NICK HARRIS INTERVIEW | Columns | Gassit Garage
After 38 years behind the mic, MotoGP’s Nick Harris left the commentary box for the very last time
It’s a very good afternoon to you here from the Ricardo Tormo Circuit, it’s the 18th round of the 2017 MotoGP World Championship. I’m Nick Harris, sitting alongside me as always is Matt Birt and down in pitlane is Dylan Gray.”
Many of us will read those two sentences and hear one particular voice in our heads. And there’s a good reason for that – Nick Harris’s passionate commentary has been beamed into our lounge rooms for the past 38 years of grand prix racing. If Valentino Rossi deserves praise for his 21 seasons, then Harry, as he is known among the paddock, deserves a standing ovation.
The first time he commentated was in 1974 when he called a North Gloucestershire club meeting over the phone from the sergeant’s mess at an RAF base in his native Oxfordshire, and his last was just 12 days ago in Valencia, calling the race that saw Marc Márquez lift the 2017 world championship trophy.
He’s a bloke who polarises opinion. Some criticise him for overusing phrases, but for many others his familiar expressions mark the long-awaited arrival of a GP race weekend. Others baulk at his Rothmans PR beginnings, ignoring the fact that his decades of involvement with racing have given him a deep knowledge and understanding of the sport, and the men and women who race in it. And no one can doubt his passion and enthusiasm. MotoGP means the world to Nick Harris and his legacy will carry on long after he’s gone. As Dorna’s top dog Carmelo Ezpeleta put it, “Nick Harris is one of the most important parts of this championship.”
You’ve said on a few occasions that you wouldn’t stop until the passion dies in your voice. But it hasn’t, so why now?
No, it hasn’t. The passion is still there and the love of the sport is still there. It wasn’t altogether my decision, let’s say, but I don’t want to harp on about that.
Can you remember when you first fell in love with motorcycle racing?
Oh, golly. Sport in general is my great love. Motorcycle racing in the 1960s in England, they used to show the scrambling on both channels and I got really interested in that. A friend I went to school with, who was a bit older than me, was a top motocross rider, so I’d watch him.
But then probably the greatest motorcycle racer who ever lived, Mike Hailwood, came from Oxford. And so for that fact I got interested. Then a friend from school’s father took us to Mallory Park and when we arrived in the carpark, you couldn’t see, but all I could hear was Hailwood’s Honda six changing down the gears to go into the hairpin. I’ll never forget it, and I thought yeah, this is for me. I’d ridden motorcycles, I’d always been interested in motorcycles, but the racing side of it, yeah, that was the day.
Do you still ride?
No, I’ve got tunnel vision. So it’s probably best for me and the other people that I don’t ride [laughs]. But I really, really miss it. I used to love riding on the road.
What’s your current role with Dorna?
The role is many things. Hosting the press conferences, obviously the commentary, writing press releases and looking after the British media, many different things. But the commentary and the press conferences are the main things.
How important is hosting the press conference to your commentary during the weekend?
Sometimes it’s very important, other times you’re only going to get what you already know. But occasionally you have press conferences that just blow you out of the water. Malaysia 2015, for example, the pre-event when Rossi launched that attack on Márquez was just staggering.
Casey Stoner in Le Mans, he comes in and says to me, ‘Nick, do you mind if I speak first,’ and we all presumed he was going to say that he’s signed a new contract and he said that he was going to retire, completely out of the blue. There was absolute silence and Valentino Rossi who was sat next to him was just, just … he just could not believe it.
The press conference again in Malaysia when Rossi and Sete Gibernau had fallen out at the previous round in Qatar. Sete was there and Rossi, as was his wont then, would always come late. So I asked Sete if Qatar was forgotten about and he said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s all forgotten about now we’ll just get on with the racing,’ and Valentino arrived with a big pair of sunglasses on and said ‘It’s not forgotten, I’ll never forget it, and that man will never win another grand prix.’ And he didn’t.
So sometimes the press conferences are amazing, usually when you’re totally unprepared for it!
It comes across you still almost idolise the riders when you’re interviewing them in the press conference. Do you?
I don’t know about idolise. I have enormous respect for them. You shouldn’t be friends with them. It’s like any journalist, you shouldn’t say they’re my friends. You need to keep it very much as a working relationship, because quite often you have to write or say something they’re not very happy about. You can socialise and get on well, but you have to be very, very careful not to get too close.
Easier said than done when you’re spending so much time with them, right?
Oh very much so, and there have been exceptions. I was great friends with Barry Sheene. I was great friends with Wayne Gardner, and I’m good friends with Bradley Smith now because I’ve seen him come up from a young lad in Oxford. But, again, all of them would have respected it if you’d said or done things. Barry probably less than anybody – he’d give you a bit of a mouthful if he wasn’t happy with what you said [laughs].
What’s your favourite time of a race weekend?
Oh, Sunday, one minute before the race starts. And when I finish, that is the time I will really, really, really miss. I can’t think of how much I will miss it. Just as they’re going on their sighting lap, and everything’s happening, it’s a fantastic feeling. It’s a privilege, I don’t like the word privilege but, you know, you’re so lucky to be in that situation.
Will you sit down and watch Qatar next year?
What will you do?
I’m not sure. Go away for the weekend? I am going to find it incredibly difficult. And I am concerned about how I’m going to feel. But life has to change, doesn’t it?
I remember I did Formula 1 for six years and the first race after that was Australia funnily enough, and I remember that was hard, and that was only six years. This is 38 years!
Things can’t remain the same for ever, but as you can imagine, I’m very very sad. Think of me in Valencia, and don’t be surprised if it sounds like I’ve got the flu.
I don’t know. I still do football back home, for the radio. Writing – I’ve written a Barry book, I’ve just edited the Dorna book, I’ve written a book on the TT, so I would hope things of that nature. Commentating? I’ve learnt over the years not to rush. Just let the season finish. I’ve been finding this season quite hard, quite raw. Especially coming to Australia, it’s the hardest without a doubt. It’s quite a unique situation – I won’t say it’s nice, it’s lovely that people are so kind and say nice things, but it’s quite hard.
How hard is the Valencia race going to be for you?
I would be a liar if I said I was looking forward to it. It’s part of my job to go, but I’ll come home as quick as I can. Anyway, I can’t make a big fuss of this, it’s been a fantastic life.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
Wow. Care and passion. I care about people an awful lot. Perhaps sometimes too much – but it’s in my makeup. And passion. If you haven’t got the passion, you don’t want to travel around the world half your life and everything else, you’ve got to love what you’re doing. And I do. As I say, for one minute before the start of the race on a Sunday, it’s just … yeah. And on a Sunday morning during the warm-up, you look at all the people and you think, this is just fantastic.
In 1975 when Sheene won his first GP in Assen when he beat Ago. It’s the closest race ever in the history of grand prix racing. I was there as a fan, full of alcohol, with a big Union Jack.
Two in South Africa: Rossi winning first time out on the Yamaha was amazing. And Gibernau winning the next grand prix after [Daijiro] Kato had been killed, I think that was amazing.
Golly. It’s unfair isn’t to pick out one, but for the actual moment and the realisation of it all was when Simoncelli was killed in Malaysia. But Tomizawa in Misano was horrendous as well. [Dorna’s media guru] Friné sends us messages and keeps us up to date so we know what’s going on, but when you’re working it’s different. You seem to handle the grief, but when you see it in other people, whoa, that really finishes me off. And there were so many people just distraught, it was horrible.
Oh, blimey! Oh, dear. Coor. Working with Barry Sheene, Darrell Eastlake and Alan Jones – what a flippin’ nightmare. They would play so many tricks on me. They’d tell people at the gate that when the Pom comes, don’t let him in. You’d have a meeting with the top dog at Channel 9 and they’d tell you the wrong time. I was new to television commentating then and to come out to work in Australia – it was just absolutely fantastic.