’s social media, TikTok, it’s whatever. That’s oxygen for the business, and we all benefit from it.
Every new fan has a moment when they feel like they’re starting to understand the sport a little bit. Mine was during the Austrian Grand Prix this year. I thought Lewis might want to make a pit stop to get soft tires and go for the fastest lap of the race around the 56th lap, and it was so validating when you raised the same idea within a few seconds of that: “Wow, Martin Brundle was thinking the same thing I was just thinking.” Do you feel like more of a teacher knowing how many new fans are listening to you and learning the sport on the fly?
Assumed knowledge is the enemy of calling a sport—if you start going “this undercut” or “that oversteer” or “he’s going to deg” instead of “degradation of the tires,” or “DRS.” You’ll often hear me say “drag reduction system, open rear wing,” because you’ve got a lot of people new to the sport. Even my mom, who’s watched everything I’ve ever done, probably still says to me, “I don’t really understand this understeer and oversteer.” And I’m thinking, “Mom, I’ve done so many features on that.”
Some former athletes who are commentators will take an ivory tower approach not just to fans, but to modern athletes: “Back in my day,” this or that. I don’t pick much of that up from you. How do you compare a 2022 F1 driver to your ‘80s and ‘90s cohort?
I see them as very lucky to be there, like I was. I see how dedicated they are, see how super fit they are, and how hard they’re working. And they’re brave. The challenges changed. The cars are less fearsome. Back in Stirling [Moss’] day, who was a friend of mine, if they survived the year, they were lucky. [Moss, a legendary British driver, raced until a crash in 1962 ended his career.] It was about survival and hoping you get thrown out of the car. Then we went through the horrible years of burning and smashing up legs and hitting heads and all that sort of thing. And I was lucky to survive a few shunts. But it’s changed. The cars and tracks are much safer, but these guys now—they are all guys at the moment and hopefully that will change—they break within half a meter at 210 miles an hour. And if they break three meters too early, they’ve thrown away the corner. So they’re more precise than we used to be. But the best drivers still end up in the best cars, and the cream always rises to the top. So I hold them in great esteem.
When you’re commentating, it’s never about you. I might refer to something that happened to me by way of explaining something that’s just happened or is going on at that time. But I always think half the audience don’t know I used to race, and the other half don’t care.
You have driven at least one car from every decade of Formula 1. Is that right?
Yes, many. I’ve driven 61 now, from [Juan Miguel] Fangio’s Streamliner from the 1950s up until three of the latest hybrid cars, and pretty much everything in between. That is just something I love doing, basically.
What do you remember about driving Senna’s 1986 Lotus Renault 98T?
One of the best days of my life. Drove it at Donington. Just endless talk, beautiful car. And I remember sitting at the front of it, you’d look out, you got such an incredible view, ‘cause you’re so far to the front. They used to put the drivers to the front of the car to balance up the weight of the engine, which is why most of my generation limp, if they’re still alive.
How about driving Michael Schumacher’s F1 2000?
Great car. I compared it that day with my Benetton. So just a few generations apart, and just how different they were, just how much better the Ferrari was than the very analog Benetton that I used to race.
Last one: Lewis Hamilton’s W06 hybrid in 2015, around a wet Silverstone.
Just relentless power. I couldn’t believe it. Like driving a turbine. Even though it was raining, I put my foot down, and it just kept accelerating. You get a little beep in your ear to tell you when to shift gear. You don’t even think about shifting gear. You don’t feel it shifting gear. And I actually thought, “If I don’t take my foot off the throttle, I am going to take off, even in the rain.”
Cars are just so much better on the steering. So much more direct. You turn the wheel, the car goes. That’s something that I was never used to when I was racing.
What do you learn when you get into the cockpit of some of these beasts from different eras?
You learn that all the great cars that won races, the special cars that end up having features made around them, were beautifully balanced. Whatever they did, however fast they went at the time, they just worked with you, the driver. You feel at one with them, even if you feel rather scared in something like Fangio’s Mercedes. Yeah, technology moves on. I mean, I had one button on my steering wheel in the 80s. Last time I got into [Fernando] Alonso’s car, I counted 47 different controls, including some with quite a lot of those submenus. Then you’re being told to go on a certain dial minus two or something like that. I don’t know how they do that.
What was your button?
My button was for the radio. And then, incredibly, a second button for a drinks bottle eventually, which we didn’t use, because it just threw hot water straight down the back of your throat and made you cough.
Does terror ever enter the equation when you’re driving one of these, given what you know can happen in machines with this kind of power?
I think no. If you’re scared, you’ll get out. Yeah, you will because it’ll be a wet day, you can’t see where you’re going and then you press the throttle a little bit harder in following another car. Your visors are obliterated. You are listening, you’ve got peripheral vision looking for brake marker boards or trees or reference points, whatever. So if you’re scared, you can’t get in. You come to a certain level of peace with yourself when you step over the side of those things that certain things might happen. You might get hurt. You might get paralyzed, you might be killed. So if you don’t manage that down and you’re scared, you literally couldn’t make them function. Of course, you hope that’s not going to happen.
And you think it’s not going to happen. Now I survived three crashes I probably shouldn’t have survived. I’ve got lucky. And if you look at Ayrton’s crash in 1994 at Imola, we all survived much worse crashes than that. He just got so unlucky with that piece of suspension, for example. So yeah, I believe in fate on all that kind of thing. But no, I don’t think you ever get scared. Have you ever seen Mark Webber overtake Fernando Alonso around the outside in Eau Rouge? That’s worth YouTubing. That’s probably one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen in a Formula 1 car. But no, you can’t be scared.
As a driver, you can’t be scared. But how about as a commentator? Does it hit you differently when you’re in the TV box and you see Romain Grosjean in flames or Zhou Guanyu flipping?
I only think of myself as a racing driver who does commentary. I don’t think of myself as a broadcaster at all. I just think I’m a driver who talks about it, basically. I guess I came through a fairly hard phase where drivers were injured, and drivers were killed, and that’s the nature. I saw my teammate get killed. And even my son’s been in two or three races where a driver has been killed, and he’s a generation down the road. So you’ve already mind-managed the danger of it. You don’t want to see anybody hurt in the name sport. You know, everybody likes to see a big crash don’t they really, or a spectacular crash.
Nobody wants to see anybody hurt or certainly killed in the name of sport. It just makes sense. But at the same time, you’ve got to be doing something that other people couldn’t or wouldn’t want to do.
Why would you spend a thousand bucks going to a Formula 1 race if it wasn’t a bit scary and a bit edgy and “wow” and just fast? You wouldn’t. So it’s a scary sport. It’s a dangerous sport and it always will be. And to an extent, it always should be.
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