The Canadian journalist covered F1 for over 20 years for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times
By Yuri Coghe
Brad Spurgeon wasn’t hard to find on a Sunday of Formula One racing.
In the afternoon, he would be covering the Grand Prix in-loco for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, just as he did for over two decades. At night, you could have spotted him playing his guitar in any given bar in whatever city the motorsport series had taken him to at that time.
“I’d leave the race track, file my story, go to the jam session and stay there most of the night or all night,” Spurgeon said to F1total.ca on a Zoom interview Tuesday, “then I’d take my flight back to Paris so I could sleep.”
The Toronto-born journalist, who lived in Ottawa from age 14 to 18 and has been living in the French capital since 1983, decided to break away from the ‘airport, hotel, race track, restaurant’ routine of an F1 reporter to explore the underground music scene the cities he was visiting year after year had to offer.
He guarantees the ‘personal challenge’ did ‘contribute enormously’ to his work.
“It made for a double enthusiasm for me. There was the racing and then the music, the culture, the life of the country. I ended up having an exposure to world culture that I have to thank the Formula One adventure for.”
But Spurgeon didn’t always like to be constantly on the go. That’s the reason he left the circus he joined in Toronto after turning 18 to work as a juggler and unicyclist.
“I loved to perform but I didn’t really like this life of living out of a suitcase and travelling and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “It was really extraordinary when so many years later I ended up covering the biggest circus that it is, which is F1. Somehow we’re kind of destined to end up where we began.”
Spurgeon retired from covering F1 in-person after the 2016 season, but it didn’t take long for his big passion for the series to claim centre stage in his professional career again.
“Formula 1: The Impossible Collection,” written by Spurgeon and published by luxury-brand Assouline (Assouline.com), came out on May 20 to offer a one-of-a-kind F1 book. Its forewords are written by FIA president Jean Todt and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, both former Ferrari team principals.
The book’s subtitle, ‘100 memorable moments in the world’s favorite motorsport’, makes its mission clear: to encompass the most essential moments in F1 history. The ones that helped shape the sport from a gentlemen’s club started in 1950 to a global phenomenon with hundreds of millions of fans.
Spurgeon read a few volumes of Assouline’s ‘The impossible collection’, which include books about whiskies, Rolex watches, cigars and golf courses, for instance, to see what constituted the impossible. The experience helped him define the concept he was looking for as ‘extraordinary moments, the cream of the cream.’
“I wanted to and I had to cover, I felt, technology, athletic prowess, extraordinary design, important moments that changed the sport, accidents, deaths…
It has to be considered something very personal in a way. There’s always going to be somebody, I’m sure, fans or other experts, who would say ‘How the hell could you not put these moments here’”.
He created a list of 150 moments to start with, narrowing it down and combining some. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna’s accidents in Suzuka, Japan to settle the championship fight in favour of the Frenchman in 1989 and of the Brazilian the following year are shown in the book as one moment, for example.
His home country, where he started to develop his love for F1 when attending the 1967 Canadian Grand Prix – the first time the race was part of the championship, is present.
“I couldn’t leave out Gilles Villeneuve, and I couldn’t leave out Jacques (Villeneuve),” Spurgeon said. The 1997 world championship won by Jacques Villeneuve, his big crash in Australia four years later that left a track marshal dead, and Gilles’ death in 1982 are part of the book.
“It was a huge challenge. It took me months to come up with the list.”
“Not for every fan”
“You don’t really understand what this book is about until you see how big and heavy this thing is,” said Spurgeon at the beginning of the hour-long interview, proudly holding the final product.
In fact, ‘Formula 1: The Impossible Collection’ is unique in every aspect. After all, the publishers’ website defines its ultimate collection as ‘an homage to the art of luxury bookmaking’.
“I didn’t realize they were going to do that many photos that are printed separately and glued to the book. All hand done,” said the author. “The quality is absolutely exceptional. You really feel like this personal thing too.”
Aimed at collectors and appreciators of fine art, it sells for no less than $995 on Assouline’s website.
“That’s why the price. It’s not for any fan. You need a big bookshelf for this too… It requires great care and the white gloves (it comes with).”
The ‘monster of a book’, as said by the author, weighs almost 10 kg. It features a clamshell case and a metal plaque of Prost’s 1990 Ferrari car, part of the Museum of Modern Arts’ collection, in the cover. “Fans can do weightlifting with this book.”
Spurgeon, who had dreams of being a writer even before he became a journalist, always wanted to tie his name to an F1 book but couldn’t quite figure out the proper way to do it.
“It was one of my problems when I thought of pitching ideas for books. Especially in (Great) Britain, where there are lots of F1 journalists and they’re all doing their books, so the market is pretty covered,” he said. “When this book was proposed to me, I said ‘wow, this is perfect. I’m at home here’. It was like a dream come true in a way”.
“The original idea was Assouline’s. I wrote it, I came up with the moments and helped a little bit with the photos, but it was Bernard Asset, photographer, who did all the heavy lifting on that, and Martine Assouline herself who chose the final photos. So, it’s inbuilt with this Assouline spirit.
I did it with my own voice and way, and I was able to use all of my experience and everything I knew about F1, practically.”
‘Formula 1: The Impossible Collection’ has 228 pages and 175 illustrations. It’s available on Assouline.com.
More from Brad Spurgeon’s exclusive interview with F1total.ca:
F1total.ca: Coming from Canada, what got you interested in motorsports and F1? Do you have some early memories from those days when you realized it was something that you really liked?
Brad Spurgeon: I was a kid in the 60s. A long time ago. At that time, I was reading stuff like CAR magazine, Road & Track. I wanted a go-kart. I loved driving go-karts. I wanted a motorcycle, a mini-bike. It was when the mini-bikes first started. But my parents discouraged a lot of that. They wouldn’t give me the money, and cutting grass and delivering newspapers didn’t quite earn enough money for me to buy the go-kart of my dreams. So, I was very much into it, but the thing that really kicked it off was my dad. He took me as a 9-year-old boy to the first Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport. It also turned out that the father of a classmate of mine in Toronto, his father was one of the paid drivers. He was in the race. This was Eppie Wietzes, one of the few Canadian F1 drivers. His son was in some of my classes and we had mutual friends. He used to take me and show this racing car up on blocks in his car dad’s garage. Things were so much more primitive and clubby in those days. It was passed on to me somehow. That’s what started it off. Then when I came to Europe, the passion was totally reborn and fuelled massively by the whole culture here, which was ten times bigger than the culture in Canada for this kind of thing.
F1total.ca: How did you go from this early interest in motorsport to writing about it?
Spurgeon: I had this mental revolution at one point and decided I wanted to become a writer and write about action, not live action. So everything became kind of internalized and I began to write. But my desire was to write fiction. Well, I wanted to write about everything, actually. I had big ambitions. I still do (laughs). That was the great thing about writing. I wanted to be everything and do everything, but only as a writer could you do that in some way. Being a journalist wasn’t the plan. But, little by little, I ended up becoming a journalist. I first worked at the Globe and Mail when I was in university, then I got a job at the (International) Herald Tribune in Paris. First in the very bottom ground floor, in the archives, and I built my way up. So, I was a fan of Formula One in Europe, at the Herald Tribune. And this was the ideal sport for them. Because they wrote about international subjects that were perhaps not of interest to the local news in the United States. So, there was a place for writing about F1, and it was my passion.
They had an excellent sports journalist and they sent him to the Monaco Grand Prix. This guy hated car racing. He was (all about) basketball, tennis… He was a great writer but knew nothing about it. When I read his article the next day, I said ‘wait a minute. I can do articles that are going to be of more interest to racing fans than what he did because he didn’t have any passion for it, even though he is a great writer.’ So, I decided to write about it, a story about the 1993 season in the middle of the season. They took the story immediately, published the next day and called it ‘sports analyses. That was the beginning. I ended up pushing for and building it up, and it became a full-time job – and the perfect job for that newspaper.
F1total.ca: How did the two decades you spent covering F1, travelling around and seeing so many countries, shape you as a person?
Spurgeon: Massively. Massively. I had done some travel in my life before that. I was in Iran at the time of the revolution, I was in England, lived there for a year. I lived in New York, Africa for a year… But with Formula One, I visited something like 30 countries. Not just visited but went annually. I got to know cultures that I never dreamed of. Well, I did dream of it, but I never expected that my job would take me there. I got to see China, South Korea, Japan, South America, Mexico, Azerbaijan… All these places.
At one point, I decided that I’d start bringing my guitar around to every race and doing open mic and jam sessions. It was like a personal challenge and I had the time to do it. It was at that point when there was a sudden change. I went several times to São Paulo before I ever took my guitar, and it was only when I took my guitar that I discovered Vila Madalena. I ended up walking around the streets at night with my guitar on my back and saying: ‘well, you got to be careful here but this is a place like every other place. They love the music and they’re great’. Bossa Nova was something I never liked before. I never felt it. I went to a Bossa Nova jam session and suddenly I understood it and loved it. I felt that I understood it. I was playing music with people that didn’t even know there was a race there, sometimes, in certain countries. Music brings people together. It opens up doors in our vision. I realized that it really was this universal language of music because what people liked here, they liked there.
F1total.ca: The book takes the reader from when F1 was a gentleman’s club to this huge sport it is nowadays. In your opinion, where can it go and what levels can it reach, let’s say, in the next 50 years?
Spurgeon: Sports go through cycles. Look at Indycar, it’s not what it used to be. The world needs a top-level of auto racing. Formula One therefore can fit that category, but it took a Bernie Ecclestone, a Max Mosley, who just died, unfortunately, surprisingly, sadly. These sports need good, strong vision and leadership. Ecclestone, Jean Todt gave it that. How far will that continue? We’ve already seen this American company buy the thing and now what? They disappear after three, four years? They still own it, but they’ve handed over the control away from the traditional people within their company. This was one of the keys to the success of the sport. That the people running in the past were passionate about racing. Yeah, Bernie Ecclestone was an entrepreneur passionate about making money too, but he was passionate about making money out of his passion for racing. You can’t run this thing, I don’t believe, like any corporate entity. They need people who are passionate, know and are there for the racing above all.
But I think what’s going to most affect it probably is this move towards cleaner energy. If you got cars going around like Formula E, is that going to be as fascinating and exciting as it was with those V10, V12 and V8s? The noise, the screaming, the visceral feeling in the chest that everybody had, it’s not quite there anymore with the current engines. I don’t know. The only thing I can say is that there always has been, so I think there always will be a pinnacle of automobile racing. And it’s got to have the technological side to it where people say ‘these are the best cars’. The question then goes back to ‘will a fuel cell-powered car be as exciting to watch as something that is spewing smoke and sound?
F1total.ca: Which one of the drivers you’ve seen race while you were covering F1 do you think is the best?
Spurgeon: Of those I’ve seen and known, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind of who the very best is. And that’s Michael Schumacher. My reason for that is multiple. But one of the greatest things that he had, aside from all of his skills as a driver and technician, is that you would never hear Schumacher at any point in his career yelling over the radio, complaining over the radio, the way Lewis Hamilton was doing in Monaco this weekend when he started losing. Hamilton has been winning in the most incredible manner and he’s really got some tough competition this year. Schumacher, from what I know and what I saw, never held a gun to the head of the team and said ‘you got to do better than this. This is crap, how can I deal with this?’ Schumacher sat through several years of frustration at Ferrari, believing in the team, believing in everybody, believing they would be able to do it, and holding his tongue. I understand that there were times when, if he didn’t win, he would go to his motorhome and kick the walls down. But would never blame the team from what I know. This capacity to build the team around him and to never complain in a destructive manner is something that I’ve only ever seen with Michael Schumacher. Maybe there are other drivers who weren’t so talented who could do it, so they never got close to that succesful of a career. Schumacher had the full package. Hamilton is an astounding driver. He’s great. Have I ever seen a driver that respectful of others on the track? Hard to imagine. But I don’t believe he had the team-building thing and the communications skills that Schumacher had. And I’m not criticizing him in any way, because I love Lewis Hamilton. So, Schumacher number one, Hamilton probably number two.
F1total.ca: Thinking about this new generation of Max Verstappen, George Russell, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, Pierre Gasly, where do you think they will lead the pack once the four champions we have on the current grid are ready to go?
Spurgeon: These guys are extraordinary, there’s no doubt. They all came from this period where go-karting has become such an institution, such a way of life for children, so these guys are ready as 20-year-olds or less, in a way that was never the case in the past. This crop, what a group. What an extraordinary group. It definitely looks like the future. But how does this compare to the past? The plain field changes so much. You look at those films from the 50s because I wasn’t there, I was being born (laughs). It takes about 10 minutes for those cars to get to the first corner. When they’re going around, they’re so slow that you could have a picnic in front of them before they get to you to say ‘excuse me, get off the track’. And these are the people who a lot of fans say that was the greatest period ever. But if you fast forward and see the cars now, when they are glued to the track and are going around when you just can’t imagine the speed, there’s no comparison. I think that we’re moving into a different period now. In Senna and Prost’s time, those guys started F1 at 28, 29 years old, and that was normal. They had a 10-year career if they were lucky – the very best of them. So, the rules of the game, the whole thing is changing. And it’s been influenced by electronics, videogames… We’re starting to get into a new period, a new-Epoque. So, I can’t compare these guys to Prost or even to Hamilton, really. I think that Hamilton, Rosberg, these people came from an F3000 and GP3 (time). They came in young, but in a different shape, with a different mentality and game plan than what we’re now into. Yes, it’s tomorrow, they’re the future and they’re exciting. But I don’t think we can compare them to the people who came in the past. Look at Gilles Villeneuve! The guy started on snowmobiles! The man was crazy and brilliant. That kind of raw energy, power and craziness doesn’t exist today. But what does exist is massively admirable, and it’s something else. It’s great and I love it. I think the racing now is as good as it’s ever been, if not better.