Steve's article with Alan is below, and was written in December 2012:
When a man is exceptional at what he does, and a top bloke to boot, legends grow around his achievements. Those who know him well re-tell the legends to friends, and soon receive them back from other directions.
What everyone says about Alan Henry, the world’s greatest grand prix reporter, renowned for his tenacity at chasing a story and his stylish wit at recounting it, is that for nearly three decades he has assisted the careers of rivals in a highly irregular way. 'AH', as he is universally known, has been addicted to news since he first donned a press badge for a minor club event at Snetterton one summer weekend in 1968. Trouble is, he’s also brilliant at spinning yarns; he’d high-tail back to the press room and tell everyone in vivid terms what he’d found out.
“It’s true,” says AH. “I’ve always been hopeless at keeping secrets. I’d be down into the paddock, getting the thoughts of Gerhard, and next thing I’d be back to the press room saying: ‘You’ll never guess what Gerhard said…’. I guess over the years there have been quite a few episodes like that, and times my stories were broken by someone who’d heard it first from me. That’s irritating…”
Henry, who is taking half a step back from the starting grid but refuses so much as to breathe the word 'retirement', drove to his first grand prix, Brands Hatch, 1964, in his mum’s Ford Consul on L-plates and parked on the South Bank to watch Jim Clark thrash Graham Hill. “It wasn’t what I wanted. I always wanted Graham to win though I knew Clark was the better driver. Hill was the outsider, the underdog, and that somehow made him more deserving.”
He followed the sport while working variously as an articled clerk and in a London bank, making contact with the press when he wrote to Autosport’s editor of the time, Simon Taylor, to complain. “I’d been at Brands for a club meeting and their report was plainly wrong. I knew it was nonsense because I’d been there and seen what really happened. Taylor said if I was so clever, perhaps I should get to Snetterton the next weekend and write a dummy report, so I did. About three weeks later, back came a letter. There’s one phrase from it I remember: ‘You seem to have a very clear idea of what we want…’.”
Pretty soon AH was a busy 21-year-old race reporter, working weekends but continuing his day jobs until 20 June 1970 when he was invited to meet Wesley Tee, patriarch of the family dynasty that published Motor Sport and Motoring News. “He said he wanted to offer me a position,” says AH, “but was full of apologies for the fact that the salary was only £1500 a year and the company car was only a used Lotus-Cortina. My salary at the time was £1000, and I’d been driving my Mum’s Mini 850…”
Henry’s first grand prix as fully fledged reporter was the 1973 Silverstone event at Brands Hatch. MN’s man Andy Marriott had moved on to better things and they needed someone for the rest of the season, and beyond. “It was a helluva race,” says AH. “Scheckter in the third McLaren triggered a huge shunt by running wide at Woodcote. The race was won by Pete Revson, a really good guy who no-one talks about now, though I reckon he was a better driver than Andretti. So it turned out to be a good day for McLaren, even though they took out half the field.” For the next 20 years, AH never missed a grand prix.
“The rest of the ’73 season was bruising,” he recalls. “We’d had this huge shunt, then at my first foreign race, Zandvoort, Roger Williamson died. And at Watkins Glen at the end of the season, François Cevert was killed, too.
“I was in my early 20s; I just thought that’s what happened in F1. I knew quite a lot of drivers — Emerson (Fittipaldi), Niki (Lauda) and Ronnie (Peterson) from reporting F2 — although I hadn’t known Williamson. But I’d interviewed Cevert, a really good guy, at Thruxton. At one Easter Monday meeting he drove me from the circuit into Andover in his 6.3 Merc and we talked over a roast beef lunch, before he drove back to the circuit to qualify the car.” Drivers and press were like an extended family in those days, says AH. Niki Lauda even stayed a few times on his parents’ sofa (“my mother wondered if we should put a plaque on it”).
And so it continued for 20 years, AH attending and reporting every single race, through each era. He missed several races in 1994 through injuries sustained by falling off a horse but soon returned to a near perfect record amassing the remarkable tally of 660 grands prix attended and reported. “We had an easier time dealing with people through the 1970s and '80s,” he reckons, “but things got complicated when people like Ron Dennis and John Barnard appeared on the scene. They weren’t the kind of people who were interested in giving us access, and the technology situation was getting complex, as well. The carbonfibre era had arrived and the last thing they wanted to do was tell us about it.”
Though AH is an unrivalled expert on historical events (he can tell you exactly what Senna said to Prost after the famous wet European grand prix at Donington in 1993) his experience and razor-sharp memory make him one of the most confident and robust commentators on contemporary events. Put him in charge of the F1 formula and he’d immediately “bin” KERS and DRS. “They’re Complete Nonsense, with a capital ‘C’ and a capital ‘N’,” he says. “People say they promote passing manoeuvres, but I think drivers would manage most of them anyway. Besides, some of what we see looks far too contrived. Drop KERS and DRS and you’ll keep the engineers busy for five years, making up the performance.”
On today’s drivers, AH is inclined to take no prisoners. He “can’t get excited” about Sebastian Vettel, though he has plenty of time for Jenson Button (“He’s grown into the great guy he always promised to be, polite, witty and he actually notices who he’s talking to. Not many of them know how to do that.”)
The bar staff have long ago collected our glasses and the waitresses are ready to go. But I need AH’s view on one more burning question, the health and durability of F1’s audience, He’s positive, to start, on the continuing importance of Bernie, the irreplaceable ringmaster whose genius was to leave a little extra on the plate for those he needed. And he is full of admiration for the BBC coverage of F1 this year, and of David Coulthard’s reporting prowess in particular. But whether the F1 audience has peaked is highly debatable. “That,” he says, “is the $64million question Mr Ecclestone would like to be able to answer positively as he negotiates with circuits and media companies about the future. But if he’s wrong, it’ll be a matter of seeing who gets to the lifeboats first. Or rather, second…”
Alan Henry on...
…the greatest F1 race you’ve seen?
It has to be the wet 1993 European GP at Donington, when Senna (McLaren) drove from fifth into the lead on the first lap. He won the race with Prost (Williams) second. After the race, Prost complained about his car. I’d be happy to swap, said Senna…
…the best driver ever
Stirling Moss. For his skill, determination, modesty and ability to win races in every category of the sport. He never abused his cars, but stroked them to victory instead. His lack of an F1 world championship doesn’t matter at all; it just makes him more special.
…your favourite racing car
The Lotus 72. Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson won their first GPs in one, and Emmo his first championship. To me, the 72’s great creator, Colin Chapman, remains undervalued in F1. He gets pigeonholed as the guy who discovered ground effects, but he did so much more than that.
…racing’s nicest guy
It was Riccardo Patrese, once he grew up. He was a lovely guy, won plenty of races, lasted a very long time at the highest level and had to cope with Nigel Mansell as a team-mate. That would have tested anyone.
…the best of all the books you’ve written
It’s called 'Brabham: the grand prix cars'. I managed to get Gordon Murray, Bernie, and Nelson Piquet to help with it. Plus Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash, two lovely guys who were the first Brabham mechanics. To tell the truth, it’s the only one of my books I can bear to take down off the shelf.