Motorsport – as much as it has its perks – is a dangerous sport, and each time a driver climbs into their cockpit, they’re risking their lives. We’ve seen a multitude of accidents over recent years and it has to be on our agenda to continue pushing for racing to be as safe as it possibly can.
A commentator’s role is to put what’s happening on track into words – and that’s everything happening on track, the good and the bad.
Alex Jacques commentates on Formula 2 - as well as other racing categories, including F1 for Channel 4 – and in his time as lead commentator for the feeder series, he’s covered the good and the bad of motorsport.
“Commentating comes with a lot of privileges and a lot of perks,” Alex says. “You get to see amazing race tracks and amazing countries that you wouldn’t see if you had a normal office job.
“But, when a series incident happens, the actual craft of what you say becomes very important; your immediate, professional brain kicks into gear.”
Calmness in the commentary box during the initial aftermath of an accident is important for viewers; it helps keep them calm, too. Even if he only has three pieces of information, Alex has to repeat that information for as long as necessary, or until he receives any updates. That’s when motorsport switches from sport to news.
“If the incident is very severe, obviously they have to be very, very careful with information,” Alex explains. “Almost counter-intuitively, you might be left with less information in a big accident.”
Sometimes, a Head of Communications has to retrieve information, meaning there will be a natural lag in getting details to Alex. In certain situations, the timing systems can fail and Alex might be left with the same images that everyone else sees.
“I communicate with F3 and F2 through the gallery,” Alex says. “Eventually, I will be given the official word.”
However, getting that official word can be a drawn-out process or can be received in as little as 20 seconds.
Commentating over a red flag period with little information is probably one of the few times Alex feels any pressure in the job. In a normal situation, the public are often quite forgiving if a mistake is made, but when it comes down to facts during an accident, you can’t make those mistakes.
“You can’t affect the audience, but you can help guide the audience,” he says. “It’s not that whoever in the Comms box at that time isn’t going through the emotions.
“You’re parking the emotions because you want to get the facts out.”
It’s important to remind people not to speculate and believe rumours on social media. In times like these, viewers must stick to official sources.
When it comes to keeping viewers informed in a calm manner during an incident, either with little or no information, Alex refers back to his memories of watching incidents unfolding, like that of Jules Bianchi at Suzuka in 2014. His process – although not coherent when reporting in these situations – is informed by what he would want to know if he was watching.
“All you want is good news and there is no good news in that moment, so you want the person on the microphone to guide you through as best they can,” Alex says. “That’s what informs the way I usually respond to a big incident like that.”
There’s also a different way to approach reporting on a red flag period, depending on the nature of the cause. For obvious reasons, the approach to reporting on a weather-related red flag is completely different to the approach towards an on-track incident.
When Formula 1 returned to the Nürburgring in 2020, poor weather conditions meant that Friday’s practice sessions were cancelled. Then, in 2021, a deluged Spa meant that no proper racing could go ahead as planned.
“There’s almost a curiosity from everyone watching and everyone in the Comms box, like ‘how are we going to fill this amount of time?’,” he says. “When it’s weather related, it’s all good fun.”
However, when it’s incident-on-track related, that’s a horrible part of Alex’s job.
The incident in the F2 feature race in Saudi Arabia last year involving Enzo Fittipaldi and Théo Pourchaire was a stark reminder of how horrible this part of the job can be.
“Immediately, you know how severe an incident like that could be,” he says. “Sometimes, people can be very seriously injured from incidents that on first look, don’t look that bad.
“Motorsport has a long and horrible history of that.”
Often, after an accident like that, we won’t see a replay of the footage, and that goes for those in the commentary box as well as viewers at home. One of the visual clues from a director in this scenario, is whether a replay comes afterwards. However, although Alex in the commentary box and viewers won’t have to see the replay until more news is received, the people working in the gallery have to continue looking at what could be a distressing image.
“If it’s a particularly horrible incident, they have to show extreme professionalism in the TV broadcast centre,” Alex says. “They’re thinking about how they verbally communicate that [news regarding the incident] to me because they know they’ve got a serious incident here.”
Those working in the TV broadcast centre then have to decide when to tell the commentator; will they wait five minutes? Will they wait ten minutes?
“Honestly, in your heart of hearts, you know if it’s very serious almost instantly,” Alex says. “That informs the way you deal with it.”
The accident in Spa in 2019 sent shockwaves through the entire motorsport community. We were given a stark reminder of just how cruel the sport we love can be. It left a lasting impression on everyone who was part of Formula 2 that day. Alex was in the commentary box for that feature race.
“On the dark days, the sport we love comes with a really levelling downside,” Alex says. “The drivers and their families knew there was a risk, but I’m not quite sure we thought the risk would look like that.
“The impact there is not on the commentary; it’s on the Hubert’s and the Correa’s.”
In the aftermath, from a commentary point of view, the accident made Alex very honest and direct with the viewers. He was given support from his broadcast team, who allowed him to say what he wanted about the accident which he always appreciated.
Not only does an accident like that reinforce your appreciation – no matter if you’re working in motorsport or are just a fan – of what the drivers are risking, but it makes you admire what they’re prepared to do and it makes you enjoy the skill and the performance of their ability even more.
It’s important that now, we continue to push safety in motorsport. Changes have been made at Eau Rouge and Raidillon after more accidents in multiple series, including Formula 1 in 2021.
“I genuinely hope not to be part of anything like that ever again,” Alex says. “We should never be satisfied at all, we should never ease up. Let’s keep pushing that safety so nothing like that ever happens again.
“We can’t have repeats of dark days like that.”
Image credit: Alex Jacques