With the advent of the Formula 1 circus fast approaching this weekend here in Malaysia at our very own Sepang International Circuit on the weekend of the 24th-25th of March, we managed to obtain an interview session with one entertaining and charismatic Stephen (Steve) Slater who commentates for ESPN Star Sports and where the Formula 1 circus goes, you’d be sure to find him at the commentator’s box updating millions of English speaking viewers; well as far as Star Sports can be transmitted and viewed of course.
Having had a long and distinguished career as a commentator, we were given a chance to speak with Steve Slater who is seen as one that comes off as an extremely friendly personality who’s got both feet well planted to the ground and willing to entertain with his distinguished memories. Our conversation with him went something like this:
ZTH: What compelled you to start a business restoring old aircrafts and such?
Steve Slater: Honestly, I’ve always been fascinated by old aircrafts and old cars for that matter, but what makes it even more enjoyable is that I can tinker around with an old engine that hasn’t got any electronics in it at all. So in that sense, I guess you could say that I am in a way, an old fashioned mechanic. In fact my finger nails have been the cleanest it’s ever been today!
ZTH: During your early days, you were doing some rallying and racing, how is it that you didn’t pursue it further?
SS: Well I’ve always enjoyed the competition and was undoubtedly enjoying myself as well, but to be quite honest, I was never going to be quick. I was never going to be able to graduate beyond Formula Ford really.
ZTH: So how did you transition between racing/rallying and into commentating?
SS: Well there was this one time about 20 or 30 years ago when I was still racing at that time, I had just totalled one of my cars, which I was still paying for in the form of hire purchase. Woops! (Chuckles). So I knew I wasn’t going to be racing for that particular season. But, one of the local circuit promoters from the North of England approached me and asked me if I’d be interested to do some commentating and I did! And it happened to coincide with Star Satellite television and we were one of the very first to actually put some shots of motor sports action on satellite TV! Looking back at it, we were actually the pioneers and I actually helped start it all. We actually helped provide the first footage to Sky channel in the UK back in 1984/85. I still have some footage, but it was really rubbish! (Chuckles)
ZTH: And from there you began to move up the ladder so to speak?
SS: Indeed and all that really lead me to do more PR work and journalism and I got invited in 1989 to move down to London to join a big PR agency called CSS, which was a sponsorship and promotions agency. Within a fortnight, I was asked to set up a race team on behalf of a Canadian beer maker called ‘The Bat’ who wanted to get into motor sports and we came to the conclusion that the most effective way was that rather than just buying into an existing sponsorship package, for what they wanted to spend, it was actually cheaper for them to have their own racing team established around their brand. And before we knew it, we were competing successfully in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). It was so successful that they then went on board to be a sponsor at Williams. And that’s how I landed in Formula 1! Can you imagine my first season in Formula 1 was to get paid to drink beer and watch motor racing! How good was that? It just doesn’t get any better than that really! (Chuckles)
ZTH: So how did you land yourself back into Start Sports?
SS: Well it was back in those days when Star was still quite a small operator and in 1999 they asked me to take over to do some commentating for them and my first Grand Prix commentary was the Italian GP in 1999 and I’ve been doing it ever since!
ZTH: You had quite an illustrious career thus far, but when do you think you’d know when to call it quits?
SS: Well I have to say that I’ve been very lucky. I mean, I still feel that the day I stop feeling that when I walk into an F1 paddock, would be the day I would say “Yep, I rekon someone else deserves the job now.” I mean I’ve been so privileged to be able to go and do, for the last 20 odd years, what most people would give their teeth to do and I also feel that through Star at least I can share some of my enthusiasm as well and at the end of the day, my job is not just to interpret what’s happening on the screen, but rather it’s to talk to the enthusiast from the perspective of another enthusiast (myself). But you know, the best part of it is this; if ever you’re going to make a fool of yourself, you might as well do in front of 36 million people! (Chuckles)
ZTH: We’ve been told that there’s going to be a few more new voices that will be joining in the commentary box this season.
SS: Yes! We’ve got a few new voices for this season starting with Tim Hardy, who is an ex-British Touring Car Champion; Mark Gallagher, who till last year was the Head of Cosworth F1 engines. We’re also getting Karun Chandok who will be joining us for two or threes races and then he’s going off the start racing in the World Endurance Championship again. After that we’ve got Garry Paffett and Johnny Herbert who will be doing a couple of races as well. So I’m really pleased and excited to be able to work with these people. With Garry Paffett, much like Chris Goodwin (who is now Karun Chandok’s manager and won’t be joining us this season), we’ll be able to have access to a phenomenal amount of technical detail in terms of Formula 1 engineering. Gary has been a proven race winner in his own right from DTM! So I’m really looking forward to working with him. Johnny Herbert of course comes with a background of having won three races. But, I just know with Johnny is that the big problem will be to stop the laughing in order to do the commentary! (Chuckles) Tim Hardy on the other hand, he’s just such a fantastic driver and has tutored many of the drivers that have entered into Formula 1, including one German youngster by the name of SebastianVettel!
ZTH: You’ve obviously met a lot of drivers over the years. Who do you think is the most charismatic other than Michael Schumacher?
SS: Yes in deed! The most charismatic of the lot is and always seems to be Michael Schumacher! You know I remember, when Michael first came back to Formula 1, it was the first driver’s briefing of the season in Melbourne; Michael walks into the room and then there’s a silence, but then by the 3rd race of the season everyone else is like “Oh hello Michael.” So it’s clear in a sense that he’s lost some of that immense presence. Even Vettel is also very charismatic, but surprisingly in the most understated way. But of the lot, Lewis Hamilton is about the cockiest of them all and then there’s Jenson Button who is just the exact opposite, humble.
And just like that, our 10 minutes were up as we unglued ourselves from being fixated on Steve Slater’s myriad of stories that were conjured up from past memories. And so our thanks goes out to Steve Slater for taking the time to speak with us!
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