For Simon Lazenby, Durham is very close to heart. “I knew I was going to Durham the moment I arrived at the station – I fell in love with it the moment I stepped off the train”.
He studied Natural Sciences at St Hild and Bede College from 1993– 1996. We sat down on an early- February day to discuss everything from Durham to his career today, travelling the globe as a presenter for Sky Sports F1.
Talking about his days as a student, Lazenby laughed and said, “it was good fun, but I’m not sure it did my liver too much good!” You and us both, Simon. Perhaps still Durham’s prime selling-point, he waxed lyrical about the benefits of the collegiate system and the “feel” which it brings to Durham.
He was certainly an active part of college life, captaining the Hild Bede First XV in a nod to his future days as one of Sky’s leading rugby presenters. He also quietly mentions his time as a member of the now-banned drinking society ‘The Diced Carrots’. If you haven’t heard of it, we’ll let Google do the explaining.
A life in front of the camera was definitely not always on the cards for Lazenby. After leaving Durham, he started work as a commodities trader for Cargill. As he explains it, this seems like something of a poorly thought-through decision. “If I had to do it all again I think I would’ve gone travelling for a few years like some of my friends did.”
“One of them, we called him Hamster, went around South America for two years. He met a tribe in the jungles of Peru and ended up marrying the tribe leader’s daughter, so that was interesting. Anyway, I did six months in Tilbury Docks trading corn, before moving up to Lincolnshire and trading grain. I wasn’t particularly good at it, and I think I ended up walking before I was pushed.”
“I remember buying a boat full of grain of a Friday and kind of double exposing myself on the exchange rates before it moved the wrong way. They thought ‘This guy’s not got much talent for trading’, so I had to think, what was I going to do next? I’m only here because I was a shit grain trader.”
This is when Lazenby first tried his hand in the media. He got some work experience with BBC Radio Lincolnshire before going on to shadow two of his future colleagues, and fellow Durham alumni, in Mark Durden-Smith and Gabby Logan. He’s now been at Sky for 23 years.
“In those days it was very young and dynamic. It was the year before Blair got into power and England had just done well at Euro 96. I started off as a runner, but after about six months I was working in the Rugby department and they gave me an opportunity at reporting. Then I asked the boss if I could have a go at presenting. It’s sink or swim really. Nowadays it’s a very rigorous process, but in those days it was a bit more like the Wild West!”
Sky was the home of televised rugby at this point. Lazenby would go on to present on the 2005 and 2009 British and Irish Lions tours in New Zealand and South Africa respectively.
Whilst he didn’t present for England’s famous World Cup win in 2003, he did go out to the 2001 Lions tour in Australia “I did a competition for rugby journalists at The Stoop (Harlequins’ ground opposite Twickenham). You had to run a kilometre, cycle five kilometres and then take kicks at goal. I ended up kicking all three goals with (then Guardian sportswriter but now US political expert) Martin Pengelly.”
After fifteen years as the face of Sky’s rugby coverage, Lazenby made the switch over the Formula 1. You can’t argue with the justification for his decision: “Put it this way, a damp Friday at Welford Road is nothing like Sunday at Monaco!”
“I love rugby, but I was a little bit saturated by the end. Also, after the 2003 World Cup, rugby went through a very defensive cycle. Now it’s getting really exciting and teams are throwing the ball around, but it needs to change structurally to grow the audiences again, whereas Formula 1 is the biggest show in town wherever you go. We were broadcasting sometimes to 30-50,000 on a Saturday afternoon for club rugby, whereas we’re now getting upwards of 2-3 million for F1. The last race of the season got over seven-and-a-half million.”
Lazenby has been at the forefront of F1’s resurgence into the heart of public sporting conscience. He tells us that Sky Sports F1’s viewing figures are up “something like 30 or 40% up year on year this year. Much younger people are involved, many more women are watching it and we know that from the data we get from Sky. It’s never been more exciting to be involved with F1 than right now’’.
Lazenby calls this “the Netflix effect”, thanks to both famous and now infamous Netflix documentary ‘Drive to Survive’.
However, whilst the sport has exploded in popularity, many issues have remained or emerged, particularly at the Abu Dhabi championship finale. This led to the recent removal of Race Director Michael Masi, and the introduction of a VAR-style system intended to make things fairer.
Lazenby weighed in on his thoughts on the season finale and the issues in Formula 1 today – “They’ve got to get better at enforcing the rules, they’ve got to be more consistent. I don’t think it’s the job of one man — Charlie Whiting had Herbie Blash, and Michael Masi had no-one”. These are thoughts which many fans, and debatably even the FIA, who are now turning the role into an alternating two-man job share.
Discussing the two rivals for the F1 title, Lazenby said “I do feel for Lewis Hamilton, because it was his Championship. Safety cars are never fair and they always change the dynamic of the race, but because of the timing of that, and how the rules were wrongly interpreted, which they were, he was denied that other championship. “
“It is a shame, I feel for him, but I also don’t want to take anything away from Max. Over the course of the Championship he was the better driver but then Lewis deserved to win it at the end”
This is a well-considered stance in an ever more “polarising” debate, which has seen audiences more engaged than ever. After the season-ending controversy, some have been saying that they won’t be watching the start of the season. Lazenby disagrees — “They’re lying! Everyone wants to see what happens next.”
Lazenby also criticised the radio access teams had to the race director and race control. Many of us will have seen the now infamous messages broadcasted from Mercedes’ Team Principal Toto Wolff and Red Bull’s Sporting Director Jonathan Wheatley during the season finale. The removal of such communications are another change the FIA has put in place for the 2022 season.
“The teams would very aggressively lobby race directors — that shouldn’t be allowed. We shouldn’t be having team bosses saying ‘don’t bring out a safety car’ — Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t have a direct mic into the ref, did he?”
However, he had a cautiously optimistic outlook on the season to come, with the new regulations coming into play. “I’m hoping that new regulations do level the playing field a bit, but I have my reservations about that as well. I think we’ll only start to get a clear picture when testing comes to an end.” Mentioning Brawn’s 2009 dominating double diffuser success as an example of the endless possibilities before saying “It would be brilliant if we had a repeat of this season, but with three or four teams involved. That’s what we’re all hoping for. I think we might get it, let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
Lazenby is now coming up to 25 years as one of sport’s leading presenters. He tells us “The biggest piece of advice I ever got was from (former England rugby player and commentator) Stuart Barnes. He said ‘remember, you do not have an opinion.’ The best presenters are the ones that aren’t the story, they’re not the headline. They ask the right questions and let the guests be the stars. All you’re there to do is to facilitate lively conversation — but if it ever becomes about me, then I’ve failed. Gary Lineker can get away with it because he won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup, but at the end of the day, ask the people that know better than you. And try not to take yourself too seriously.”
This is one of the main things we took away from our 40 minutes with Simon Lazenby. He’s funny, gregarious and has a natural charm and presence that no amount of lessons on presenting could teach.
He finished by telling us one of his favourite presenting stories: “I was doing some overnight cricket with Jimmy Adams, the former captain of the West Indies and the most laid-back man in the world. I was literally just shovelling meat pie and chips into my mouth. I suddenly looked up at the monitor and the cricket wasn’t on there. It was just me on the screen shovelling pie in my face. The director had cut it to air! There’s always something that goes wrong, but you’ve just got to be able to laugh at yourself if it does.”
“I’m not sure I’d still have a job if the social media age had been around for the start. TV is good fun, but it really has changed beyond belief, you’ve just got to be so careful with what you say, what you do and how you behave. But that’s the way of the world — everyone wants content and everyone’s around to film it all the time. Be careful!”
Image: Simon Lazenby via Twitter