The best stories don’t come out of success – that’s the premise behind the upcoming book “My Greatest Defeat”, written by the face of Formula 1 Will Buxton. The first-time-author shared with ŚwiatWyścigów.pl’s Tomasz Kubiak and Roksana Ćwik how he ended up with the most powerful untold stories of motor racing legends’ and why everyone should feel invited to share their hardships and let out the unwanted emotions.
Mr Buxton, let’s talk about your book “My Greatest Defeat”. We need to introduce it to our readers, so tell us what the book is about and what was the idea behind it.
It’s twenty interviews with twenty of the greatest living racing drivers in the world: from Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, Le Mans and rally. The basic idea of the book is to discover with each driver what their lowest moment was and for the vast majority it has nothing to do with racing at all.
In doing these interviews and writing this book, the one thing that has really come through is that it has been very important, particularly at the moment, is to learn that behind the visor and everything, these guys are just people. They’re human, like you and me. We all struggle at times – with our mental health, with accepting whether we are on the right path in life.
I hope that maybe people reading this book, if they’re struggling with their own path, will be able to look at these great heroes in this very macho, manly world, where you can’t admit fallibility or fragility…if they can see that they struggle too, it may give them a life lesson – even if only from one story. That’s my hope with the book and it’s kind of what it’s about.
What was the motivation to take on this topic?
It was on a flight. One of the many hundredths that we take during the year with this job. I watched this documentary about Ferrari and Ford battles at Le Mans in the 1960’s and how Ford has failed, came back, failed again, came back and failed again. At that moment I realised that the great stories in our sport are not necessarily born out of victory, but out of defeat, how you react to that defeat and how you come back stronger the next season.
So, I wanted to find out when in their careers they had that moment of defeat that had brought up something better. But I thought it would be a race and I wanted to know what was the race that broke their heart – the book was originally going to be called “The Race That Broke My Heart”. I spoke with a couple of drivers about it and they said: “look, I’d love to be involved in something with you, but the book sounds like everyone should feel sorry that I had this race that didn’t really work out”.
So, I was thinking a bit more and then I had an interview with Niki Lauda. I went to see Niki and was asking other journalists what his lowest moment was, and somebody has said: “we know that he’d lost his plane when he ran the Lauda Air”. I thought: “of course” and then went to see Niki. I asked what he would want to talk about for the book, and he said: “well, it’s your book”. I replied: “yeah, but what was your lowest moment? Was it ’76, was it ’77, coming back to Ferrari and not really being wanted, or…I know that the plane crash has affected you?” He said that it was the plane crash, so I asked if he was willing to talk about it and he said yeah.
We did and it started there. I realised at that point that although the interviews would be with racing drivers, that the stories were not necessarily going to be about racing, or driving, or anything in this bubble. It could be something completely separate. It’s about human beings, the human spirit, the human psyche and how our brains and our emotions can take us to these incredible lows and yet, the power that our minds have to take us to these dark places, our brains also have this incredible power to take us out of it. And that’s what it became.
Because you are writing on this topic, I think you must feel that it is something missing from the current narration.
You know what, it comes out at the time when we were all being told that it’s okay to struggle and that’s something that has not been spoken about a lot before. Certainly, that wasn’t the case when I was a kid growing up, certainly as being English. I was told to have a stiff upper lip, that you must be a strong man or woman and not talk about your feelings and emotions. Yet, we now live in a world where it’s okay to talk about your feelings, where the mental health issues are dealt with seriousness.
And they are a serious problem – suicide is one of the major killers of men under the age of 40. We are told not to talk about our emotions, but we get fucked up by them if we don’t let it out. You know, if we injure our ankle or we scrape our leg or cut ourselves, we put some cream on it. We go to the doctor if we have a headache that we can’t get rid of. But if there’s something wrong with our mental health, we don’t seek help – why? Why is it any different?
It just came at a time when by doing the interview I learned a lot about myself. I struggled a lot over my life with accepting my place in the world…and being happy. I think that for a lot of people that end up in front of the camera, it covers up a lot of emotional hardships or awkwardness that we have. It’s difficult to talk about it, but through speaking to the drivers I learned to acknowledge a lot of what has happened in my past and a lot of things that I’ve dealt with and help me find a place of understanding that has really set me on a level. So, I hope that it would do the same to someone who is reading the book.
You mentioned Niki Lauda. What would be the other examples? You had Alex Zanardi…
Zanardi is amazing. I mean, he’s just the most incredible guy we all know. But, he’s lowest moment is not losing his legs – for him that was the moment when he found this other part of his life and has led him to achieve so much greatness that he doesn’t view that as his lowest moment. Interestingly, his story is about Formula 1. It’s about when he had left Champ Car and went to Williams.
Alex is a really philosophically-minded person and it led us to the really fascinating discussion on how you have to be careful in your life to follow the right path – do you follow the path of your passion or of your ambition, and how the two are very closely related. It is very difficult to tell the difference between the passion and ambition. But while ambition might lead you down the wrong path, because it’s where you think you should be going, your passion – what you truly love – will set you down the right path ultimately. But we only know which path is which in hindsight. We never know until we look back, whether we followed the right path or not. That was fascinating and a great one, because it ended up being a very philosophical story.
Ari Vatanen’s story is a very heart-breaking difficult read. Rally legend almost killed in a huge accident in the Rally Argentina. He was thrust into a very deep depression afterwards, in which he believed that he had a disease that was going to kill him.
Again, it’s how your brain has the ability to take you to these lows, but how it also has the ability to pull you back out of them. There are stories of alcoholism, there are stories of depression, dependency, death – you know, all the uplifting stuff! My hope is that in learning that these heroes, that we see as unbreakable, that they were broken, but they came back and achieved their greatness – not just in spite of it, but in many ways because of it, because of what it did and how strong it made them. Hopefully, we can take something from that, and it will help us too.
Many people inside this paddock have struggled at some point and more often then not, trying to raise the topic would get you laughed at…
Yes, because we’ve grown up with the attitude that you don’t talk about it, you get on and move on…it’s a disease and if you don’t deal with a disease, it can kill you – ultimately – or affect you for your whole life, and you will never be happy. You know, if your hip is constantly grinding and creating you such pain that you can’t walk, but you keep dealing with it for your whole life, you never take a step in your life that doesn’t hurt you, and the same is true with this.
So yes, I think we should talk about it and my hope is that if these guys, who for years pulled on the helmet, lowered the visor and pushed out the emotions to not deal with it…that they had to deal with it at some point and when they dealt with it, it freed them to live their lives. That’s what I hope is the outcome of these stories, that you read them, and you come to the table with us. You hear their voices, you hear their words, you read the story and it’s me, them and you, together.
I’m not going to tell you what to take out of the story, that’s for you – for your path and your journey to take what you need. Some of them won’t be relatable, but some of them will, and hopefully that will give the people that do struggle, the tools to deal with the difficulties and move beyond.
You made the decision to write the interviews as unedited as possible.
Yes, absolutely, because I wanted you to hear their voices. Every chapter will read differently – when you read their words, it’s as they speak. The sentence structure is different in every chapter – there’s imprecise grammar, imprecise language – because we don’t talk in a perfect way. We talk in a very imprecise way. Just as when I write, I try to write in my voice, in transcribing them I tried very hard to write as they speak. The editors have been fantastic and haven’t changed that at all, so when you read them back it’s their voices and hopefully that comes through, that you will feel as you were sitting at the table with Mika Häkkinen or Alain Prost or Bobby Unser or Jeff Gordon or Tom Kristensen.
Please walk us through the emotions.
Conducting the interviews was really amazing and some of them were very emotional. There were a lot of tears shed by either the drivers themselves or me on occasion. Listening back to them again was again very emotional because you realised what they were talking about – you realised it at the time, but when you hear it back, it seems deeper – and then you write it and read it though again, then it really hits home.
I think what really brought it back was when I let it out into the world and started sending it off to the publishers. Then they would reply and some of their reactions – particularly from Evro, who are publishing it – when they gave it a proper read was: “wow, this is stuff that we have never heard before from these guys or stories that we have heard little bits of, but never in this detail”. So, every part of it was a little bit more emotional or a little bit emotional in a different way. But it has been a great journey.
Are there any plans for an audiobook?
The difficulty with that is that…obviously I’ve recorded all the interviews, but some of them were done either over the phone or by a bad online connection or something like that, so the quality of the recording is…because it would lend itself perfectly to an audiobook. So, it I could find somebody who would do the impersonations of these twenty drivers, then there’s a potential for an audiobook. So, if there’s anybody out there who can do the impersonation of Alain Prost, Ari Vatanen, Mika Häkkinen, Niki Lauda and all these guys, then step forward, because I think we got a job for you!
Is there anyone else on the list?
What was very interesting is that there were a number of drivers…some I’ve started to interview and either the team had shut the interview down or they pulled out of it because it was getting a bit too much, a bit too close. Some drivers agreed and then withdrew, some declined, and a lot of them were current racers, because I think admitting weakness in this world is very difficult, when they know that their rivals would take that weakness and prey on it.
I hope that when either they hit a point at which they’re retired that they will reconsider and maybe we can have a second volume. There’s still a lot of drivers that I want to talk to, that I didn’t get to talk to for this book, just because we figured that twenty was a really good number. I’d love to get AJ Foyt onboard, or Parnelli Jones, Jacky Ickx or any of those kind of guys – the real big true legends that I’d love to get but we just didn’t have time or space for at this point. So, I’d love for there to be a second volume at some point.
There weren’t many that didn’t really believe in the idea. Everyone got where I was coming from, but not everyone felt comfortable opening themselves at that point. Hopefully, they’ll see it, read it, enjoy it and want to be part of the second volume, if there is one.
When does it come out?
May 30th in the UK and I believe in Europe. Then it’s printed in the States in July. It can be pre-ordered from the Evro Publishing’s website. And I think it will be available for download as well, because obviously the ebook market is pretty big too.
There are some suggestions that maybe you should talk to Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica, Robert Wickens…
So, Felipe’s in the book. There’s an interesting thing – I’ve wanted to limit the book to champions, because champions are a barometer of success in sport – so, you’ll say why did I include Felipe? Because for me he was like a champion for 30 seconds and how he dealt with losing that championship made him a champion for me…and it’s my damn book, so I’ll put him in it if I want to! Also, I felt that his story really resonated.
I could have done Robert [Kubica] and I spoke with him about doing it, but what I said and what I think he understood was that I didn’t want to do the interview until his journey had come full circle. I didn’t want it to be last year, with the what ifs. Now here we are, and if we had done that interview, the story wouldn’t have been complete.
And as for Robert [Wickens]…he already has the copy of the book. He’s one of the few people I’ve sent it to. He’s a lovely guy and a superb driver and a friend. I have nothing but the best for him and if anyone can get through this kind of shit, it’s him.
Is it harder to be an author or a journalist?
It’s great fun being both.