Will Buxton is a well-known journalist, broadcaster and personality to many motorsport fans, as well as a prevalent sharer of the news and views from inside the paddock via his social media channels. The most important thing though, is that Will remains a fan, and therefore when he writes, he does so with passion.
This week sees the launch of his book “My Greatest Defeat”, an insight into the challenges that the featured drivers from all motorsport genres have been through at some point in their career, and I sat down with Will earlier this year to talk about the project.
The concept itself is an original one, and I asked Will how the journey had started and how it had come about?
“I’d wanted to write a book for years, and I was always told motor racing books didn’t sell. I was always trying to find that one thing that was a bit different, and I was on a flight, one of many I take throughout the year, and was watching the Ferrari and Ford documentary about Le Mans. That’s such a great documentary, and it hit me just at that moment that the great stories in our sport aren’t necessarily about victory. It’s about defeat, and what it is that keeps people coming back, what is it that inspires them to keep trying, but also, that moment of ultimate heartbreak. And so it started.”
“The working title was The Race That Broke My Heart, and it was going to be about that moment when a driver had it all in his hands, and it was taken away from him on the last lap. Mika, his engine going. Massa, the world championship. You’ve got it all and then you’ve got nothing. I was talking to a driver that I really wanted in the book, and he said look, I’d love to be a part of something with you, but I just feel like the topic’s a bit wishy-washy, and it’s a bit ‘woe is me’. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I’ve led an amazing life, and been very fortunate to do this as a job and I don’t want people sitting there thinking I’m feeling sorry for myself, but if you think of something that’s a bit different, then I’d love to be a part of it.”
“I went away, and the next day I had an interview with Niki Lauda for the book. I’d already pitched it to Mercedes as being something, so I couldn’t wholesale change it. So I’m going around to all the writers and journalists in the paddock and saying ‘Talk to me about Niki, talk to me about Niki’, trying to think of how I can shift the concept around a bit, and someone said to me ‘You know that he lost a plane when he ran Lauda Air? That’s for me I think, the lowest that I’ve known him’. So I went into the interview, and I hadn’t had any time to really do any research, and I said, ‘Niki, what would you like to talk about?’ and he said ‘It’s your book’. I said ‘Well look, I’ve been speaking to some people. A lot of people told me about ’76 obviously, coming back. But then there was ’77, and what you had to go through that year, with Ferrari not really wanting you there. Then I also found out obviously about the plane crash.’ And Niki’s reaction – he said “Yeah well, they were both pretty shit.” I said, “Well which was worse?” And at that moment I felt both unbelievably stupid, and I just felt like an asshole for asking that question. He said it was the plane crash, no question, so I asked him if he’d be willing to talk about it and he said yeah. That’s where the book started.”
“I came out of that interview realising that while the subjects were all racing drivers, they’re people, and they’ve all got their own stories, and that what affected them may have been a moment within this bubble of Motorsport that we exist within, but actually the real world outside is far more real, and those were the moments that I wanted to discover. The moments that gave them their greatest soul-searching. If it was something to do with racing, great, but it turned out that for the vast majority it really wasn’t.”
This surprises me, and I put it to Will that I had expected them to be all motorsport moments. There are some that I think I can guess at though, where you might think the moment they discuss is an obvious one – perhaps with Alex Zanardi, for example?
— My Greatest Defeat (@GreatestDefeat) February 22, 2018
“Alex’s actually is a moment in racing, but it’s a decision that he made in his career, that ultimately led to the situation he was in when he lost his legs. He said he doesn’t look at losing his legs as a regret, because it allowed him to find a part of himself, and to get out of himself that which he never knew existed before, so it’s actually not a bad thing. A very Alex-type response, that became a very philosophical. It’s actually one of my favourite chapters in the book, a debate about how in hindsight we can look back on the decisions that we make, and only really in hindsight realise why we made them. Do we make decisions based on our ambition or our passion? How do you decipher between the two, and can you only do so in hindsight.”
“Whether the notions we create in childhood, our childish dreams and aspirations, whether they forever frame the decisions that we make, and whether we can see outside of that enough to understand whether the dreams we had and the direction we’ve taken is still taking us to the place that our passion determines we should go. Then, on the flip side, if you are placed into a situation where you don’t have control, as he was with his legs, to find something within that situation that you’re so passionate about that you make it enjoyable for yourself. For Alex, it was that he loved engineering, so for him to get through that moment of hardship of losing his legs he threw himself into ‘Well, how can I make my legs better? How can I create something that works better?’ He’s been more efficient. When he’s on his bike, ‘How can I make this thing more aerodynamic? How can I make it go faster? How can I work constantly to better the situation that I’ve been put in?’
“Each chapter for me is fascinating, because everybody’s story is so completely unique, and I wasn’t able to research anything before I went into the interviews because I never knew what anybody was going to talk about. My first question was just ‘What was your lowest moment?’ and from that, everything else came.”
I wonder if a lot of the subjects within the book were people that Will already had a personal connection with, which is why they opened up so much with him. I’m surprised to hear that it was often the opposite.
“Oddly enough, some of the interviews that I enjoyed the most were the people I had no connection with previously. One of the ones that really resonates with me, and there’s a lovely story behind it, is Jeff Gordon, because I really wanted to interview Jeff. Four-time NASCAR champion, Winston Cup champion, one of the all-time greats. He was the young buck that came in to compete with Dale Earnhardt, and that multiple DuPont livery, the very famous NASCAR livery. He was part of what created NASCAR as this huge, global phenomenon.”
“My good friend in the States, Marshall Pruett, helped me get contacts for a lot of guys, and really early on in the process of this book, I emailed him and said I wanted to speak to Jeff, but nothing was prearranged and I’m walking through the paddock, and I suddenly get a tap on my back. I turn around and this guy goes, ‘Hey, it is you! You’re Will. I want to introduce myself, I’m Jeff Gordon. I watch you on NBC’ and I’m like ‘You’re Jeff Gordon. It’s an honour, it’s an absolute honour.’ I said, ‘Did you get an email, did you hear from Marshall?’ ‘No, no, no, why?’ I said ‘This is so weird. Literally three hours ago I emailed Marshall asking if he had a contact for you, or your management’ and I explained the concept of the book, and he said he had to be involved.”
“He was going to be at the Mexican Grand Prix, so we sat down there, and did the interview. It was unbelievable. For me, it was just this amazing discussion where we ended up finishing each other’s sentences because we just connected. When I sent the text to him to approve, his manager was like ‘God damn it, why didn’t Jeff open up this much for his autobiography?’ A real lovely level of honesty there from this guy that I’d never met before.”
I asked Will if all of the interviews were done in person, and he explains to me that it was not always possible to do so.
“Some of them had to be over the phone, again with people I’d not met before. Bobby Unser was one of them, but again, there was an amazing sort of opening and honesty. What’s been wonderful with this journey is that every driver that’s agreed to be a part of it has opened up completely, and been very honest. At times it’s been hard and there’s been a lot of tears shed. Genuine tears shed. Dario was a prime example. We were sitting in this little café in London talking about Greg Moore and Dan Wheldon, and there were occasions when Dario was just in bits. We finished the interview, and finished our breakfast, and he sort of said ‘I didn’t realise I needed that’, which was lovely.”
“It’s been a fascinating journey to discover more about these guys that I consider to be my heroes, and for them to open up so much, but in turn, and in doing the interviews and then writing it up, it’s taught me an awful lot about myself as well. Places that my mind’s taken me in the past, and lows that I’ve gone to, and it’s been very relatable in that regard. I hope it might do the same thing for other people.”
“I’m just so excited that it’s being published, and that’s the amazing thing. It was very much a labour of love, and I never knew if it would get published, or if I’d have to self-publish. I wanted to get it to a place where it was what I wanted it to be, and then take it out to the world. The guys at Evro turned around and said, ‘We’ve got to have it. We love it.’ For me to be in the same stable as so many writers that I respect massively, with so many books that I’ve bought and that sit on my shelves, is amazing to me.”
Will also hopes that it is not just motorsport fans that are moved to read the book.
“I hope that it starts to stretch its legs outside of racing, because while the interview subjects are more racing drivers, the stories are all very human. It’s about something which we all in our lives now are being told more and more that it’s okay to struggle, and it’s okay to really not be doing all right in life.”
My Greatest Defeat is available from 30th May 2019, and you can buy a copy here:
The illustrations in the book are by renowned artist Guiseppe Camuncoli – a member of the Marvel stable of illustrators and best known for his work on The Amazing Spider-Man.