What Do Motorsport Commentators Really Do? with Leigh Diffey and Alex Jacques
Hi, everyone! Roles in motorsport – whatever the field – have always deeply fascinated me. Including that of motorsport commentary, which is what I’m writing about today. This post is of a similar format to my article ‘What Do F1 Presenters Really Do? with Rachel Brookes’, but instead of solely focusing on F1 – I broadened the subject to motorsport commentary. I spoke to Leigh Diffey (NBC IndyCar and Sportscar commentator) and Alex Jacques (Channel 4 F1 and F2 & F3 commentator). I’m so grateful to them for their time, advice, and immense kindness. Enjoy!
The first question I had for Alex and Leigh was the amount of prep work they have to do per race. This was inspired by an interview I watched with Murray Walker, who recalled the massive amount of notes he took for each Grand Prix.
Turns out, it’s rather the same nowadays – Leigh tells his kids he does more homework now than he did when at school or university! Alex also had some great insight on the matter;
“It hasn’t really changed since Murray Walker’s day, in that I certainly do a lot of prep. And I see that as my safety net, you might only use 5% – 10% of the notes in front of you. But if I don’t have loads of pieces of paper in front of me with everything you could think of and all the statistics, I don’t feel comfortable in the way that I do when it’s all there. So once the notes are done – and you’ll do that from Tuesday to Thursday – I’m like the prep is done and now I’m ready to react. The strange thing about commentary is it’s like an exam that you revise for, but then it’s all improvisation. So you make all of these notes, but then a good commentary is not prepared.
“You don’t want to be preparing what you’re saying at the end of the race, you don’t want to be smuggling lines in that you’ve said before, you want it to be off the top of your head, because then that brings you closer to the audience and you almost react together. But without that underlying preparation, I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable doing lap one, because it would be in the back of your mind that you might have to type and find that information as you go. It then sounds a bit stuttery and doesn’t quite work. The preparation is very important behind the scenes in the commentary box.”
Leigh agreed, adding that tends not to plan his lines in advance, instead taking the time to think ‘what is this event about?’ and ‘what is special about this event?’
“You know, is this Evie Harris’s first-ever win? Or is it her first win at this track? Is that her first win for this new team? Or is it seven wins in a row or you’ve come back from a broken leg – or whatever the story is? It’s sort of blind faith in a way. But I trust myself enough that I feel the right words and the right sentiment will come to me at the right moment at the very end. Before this year’s Indianapolis 500, it was such a big deal to have the fans back. And I was thinking, you know, we went from 2019 where there was an excess of 300,000 people at the speedway, to last year where there was nobody there and it was the eeriest of feelings. Then this year, we had about 200,000 people.
“I was just standing up in the pagoda, the ninth floor, and I was looking around and I thought ‘you know what? The soul of this place isn’t necessarily the history. The soul of this place is the fans.’ And so in the seconds leading up to the green – within like a minute or 30 seconds – it just came to me in that moment and I had the line “the soul is back at the speedway”. And so yeah, just try and think about what’s important for that moment or that race or that person, that athlete, and then try and blend it in there. I think if you plan what you’re going to say, it sounds like it’s planned. I would much rather be – I hate the word organic – but I would much rather be natural.”
Being a commentator means travelling to races, becoming part of the paddock family. Through the long weeks, a relationship with the drivers forms too. Alex shared what it’s like to know a driver all the way from the junior series to Formula 1.
“It’s nice to watch their journey and see their skill set improve and their confidence grow. Watching the drivers become complete is one of the great privileges of covering Formula 2 and Formula 3.
“I covered Charles Leclerc winning the GP3 title, the Formula 2 title and when he won in Monza. On that final lap, all of that backstory comes out. Because if you’ve just watched Formula 1, you don’t know what he went through when he lost his father and then turned up in Baku and blew the field away. You don’t know that mental fortitude that he showed at that age, which explains how having lost his friend the week before he can win, and then come and win again. It all ties in. And the great thing about doing the junior categories is that you then have more of the story to tell when they reach the front in Formula 1.”
Busy schedules also come with the job, which Leigh has a great anecdote about! He told me a story from when he did both F1 and IndyCar for NBC Sports;
“I did both IndyCar and F1 at the same time for a bit. And sometimes I did them both on the same day! The two occasions where I did it on the same day were the Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix and the Belgian Grand Prix. I had a full weekend, so I did FP1 on Friday, qualifying on Saturday, then did the Grand Prix Sunday morning. NBC had a private jet waiting for me. I ran down the studio – I had a car waiting outside – still had my makeup and my suit and tie on. I even still had my earpiece in! I ran into the parking lot into a waiting car. The car drove down the road to the local airport. The plane was waiting and I jumped on the private jet. One time Steve Matchett did it with me. We went to Pocono to commentate on a 500 mile IndyCar race. The other time I just did it by myself. I had to go to Watkins Glen in upstate New York to call the IndyCar race. So a full F1 weekend followed by a full IndyCar broadcast. That was a lot of fun.”
At the end of my time chatting with Leigh and Alex, I wanted to know about the feeling of commentating. Here’s what they said;
Leigh: “The feeling of commentating is one of fun and freedom to tell stories. You can stay on point by calling the race but also wander a little and weave side stories that still have relevance. It’s a very empowering experience.”
Alex: “It’s a huge buzz. And it should be, because it’s an incredibly privileged position to be in. To be able to bring those races to an enormous audience is a huge responsibility. And the days it goes well. . . there’s no buzz like it, because you can’t ever complete commentary. You can’t ever do a commentary that you’re truly happy with, there will always be one word out, there will always be one clunky phrase. I think that’s why lots of commentators have such long careers – because the compulsion to try and do the 99% commentary is huge.”
My interviews with Leigh and Alex were hugely beneficial for me. Not only did I learn more about their jobs, but also about the immense skill and work ethic they both possess. Before starting this post, I wasn’t aware of either the hours or the amount of research required. However, I’ve definitely gained a greater appreciation for the art of commentary. And if an opportunity presents itself in the future, who knows, maybe I’ll give it a try!
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Cover Image Credits: Leigh Diffey image – Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images, Alex Jacques image – @alexjacques on Instagram.