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”).