“Defining the Message”

It may seem obvious, but while working to dig out developing stories, a rather significant proportion of motorsport journalism revolves information fed to us through various press officers.

Much of this is quite mundane stuff and are for the most part session reports with quotes, the announcement of new sponsors or a declaration that one is joining a team/series for the following season.

In the case of a driver, the press release will, in theory, do its best to promote the qualifications of said racer, followed by an excitable quote that normally tells of how they have always wanted to tackle said series and are looking forward to the challenge ahead. All well and good. All well and expected, but in the grand scheme of things, these are rarely headline breaking stories, but still informative enough to bank either way.

For some drivers, there is precious little need to dig deep to outline their qualifications – Lando Norris’ record, for example, speaks for itself. When a press release from Ralph Boschung’s team arrived this morning (Friday, November 17th), I could only raise an eyebrow.
If one is to be brutally fair, Boschung is a solid, if unspectacular driver. He has score three points finishes so far in this year’s FIA Formula 2 Championship with Campos Racing and is 19th in points, but the Swiss driver split with the team following the penultimate round at Jerez. Realistically, I am unsure how much more is expected of Boschung – if he were to stay in Formula 2 for another season, he would potentially fare a little better, but it is unlike that Boschung will set the world alight and I doubt that will ever change to any great detail.

But… a press officer still needs to sell it and when you need to grab things to bolster your subject, you do so with gusto. If you are lucky, the journalist writing the story will knock a piece out without thinking anything about it – that is quite poor practice, but increasingly common at a time when all news counts all of the time and research merely is seconds lost to the clock.
According to the press release, “[Boschung had] an impressive maiden FIA Formula 2 Championship season – in which he scored a pole position and three points finishes…” As I have already referred to the points finishes already (two 8th‘s and a 9th), I will leave them at that; however I could only smile at the concept of his scoring a pole position.
In one sense, Boschung did just that. He scored a pole position at Baku in June… for the reverse grid Sprint Race. Having come home 8th on the Saturday, the top eight finishers were reversed for the next morning’s reverse grid race and thus Boschung “scored a pole position.” It’s clearly spin, but the one of the main jobs of a press release is to sell you as positive a story that’s possible.

But what happens when the message gets confused, lost in translation or only partially translated?

An important part of what a journalist does is decipher the conversations one enjoys with those within the paddock. For example, if I were to ask a leading member of the DTM paddock whether they feel the Super GT-based GT500 teams will have an advantage should the Class One regulations (aerodynamic, chassis and engine) be approved for the 2019 season, then he might say “no”, because the Class One regulations have not been enacted yet and therefore no one has the advantage, as the ruleset does not yet exist in competition.
Yet GT500 is running to Class One regulations – albeit a version of Class One regulations that have yet to be ratified – and has been since 2014.While the chassis regulations are relatively close to what DTM currently utilise, the GT500 manufacturers will have had five full seasons of running what many believe will be the make-up of the Class One engines, but it still is not Class One.
It could then be argued – rightly – that the question was wrong and in that one would be right (that the question is wrong). If one asked if the GT500 teams had an advantage due to their exploitation of the proposed GT500 framework regulations, then the answer from the DTM senior member might be different. Senior members of teams, particularly manufacturers, are media trained and will know how to deflect questions if needed, particularly if the question itself has a narrow definition.

It is not inconceivable that one will occasionally be sought out, in order to have a very deliberate conversation. Sometimes that conversation might start naturally; mostly though the party could also wait for you to merely open the subject, offering up the opportunity for them to get a view across and ultimately make a statement.
Recently during a meeting with two very senior members of the European Formula 3 paddock, I was informed that during a conference, a very senior individual in the Formula One community mentioned that “Formula 3 should be about entertainment and low costs” and that “driver development is not a key priority.” Upon contacting the office of the individual, his communications officer informed me that this comment was “made during a private chat and extrapolated out of its proper context, therefore […] cannot attribute it on the record…”
Not exactly the strongest of rebuttals admittedly. Alas the message from the Formula 3 personnel was delivered, digested and coded and my return query was – to a degree – responded too as well.
As a philosophical aside, this raises the question as to whether the very concept of junior categories in their original sense is now null and void, instead limiting the likes of Formula 3 to be merely support categories for your entertainment and drivers bish, bash, bosh and DRS-pass their way up reverse grid orders. This meeting in the paddock served to remind me of a rather tongue-in-cheek comment from a former colleague a few years ago as we pulled into the car park at Rockingham to cover a British F3 round. “If these championships were serious about driver development, then these races would be taking place on a Tuesday afternoon behind closed doors and without television cameras, followed by some sort of tuition…”

The conversation with Formula 3 members also turned to disappointing news that Formula 3 will officially become a spec category from 2019, when it more or less replaces GP3 in all but name and car. The pairing lamented how drivers are learning less and less in these junior categories, while Formula One continues to accelerate development at a rate never before witnessed. There were mentions of how the spec cars become more expensive due to the part restrictions placed in the regulations.
It was cited, for example, the cost of a new carbon fibre front wing, should even an endplate become damaged; the purchase of which could only be made from the manufacturer, as per the regulations. In theory, a new front wing could come to over £1,000, whereas the team have in their factory the people, tools and materials to construct the spare part for approximately one-quarter of the price, albeit from aluminium. Which as an aside, makes one question why the extremities of a Formula 3 car “need” to be constructed from carbon fibre at all?

Press releases, conversations and the deeper meanings of the messages are usually coded in some respect, and this is a hugely important pieces of journalism and storytelling and if one does not extrapolate, attempt to decipher the code or look through the epic bullshit, then one is merely spewing crap.

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