Interview: fixing Formula 1's 'crisis' with the Top Gear Stig
Search Driven for vehicles for sale
You could be convinced that every spirited conversation with Perry McCarthy eventually winds up finishing on motorsport — particularly Formula 1.
We spoke to the former (and original) Top Gear Stig last month, ahead of his impending New Zealand visit as part of July's CRC Speedshow. Well, with the show set to unfold this weekend, Perry is in the country and ready to sign an almighty amount of autographs.
Today was media day at Speedshow, seeing the final touches placed as stall-holders arrived and four-wheeled exotica was positioned. Perry was on the media drive, appearing on Breakfast, The Project, and a little ditty being put together by a couple of NZME's radio stations — all of them while hooning the new Hyundai i30 N.
Interviews can be tricky things, especially with someone like Perry who's been asked every conceivable question about being The Stig since he left Top Gear about 15 years ago.
So, what do we talk about? Motorsport, of course.
"Kiwis are massively punching above their weight, as far as population size," he says, as our tray of coffee and hot chocolate gets placed on the table.
He rattles off the list of Kiwis achieving big things right now; the Scott McLaughlins, Scott Dixons and Brendon Hartleys.
"And obviously looking at the history books, the guys you’ve had — McLaren, Amon, Hulme — it’s just been a succession. Not to forget Mike Thackwell, or my old mate Paul Radisich winning the Super Touring World Cup twice.
"I have to keep saying nice things about Paul because he’s coming over later on, and I’m looking for him to buy me beers. Compliments in return for drink, it’s working for me."
We dwell on Hartley for a moment, before embarking on a barnstorming chat about the state of Formula 1.
Photo / Getty Images
The world's biggest, greatest motorsport series has been navigating a turning point over the last few years. Grid girls are gone, the 'halo' is in, Liberty Media are doing everything they can to jump onto the social media bandwagon ... there's plenty of change.
And naturally, not all of it has come with the approval of the category's core support base. Including Perry.
"I'm not a fan of the halo, at all," he says.
"I think that Formula 1 has to be terribly careful. The sheer essence, in my personal opinion of Formula 1, is ... we need beautiful cars that go like stink, that make a huge amount noise, driven by heroes.
"Now, what we're getting is cars that are actually looking ugly because of all the appendages on them. They're not making enough noise, circuits are having their balls cut off with all the chicanes and massive run-off areas. And drivers that are so used to complaining about stuff that they should take up ballet.
"Then you take that and look at the boys in MotoGP, and you go 'Jesus Christ, look at what these guys are doing?!'"
Motorsport is an inherently dangerous thing. It says so on the back of most tickets and media passes. Not to say that it's a blood sport, but it's the excitement of watching true athletes 'toe the line' between brilliance and disaster that gets people through the gates.
Well, that's the case in MotoGP — which is currently enjoying some of its best racing on record. And while some will say that the F1 has been just as good this year, with Ferrari and Mercedes-AMG seemingly closer than ever, others like Perry see it as a sport in decline.
"Formula 1 .... this could be a sport where the spectators are standing in awe of these incredible things being driven by these incredible guys, but we're losing that. We have incredible drivers that are in Formula 1, but crikey there needs to be more passion coming out of this. They're taking it the wrong way.
"Now, I'm not suggesting for a moment that Formula 1 needs to stop and listen to everything I say. But I'm certainly not the only person saying it, and if they can't work it out by now then my fear is that they're not going to work it out."
And, although electric cars continue to gather momentum in the motoring world, don't think that Formula E is the open-wheel solution either.
"It’s a bit like the tide, it’s coming in. Electric cars are going to be increasingly part of our road diet, if you like. The adoption, no matter how slowly it’s happening, will be complete in I dunno 10, 15 years. So it has to be reflected in motorsport," says Perry, a somber tone in his voice.
"I think the only thing that makes me cringe a little bit is the tracks sometimes. Some of them are so narrow, so tight, so tiny. It’s super, the initiative to bring motor racing to the population; i.e. down town. But, we’ve got to be very careful not to turn it into Scalextrics.
"That’s the thing that concerns me most(about Formula E); some of the chicanes that have been set up for these boys. The essence of motor racing for me is big, undulating tracks, speed, ‘can I take that corner flat?’
"Maybe Formula E will evolve to address some of those things."
I ask Perry whether he thinks the sport and the FIA has the capacity to make these changes. A long pause ensues.
"It's a very difficult situation with the FIA. For me personally, I'm not completely clear why they're running F1. Because the FIA are also about road safety.
"We've had a lot of initiatives come in through Formula 1 that have made cars safer, and thank God they are. But, there are limits. The FIA keeps wearing this road safety hat, and they're playing it to Formula 1, and I think that's where there's a huge confusion. I really do."
"We do need a regulatory body. We need a very bright, considered, and experienced regulatory body. But conversely, I think some of this is a reaction from poor Jules Bianchi dying from his injuries in Japan a few years ago.
"And that was terrible, absolutely terrible. A young, talented lad with so much to offer. But, this is a global sport. It's been around a long time. I think there needs to be a lot of consideration."
Then, Perry addresses what — for many people — has been an elephant in the room.
"The big thing about drivers who keep going on about 'we wanting the halo, we want this, we want that' ... It sounds callous but I've got the right to an opinion because I've done it (raced in F1).
"I would say, 'if you don't want to do this, don't do it.'"
If the heat's too hot, get out of the kitchen. It's a line that's kicked around for years, and maybe something today's race drivers should concede before wading in on the safety argument?
With the thought still floating on my mind, Perry's next interview looms and that was that from one of the motoring world's most enthused, most curious characters.