Even at their most processional, Formula 1 races offer American television viewers a few interludes of surefire entertainment to break up the tedium. The start is always exhilarating. And with any luck, there’s an on-track pass that can be replayed ad infinitum, in super slo-mo, from every imaginable angle. But the highlight of most broadcasts usually comes before the race even begins, when a perennially smiling, relentlessly upbeat Brit raised in Australia trolls up and down the starting grid, doggedly reeling in less-than-cooperative drivers and other media-shy F1 luminaries for unscripted interviews. And when he catches a live one, which he almost always does, he thrusts his microphone toward a nonplussed face and announces, “You’re live on Speed in America.”
“I’ve always viewed journalism as a way to find out what happened, so I’ve never had a problem with interviews,” Peter Windsor says. “But the prerace segment really gets the adrenaline going. When the pit lane opens, we’re live and, regardless of who’s around, we’ve got to do a show. Between the FOM [Formula One Management Ltd.], my cameraman, and all the Speed guys in Charlotte, there are about fifteen people involved. I love working with them because it’s probably the next best thing to having my own Formula 1 team.”
Funny comment, that. For the past decade, the fifty-seven-year-old Windsor has been the face of Formula 1 in the United States, better known to American viewers than most F1 drivers. But in mid-March, he’ll swap roles and bring the face of America to Formula 1 when US F1 – the new Charlotte, North Carolina-based team founded by Windsor and American racing-car designer Ken Anderson and funded primarily by YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley – makes its debut at the Bahrain Grand Prix. After a lifetime devoted largely to covering Formula 1 news, Windsor himself has become part of the story.
Not all of the press is positive. With the 2010 season about to begin, Windsor and US F1 are generating plenty of skepticism. Historically, American teams have fared miserably in Formula 1. Dan Gurney’s Eagle is the only car built in the U.S.A. to have won a postwar grand prix (at Spa in 1967), and there hasn’t been an American team presence in F1 since Carl Haas’s English-built cars disappeared in 1986. US F1’s budget-conscious business model flies in the face of the cost-no-object philosophy that has dominated the sport in recent years. And while conventional wisdom holds that successful F1 cars are built in either the U.K. or Maranello, US F1 is planning to leverage the NASCAR heritage around its home base.
Windsor himself has been a lightning rod for criticism. To those who know him only through his work for Speed or his writing in F1 Racing, he’s a strange choice for the new team’s executive vice president and sporting director, no less bizarre than if Bob Costas were named manager of the New York Yankees. But, in fact, Windsor is the ultimate F1 insider, and “journalist” is just one of the many hats he’s worn. “I never wrote for the sake of having a great story or scooping everybody else,” he says. “Writing was just a way of getting involved in the sport and understanding how it worked. But I always felt more comfortable being part of a team and talking to the drivers than I did going to the pub with the other journalists.”
Windsor was instrumental in shepherding Nigel Mansell from the low minors to the rarefied heights of Formula 1. He was the guy who pulled Frank Williams from his mangled rental car after the accident that paralyzed him. He bought Brabham from Bernie Ecclestone and briefly co-owned the team before being embroiled in notorious litigation for control of the operation. He managed the English Ferrari factory that built the cars that nearly carried Alain Prost to the world championship in 1990, and then he served as team manager when Mansell earned the title for Williams in 1992. He’s made several serious, although ultimately unsuccessful, runs at creating F1, CART, and IRL teams. But despite all the highs and lows, Windsor remains as much a fan today as he was when he was a kid sitting in an empty bathtub in Sydney, pretending to be Jim Clark at the wheel of a Lotus 25.
“Peter gives his life over to Formula 1 more than anybody else I know,” says British journalist Nigel Roebuck, a longtime friend. “I’m sure he spends more time thinking about motor racing than just about anybody short of Ross Brawn. It’s a genuine obsession, and it was from the first day I met him. He has this extraordinary enthusiasm for the minutiae of the sport. He’ll sit up halfway through the night having conversations about incredibly esoteric happenings in the past – why didn’t Jean Behra wear his checkered helmet at Goodwood in 1958? There’s a fairly minimal audience for that sort of thing, but Peter delights in it.”
Although Windsor maintains an apartment in London with his wife, Claudia, he’s constantly on the road. During the upcoming season, the team will work out of a race shop in Spain. But today, on a brisk Wednesday morning in December, Windsor is in Charlotte to attend meetings at US F1’s headquarters. As usual, he’s dressed fastidiously, from his Australian cricket club tie to his freshly polished boots. After leaving his hotel, he stops at a frame store to pick up a newly matted print depicting his hero, two-time F1 champ Jim Clark, with the yellow Lotus Elan he gave to Swiss journalist Jabby Crombac shortly before Clark’s fatal crash in 1968. (Windsor bought the Elan from Crombac several years ago.) When he arrives at his office – where the only piece of decoration is another Jim Clark print – he eagerly opens a package containing three pairs of reproduction Jim Clark driving gloves.
“I’ve never forgotten the impact Jimmy made on me,” Windsor says as he tries on the gloves. “When I thought he might be arriving in Australia for the Tasman races, I’d ring up Qantas or Air New Zealand or whoever and say, ‘Look, could you go through the manifest of the flight coming in?’ And when they’d say, ‘Oh, yes, there’s a J. Clark on this flight,’ I’d rush out to the airport, and all of a sudden, Jim Clark would appear, and I’d be the only guy standing there! In ’67, I ran out onto the tarmac and carried his briefcase to the terminal. In ’68, when I went to see him off after the Longford race, the plane had a technical fault, so he came back into the terminal and said, ‘Oh, you’re still here? Come and have a coffee.’ We sat down, and I chatted to Jimmy for about twenty-five minutes. I was the last guy in Australia ever to speak to him, because he died about a month later.”
Born in England, Windsor moved to Australia with his family when he was four and began covering races when he was thirteen. By the time he was eighteen, he was stringing for Autosport, the bible of English-language racing magazines. At twenty, he moved to England to immerse himself in Formula 1, apprenticing with photojournalist David Phipps and then working for Nigel Roebuck. Windsor was named sports editor of the august British weekly, Autocar, when he was just twenty-three. But more important to Windsor’s career was the friendship he forged with driver Carlos Reutemann. “Carlos used to say to me, ‘Go stand at such and such corner and tell me at what point Fittipaldi and Andretti are touching the curb on exit relative to me,’ ” he says. “I learned a lot from Carlos. I can watch cars out on the circuit, and within a lap or two, I can tell whether a driver is singing with the music or whether it’s all bravery and reflexes.”
In 1985, Windsor rejected a job offer from Ron Dennis at McLaren and became sponsorship manager for his friend Frank Williams. The following year, he was riding shotgun after a test at Circuit Paul Ricard when Williams lost control of their rented Ford Sierra on the way to Nice, France. “I buried myself in the footwell area in the crash position as Frank fought the car,” he recalls. “We left the road, and I heard nothing – just nothing at all – as we flew through the air. It took forever. Then there was this massive upside-down impact, and we rolled several times. We came to rest with fuel everywhere, and I remember Frank saying, ‘I’m trapped. I can’t get out. I can’t get out. Help me. I can’t get out.’ I dragged him out the rear window by his armpits to protect his neck. Then I lay in this plowed field with Frank, cradling his head as he lost consciousness, for about fifty minutes before an ambulance got there.”
Windsor went on to team glory with Williams and Ferrari. But his efforts to create teams of his own proved to be, in his words, “somewhat soul-destroying.” He and Anderson worked together on several stateside projects that foundered from lack of funding. Then Windsor and former racer Tetsu Ikuzawa began scouring Japan for backing for an F1 operation. People were hired and technical drawings were commissioned, but the project was stillborn. “You never know when to stop, because you always think something’s going to happen tomorrow,” Windsor says. “We kept going, kept going, and kept going until we had no money left at all. That was two years of my life. Then I started again as a journalist.”
Before long, Windsor’s writing was being featured regularly in F1 Racing magazine. But it was his broadcast work on the grid before F1 races and conducting the interviews in the official postrace news conferences that earned him cult status with American F1 fans. “He had to walk a tightrope without a net, and he was always on the brink of disaster,” says Speed vice president Frank Wilson. “What was most impressive about him was his ability to ask relevant questions under pressure.”
Still, Windsor’s most extraordinary qualities are his persistence and a brand of optimism that borders on delusion. In 2006, despite setbacks that would have crushed a lesser man, he embarked on yet another run at putting together a Formula 1 team. As he and Anderson made the rounds of potential investors from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, their pitch was simple and straightforward: We can do it cheaper. We can do it better. And we can do it in America. “Without touching American race fans the way I’ve been able to through Speed, I certainly wouldn’t have had the same motivation to do US F1,” Windsor says. “I’m not an American, but I owe a lot to America. It’s given me a fantastic career in television, and I want to give something back.”
Two American cars on the grid at Bahrain would be nice. A win would be even nicer.
Watch this space.