What I've Learned: Martin Brundle

The race car driver turned Formula One commentator on what makes him tick.

BY noor amylia hilda | Nov 3, 2017 | Feature

Screenshot from Martin Brundle’s grid walk in Silverstone 1999 on ITV F1

I was lucky because my mum and dad had a car dealership and so I had the facilities to make my own racing car when I was 12. I never did karting in my career, unusually. I started with old cars on grass and made my way through, got lucky here and there and never imagined I’d be a professional driver.

My first big teammate was Ayrton Senna in Formula 3. He had a god-given talent for speed and grip. I think he drove with his heart and he was gifted, especially on a rainy day. I had to fight him because everybody thought he was automatically the champion before the season even started. His reputation was so strong which really annoyed and motivated me. I still think I should have beaten him. We had an epic season together, in fact there's a movie on iTunes about that Formula 3 season and that’s one of the things I learned; not really about Senna, but that is to never underestimate anybody - any rival, any colleague, anybody.

Everybody in Formula One is a great racing driver. No idiots get to Formula One, it’s hard to get there and it’s even harder to stay there.

In a sports car I felt invincible. But I never felt that way in a Formula One car and it really annoys me. Considering I pushed Senna to the limit and I often beat Michael Schumacher, but he actually broke my career. He was the new kid and people were surprised how he could get ahead of me sometimes. (Former Benetton team boss) Flavio Briatore says to me to this day that he made a mistake in firing me. He just didn’t realise Schumacher was the god that he was then. I probably pushed Michael harder in his first career than any other teammate he had. So, in a way, he really broke my Formula One career because I underperformed my potential. When I see my achievements against great drivers and in all sorts of cars, this fact really frustrates me and I would look back and think, "I’ve now had 21 years doing TV and I’ve learned so much, I wish I had another chance now to go back and do it differently." But you don’t, so you move on.

A page from the Martin Brundle Scrapbook. | Image courtesy of Porter Press International

My first commentary was with Murray Walker in 1997 in Melbourne and I hated it. I didn’t want to be a commentator, I thought I was driving for Jordan that year so I kind of reversed into being a commentator. I couldn’t see the point but actually my time as Formula One driver was past and it’s turned into a very good thing.

To learn sports television from Murray Walker is like having Pelé teach you how to kick a football. Best thing I’ve learned from Murray was to stand up in commentary because it opens up your lungs and your diaphragm so you can express yourself. We had dinner just before the season started in 1997 and I said to him “Okay Murray, tell me what do I need to know because I have no experience in this broadcasting business.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll tell you one thing: We are here to inform and entertain, nothing else.” I’ve remembered that ever since because I think it stands true today.

Sometimes I only half-jokingly say that my racing career was a fact-finding mission for my TV career. Almost anything that has happened on track has happened to me at some point somewhere. Now it’s been 21 years since and I have a bigger following for my media career than I ever did in my driving career and this really annoys me. But I still think of myself as a racing driver who does TV and not as a TV person.

Going back to my early days at the car dealership - I’m a car salesman. When you’re selling anything, communication is everything.

Humour for me is the best communication tool. I can deliver bite-size pieces of information and all that but I’m not a creative person. In Silverstone in1997, they told me, "Why not you just walk up the grid and say what you see?" So, I said I’ll give it a try and 20 years later the Grid Walk has become sort of a cult thing because it’s a unique sporting access to talk to sportspeople just before they do something amazing. Imagine going to Beckham at Wembley and saying, "Hey David, don’t kick the ball! Just before you do, how are you? How’s the pitch today? Can you win this game?" Nobody else gets to do this and I think it helps that the drivers have sponsors all over them too.

I never watch my Grid Walks because I just can’t! First of all, it’s my alter ego. I like to think I’m quite a polite person and going up to people and just sticking up my microphone is not something I enjoy. Luckily, a lot of the drivers know about this but I hate interrupting them and that’s why I don’t watch it. But it all works out just fine in the end.

I get a bit nervous before the Grid Walk because it’s really hard to do. My mind is spinning around like crazy and if you try to plan anything, it never happens. When I'm on the grid, I’m looking for people and I’m listening to two people in my ears. One is telling me who is around and another is giving me a countdown and I’m also trying to see people, I’m trying to think of a relevant question when I meet random people, I’m trying to listen to the answer so I don’t miss a really juicy point and at the same time I’m looking around for my next victim and it really gets my mind working.

I think I’ve used the expression that live TV gives me about 30% of the buzz of being on the grid as a driver and that’s one of the best things I’ve found that gives me a buzz rather than a bungee jump I did in New Zealand and a few other things. I think probably all sports people and certainly all racing drivers are adrenaline junkies. You spend so many years with your adrenaline high that you just need the fix.

To be a good commentator you just have to communicate, inform and entertain. You have a very broad church of people that you’re talking to - from the expert who knows more than you do, to the person who was going to cut the grass but it started to rain and they came in and the Grand Prix was on the TV. You’ve got to give everybody something that adds entertainment and pleasure and mostly it's all about understanding. I think if you can do that, that’s all you can ask for.

If people are not comfortable with you, they have a very easy way to disinvite you from their living rooms with their remote control. So, I think you have to be honest, consistent and knowledgeable. Also, I think in sport, you have had to have done it. I think people will not accept if you haven’t been out there on the grid. So, I would never commentate on another sport, I wouldn’t be remotely interested or good at it.  

Martin Brundle Scrapbook by Martin Brundle is available to purchase here.