Motor Racing: Louise is up to speed

Andrew Baker discovers the new voice of Formula One has a different tone
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The Independent Online
Fans of motor racing should take a good look at the face on the right. At the moment it is well-known only to those with privileged access to the glamorous, noisy and hazardous enclave of the Formula One pit lane. But when ITV's coverage of the grand prix season gets underway from Albert Park in Melbourne on 9 March, Louise Goodman will be introduced to a larger audience: several hundred million television viewers world-wide.

Goodman is to be ITV's roaming pitlane reporter, tasked with unearthing gossip, checking out rumours and - most delicately - extracting from drivers the reasons why they stalled at the start, retired in a cloud of smoke, bumped their team-mate off at the chicane, etc, etc. Until recently she was the public relations chief at the Jordan Grand Prix team, advising drivers like Martin Brundle and Rubens Barrichello how best to deal with the attentions of the press. Now the attention is on her.

"It's very funny," she said. "At the launch of the ITV coverage I was standing behind Martin Brundle and he was giggling away, saying that I'd been bossing him around all year, telling him where to stand and what to do. I was getting a taste of my own medicine."

We were talking in the lounge at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, where Goodman, who is 32, cut an incongruous figure among the middle-aged tourists. Tall and elegantly dressed in black, she sported enough dramatic jewellery to stock a market stall. The effect was more off-duty West End actress than out-of- season sports commentator.

She recalled the initial approach from the television people last summer. "Chrysalis and Mach One, who were bidding for the contract, asked me if I might be interested, and because at that stage it was all theoretical, I said yes. Then they got the deal and I thought 'What have I done?' But it is too good an opportunity to miss. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life running up and down the pitlane handing out bits of paper."

Now she will be running after disgruntled drivers. Some might argue that with a background in PR rather than journalism she might shy away from asking awkward questions, but Goodman denies that. "I think my background is an advantage," she insisted. "After all, I know all the lines. I know that 'He's in a debrief' means 'He doesn't want to talk to you.' I'm not fooled easily."

What is more, she has worked with a good number of the present grand prix drivers, which means that they will be more inclined to talk to her than her rivals. "For instance," she recalled, "we were doing some little features at the testing session in Estoril in Portugal last week and we wanted a word with Jean Alesi. I worked with him in Formula 3000, so human nature suggests that he is more likely to give 10 minutes to me than someone he has never set eyes on." She got the interview.

Goodman is reluctant to nominate favourites, but Eddie Irvine, the former Jordan driver who is now Michael Schumacher's team-mate at Ferrari, gets a special mention. "Irv can be exasperating," she laughed, "but he definitely knows his own mind."

For Goodman's producer, Dave Lewis, her good relationship with the drivers is just part of the package. "It's a definite plus for us that she can walk into garages and be recognised," he said. "But she also has a great temperament and personality and she knows a heck of a lot about the sport."

ITV will not be short of expertise up in the commentary box either, where the inimitable Murray Walker will be joined by Goodman's former charge Brundle, who will be combining his commentary duties with a management role at Arrows, Damon Hill's new team. Brundle's appointment is a canny move on ITV's part, as he brings not only up-to-date knowledge of what it is like to drive an F1 car, but also access to Hill.

"I'm not qualified to make comparisons with the BBC coverage," Goodman said. "Because I was travelling to the races with Jordan, I never got to see it. But it turned Murray into a national institution, so it can't have been bad." One advantage she identified in advance for ITV's coverage is more air time: "More time to look into things."

Goodman's preparations are almost complete: the pre-season tests for the teams were a chance for dry runs with a camera team in the pits. Soon she will be boarding the flight to Melbourne. "The same plane, the same people. Different job."

But before that, a little exhilarating competition of her own. This weekend she is co-driving with her ITV colleague Tony Jardine in a round of the British national rally championship. "Basically," she said, "I like speed." It's just as well.