As you may have noticed Formula 1 is getting into gear again across the other side of the world with races so far in Australia and Malaysia. One man propping his eyelids open in the early hours to follow the spectacle is London blogger Keith Collantine who runs F1Fanatic, a site dedicated to the sport. Londonist caught up with him as he emerged from lunchtime hibernation after the first race of the season in Melbourne and he told us about the latest rule changes, the mystery of the disappearing London Grand Prix and the joys of live blogging the F1 action.
How did you get into Formula 1?
I started watching Formula 1 when I was about eight. Nigel Mansell was driving for Ferrari, so you had this incredibly popular British driver driving for the world's most famous Formula 1 team. All my mates got into football and I just got into Formula 1 more and more. As everyone says it's a sport and it's a business, but it's also a white hot technological endeavour. Everything that the team does is 24/7, 365 days a year to get the driver onto the grid, but once the driver's there it's all down to him for two hours. It is a team sport, but it's also a sport for individuals and it puts these guys under tremendous pressure and you see what it does to them. When I first started watching Formula 1 in the days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost they did some incredibly extreme things. I mean, Senna took Prost off at 150mph in one race. It's not just the controversy, there's a lot of excitement in there. The pressure and the various conflicting things going on is all part of the appeal.
So how do you go from that to doing the site?
F1Fanatic started in 2005. It wasn't a blog at first. It was just a website, a place for me to write about the sport that I was interested in. At the time I was working in PR and looking to move over into motor sport journalism, because obviously that's what I know, and I thought it would just be a good place to get some writings together. It's evolved. It became a blog at the start of 2006 and it's now become a place for F1 fans to find out about races they can go to and to share experiences with people who've been to races across the globe - Malaysia and Canada and so on. We still follow the races as usual, and the new thing that we've just started for this season is live blogging the races. So last night I was on there with about eighty-odd other people on a live blog that we have with everyone commenting and it was great because we had some people watching ITV and some people watching the American feed and some people watching the German feed. Formula 1 is such an incredibly complicated sport. In a football match all the cameraman has to do is follow where the ball goes. That's really all that's interesting, but in a Formula 1 race you've got twenty-two cars and each one of those cars is a story and there's no way you can follow them all at once. I think blogging offers a brand new and really sophisticated, modern way to follow Formula 1 and get all the stories at once. There was stuff going on in the race last night which ITV, who do a pretty good job on the whole, missed out on and that's always going to be the case.
Picture of the 2004 London Formula 1 demonstration event via jtstewart's Flickr stream.
What are the key things that draw people to your site?
There's lots of Formula 1 blogs out there and a lot that I really like. Most of them concentrate on just following the sport as it is today, the latest news and gossip and so on. F1Fanatic is a little bit more broad perhaps. I occasionally do articles on history and perhaps spend a little bit more time looking at the motor sport world beyond Formula 1. I'm into things like GP2, which is the category where a lot of Formula 1's drivers come from. That's where Lewis Hamilton raced. Timo Glock and Nelson Piquet Jr and Kazuki Nakajima, who've all made their debuts this year, all came through GP2.
F1Fanatic also has quite a lot of content. I'd say we average at least two or three pieces a day and I've had feedback from people saying that they like to know that they can come on at any given point during a day and probably find a new article. Apart from that you've got the general reasons why blogs are really popular today as an alternative to mainstream media. There are always, I think, in any topic, and obviously Formula 1's a niche topic, areas that the mainstream media doesn't cover so well, or perhaps chooses not to cover. One interesting thing that happened when McLaren got their big penalty last year in September, the FIA, the governing body of motor sport published the documents of the different discussions that they'd had, outlining everything that had been said, but allowing McLaren and Ferrari to censor out any bits of confidential technical information that they didn't want the general public getting - wheelbases, weight distributions, things like that - and other sensitive information such as how much their members of staff were being paid. When the FIA published the PDF document they didn't censor it properly and you could actually read everything. So, I put that up on F1Fanatic and that was the most read individual post last year. It got on to text blogs, it got sent round lots of Formula 1 blogs and it was everywhere. I did not read it in a newspaper, I didn't read it in any of the specialist motor sport press, and that surprises me. Blogs always go for that kind of story and I think that's why people increasingly keep an eye on blogs as well as mainstream media because I think that way they feel like they're getting the full picture.
What's the situation with the idea of a London grand prix?
Formula 1 can go to places like Singapore and Malaysia and the government will fund the building of the track and they'll spend hundreds and millions of dollars on it. Silverstone in Northamptonshire, which is run by the British Racing Drivers Club, cannot compete with that and Bernie Ecclestone, who runs the commercial side of Formula 1, is constantly putting them under pressure for this. It seemed like a couple of years ago that his next big plan was to ask for the British Grand Prix to become a street race held in London and this is something he's really stepped up on in the last twelve months. So this year, for example, Formula 1's having two new street races on the calendar - one in Valencia and one in Singapore. Back in 2004 it did look like we were going to have a Grand Prix in London and so they had this demonstration run [pictured above] which went up Regent Street and a couple of other roads. They had loads of spectators, a quarter of a million or something like that if I remember correctly, but a race didn't come together and I'm not entirely sure why. That was 2004. There were no British drivers doing particularly well in F1 at that time. There was just Button and Coulthard. Button was having a reasonable year, Coulthard was basically nowhere, there was no Lewis Hamilton and yet still everyone turned out. One could assume, obviously, that London's been pitched in for the Olympics and it's got plenty of other things going on. I suspect that the government groups involved have gone cold on the idea.
What I do know is that last year Shell put together at great expense a very, very big advertising campaign with Ferrari where they had footage of lots of historic Formula 1 cars driving through the cities of the world and it included New York and Rio de Janeiro and Rome and one of the venues originally was going to be London, but it wasn't because the city council or something like that said that it would be a danger to public safety and so they didn't do it. If they're not willing to let one car in closed circumstances drive down a street it doesn't sound like they're keen to have twenty-two Formula 1 cars racing around the street of London, which is a shame because it would be fun.
How could you get involved in motor sport if you were in London?
Basically karting is all that there's going to be in London, scaled down things that race on small tracks, the kind of thing that young racing drivers cut their teeth on. I think the only track in the centre is at Kings Cross, which I believe is only bookable for corporate events. I have been there once or twice myself.
What are the big rule changes to watch out for in F1 this year?
The biggest change is that they've got rid of traction control which is the little electronic computer gizmo that kicks in when a driver puts his foot to the throttle that makes sure he doesn't accelerate too hard and spin off. Basically they've said that all the teams have to use a mandatory piece of electronic equipment which they can monitor to make sure that the teams are not using traction control and of course the argument here is that the big manufacturers - Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes, Honda, Toyota, Renault - all want these traction control systems on the car because it's good R&D for them. They can develop these systems and make their road car systems better, but from the point of view of Formula 1 as a sport it's terrible because it means that the driver isn't controlling one of the most fundamental things of the car and there's been a big argument rumbling on about this for years since the early 90s. Finally this year they've banned it again and found a way by which they can police this ban and the change that it made in the Australian race was massive. All of a sudden the cars look on screen very, very hard to drive. Don't get me wrong, they were very hard to drive last year, but the difference is now it's clear to the spectator, and to the people watching on TV, just how hard these guys are working. We see them making little mistakes more. There were one or two crashes this morning and it makes it look more spectacular, makes it easier to appreciate what the driver's doing. That's a big thing. The banning of traction control has other knock-on effects that I won't bore you with, but the basic message is the driver is now a bigger part of the equation than they used to be and that for Formula 1 as a sport is a great thing. Based on what I saw this morning I'm confident of a really good season this year.
Do you think Lewis Hamilton will win it this year?
Well, I was very impressed with him this morning - a really clinical win from him. It was a lot like his first win last year. It was a really mad race. The safety car was out a lot, there were quite a lot of crashes, a lot of debris and muck on the track and he just cruised around and won it. Up until seeing that race I was fairly cool on his chances because I thought Ferrari were going to be a bit further ahead than they were today, so I definitely think from a point of view of driving ability he's able to do it. He was able to do it last year. Things went wrong and the team was under a lot of pressure at the end of the year. I would say he can definitely do it, provided the McLaren is competitive all season long and based on what I've seen so far, I think it will be.