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​A Worryingly Deep Dive into Alan Partridge's Enduring Love Affair with Formula 1

In a career spanning more than 25 years, Alan Partridge has become a towering figure in British comedy. And while he has largely abandoned his roots as a sports reporter, Alan has remained true to his first love: Formula 1.

by Jim Weeks
24 March 2017, 4:50pm

Screengrab via YouTube

More than a quarter of a century after he was first introduced to an ill-prepared world by BBC Radio 4 news spoof On The Hour, it might have been forgotten that Alan Partridge began his career as a sports reporter.

From those humble beginnings, Alan has developed into one of the best-loved and most enduringly funny comedy characters in British television history. Among his many credits are a chat show, two series of I'm Alan Partridge, and 2013's big screen debut Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

Over the years, Alan has expanded far beyond the original sports reporter persona. This shouldn't be too surprising, given that his basic understanding of the topics he covered seemed to be badly lacking. His post-radio interest in sport is largely summed up by this exchange:

But there is one exception. Through it all – the rise to and spectacular fall from stardom, the divorce, Sonja, watching his book being pulped, wowing the employees of Dante's Fire after losing a pint of blood – Alan has retained a single sporting passion.

Yes, Partridge is the stereotypical F1 follower: a middle-aged middle-Englander for whom Jeremy Clarkson fulfils the dual role of style icon and moral compass. He's au fait with mobile phones and casually orders a latte, but he also emitted an audible sigh of triumph when voting Leave and prefers a Wetherspoon's because it feels like pubs used to, before the needless introduction of craft beers and women.

Were we to take a guess, we'd posit that Alan became a fan during the mid eighties, in time for Nigel Mansell's rise to grand prix glory. He might retrospectively claim to have enjoyed James Hunt's blend of barely legal hedonism and on-track success, but we get the feeling it would have been a bit strong for his tastes circa 1976, when Alan was a bewildered and pitifully unworldly teen.

It is appropriate given the enduring love he has displayed for the sport that the very first words Alan spoke to the British public concerned Formula 1. In the debut episode of On The Hour, Partridge reported that his idol, Mansell, had given up motor racing because it was "too dangerous". According to Alan, Our Nige had explained: "I can get the same sensation by sitting in a wind tunnel with some dark glasses on and a paper bag of agitated wasps tied over my head." Later in the series Alan expanded his repertoire by commentating on grand prix racing, which largely consisted of him repeating the order – "Mansell, Senna, Prost, Berger, Piquet" – with tremendous emphasis on each name. Aside from this his commentary is remarkably sparse, particularly for radio. Still, occasional blasts of "Through the chicane," and "Amazing!" accurately sum up how repetitive Formula 1 can sometimes be.

Mansell leads Senna leads Prost // PA Images

In The Day TodayOn The Hour's TV adaptation – Partridge took his rightful seat on the sports desk, from where he was bullied by, and unsuccessfully attempted to banter with, tyrannical host Chris Morris. Alan does not cover F1 in any depth during the series, though he does take a passenger ride in a rally car with a champion "lady driver", during which he sexualises both woman and machine, before delivering a stark warning about joyriding on council estates.

Alan's next step was to host his own chat show, sport clearly having been little more than a stepping stone towards proper, meaningful stardom. Yet in his new radio show he demonstrated his fascination with F1 once more, interviewing fictional F1 ace Michel Lambert. Alan repeatedly refers to his guest as "France's second best motor racing driver", making Lambert an amalgam of Jean Alesi, Olivier Panis, and every other half-decent French peddler of the time not named Alain Prost. Partridge claims to have first encountered Lambert in the pits at the Monaco Grand Prix, which suggests that Bernie Ecclestone was being uncharacteristically generous with paddock passes that year.

The interview proves to be something of a disaster, with Alan's questions failing to impress Lambert (they include "Do Formula 1 cars use unleaded petrol?" and "Have you ever driven a tractor?"), and ultimately the Frenchman tricks Alan into snorting a white powder that he claims to be smelling salts.

Following a TV adaptation of his chat show, which culminated in Alan fatally shooting one of his guests, his career – indeed, his entire life – degenerated into what could be politely termed a pathetic mess. In his seminal I'm Alan Partridge series, the former sports reporter is found living in a travel tavern, threatening BBC executives with cheese, and reeling off a series of appalling ideas for new shows. He is also divorced (with access to the kids, but they don't want to see him). Yet love does briefly blossom when he spends Valentine's Day with Jill, the divorcee receptionist from Alan's doomed Pear Tree Productions. As they return from a date at an owl sanctuary, Alan reflects:

Alan: That is the best Valentine's Day I've had in eight years.
Jill: What did you do eight years ago?
Alan: Just had a better one.
Jill: What'd you do?
Alan: Went to Silverstone. Shook Jackie Stewart's hand. Superb. My marriage fell apart soon after that.

By the late nineties Alan was living in a caravan while his new house – Excalibur Cottage – was being built. The wall of the aforementioned caravan (or "static home") was adorned with a photograph of a 1992 Benetton-Ford, a car piloted by the great Michael Schumacher and British journeyman Martin Brundle. Though it's impossible to make out the helmet colours from the fleeting shots we are privy to, there is absolutely no question that the man in the photograph is Alan's fellow Norfolk native Brundle. Partridge would sit firmly in the anti-Schumacher camp, calling the German "bang out of order" while handing Brundle the photo to sign at an Auto Trader event in Thetford. (Viewed from the banquette, the photo is on the right-hand wall and is visible when Alan transports the plates from Sonja's 7-on-10 cooked breakfast to the sink).

In his Mid Morning Matters series, Alan seems to have found something close to happiness. He has his inconsequential radio show on North Norfolk Digital, alongside soft-banter enthusiast Sidekick Simon, and once again Formula 1 is on his mind. Discussing his middle name, Gordon, Alan says: "I will point out that my initials spell AGP. Sounds like a motor oil. AGP... You could imagine it on the side of a Formula 1 car." You could indeed, not least because Agip, an Italian oil company, had their logos displayed prominently on the side of Ferrari's grand prix cars for 20 years. Here we see Jean Alesi – then France's second best motor racing driver – at the wheel of just such a car.

Jean Alesi, France's second best motor racing driver, aboard the recalcitrant 1991 Ferrari // PA Images

Alan's transition into the literary world also features nods to Formula 1. In his recent release, Nomad, Alan recounts an occasion on which he mistakenly believed he had secured a new BBC series. In an act of triumphant gloating, he drives to the homes of "a few choice friends" who live in the area.

"First stop is Formula 1 commentator Martin Brundle, who's famous for being catty when it comes to other people's careers. I pull up outside the house and beep the horn. 'Oh Martiiiiiin!' I sing-song until he comes to the front door. 'Guess who's back in the big tiiiime?' That's my assistant's signal to throw one of my new business cards onto his lawn while I put my foot to the floor and zoom away." Elsewhere in the same book, Alan hears "the unmistakeable sound of 'The Chain' by Fleetwood Mac, once the theme music to the BBC's motor racing coverage." A subsequent footnote adds: "Before Sky got hold of it and made it so stat-heavy that the screen resembles the 'mix' option of Ceefax."

READ MORE: A Brief History of Football in British Comedy

In his most recent TV appearance, 2016's Scissored Isle, Alan ventures out to find the real Britain as penance for using the word "chav" as a pejorative on his radio show. Attending a teenage house party, Alan nibbles the corner of an "ecstasy pellet", which "usually cost £120", though he got it at a "discounted mates rate of £70." This causes him to experience what he describes as "a mild high", which actually involves him stripping down to his vest, dancing until 8am, and being able to talk about nothing but Lewis Hamilton.

And so we see that, even in the present day, Alan remains obsessed with Formula 1. Having recently shed his fusty image and fought middle-age with fruitless attempts to remain cool, of course he is a committed Lewis Hamilton fan. Alan might secretly think Lewis' hair to be faintly ridiculous and find his tattoos mildly threatening, but he cheers for him because he is British, because he represents a level of cool that the Alan Partridges of this world can only dream of.

Once a venerable sports reporter, Partridge has now morphed into a pastiche of functional but ultimately sad middle-aged men across Britain. He is every "yer da" joke made flesh. He has a good-sized garage and an extensive toolkit but rarely gets oil under his fingernails. He marked the first episode of the new Grand Tour series on the big kitchen calendar with "GT", then stood glowing at the fact that this acronym also denotes high-performance vehicles. He firmly believes that footballers are overpaid, that doctors get plenty, and that he is paying too much tax to facilitate a cushy existence for others.

PA Images

Had you enough spare time, you could look at the development of Britain's Formula 1 stars from the early nineties through to the present day and see them mirrored in the transformation of the Partridge character. Being as I am writing this article and you are still reading it, we evidently have nothing but spare time, so let's do that now.

In the early nineties there was Mansell, a man so utterly lacking in panache that he made the inanimate pieces of carbon fibre that lay scattered about the garage seem suave and engaging by comparison. During this period Alan was peak sportscaster: bland, perfunctory, something like the result of an unholy tryst between the two Johns, Motson and Inverdale.

In the mid-90s Damon Hill rose almost by stealth to become Britain's racing darling. Damon was a little cooler, insomuch as he did not have a moustache and he sometimes played guitar on stage at the British Grand Prix, rather like yer da after a few too many stubby Belgian lagers at a barbecue, your poor da, we do think of him from time to time. Equally, Hill seemed a little uneasy in his surroundings, yearning to break free and be the true Damon, or Damien, as John Prescott preferred to call him. Alan, too, was conflicted: post-divorce, he needed to reinvent himself as something approaching a modern man, but clearly found it difficult to escape the shackles of his former life.

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And now, in the 21st century, Formula 1 has Lewis Hamilton. He's talented, he hangs out with cool people, and so what if he's had a hair transplant, there's nothing wrong with that anymore and yer da is googling the Belgravia Centre for their cheapest prices. Alan watches Lewis win and win and win again on his 55" ultra-HD television, iPad at hand for live timing, a further screen on his laptop to interact with the race via Twitter. Alan in 2017 is a man trying to make up for his Mansell years of uncool and his Hill-esque transitionary period with a full-on Hamilton binge. He uses the right lingo, albeit in the wrong way, and is trying – God help him he's trying – to dress properly. He's down, man, you feel me?

Ultimately, there can be no doubt that Alan's fondness for F1 reflects badly on where the sport is right now. It confirms the view many outsiders have of the sport in 2017: out of touch, the preserve of men hurtling towards obsolesce and annual prostate examinations, men for whom personal relationships are complex and perhaps even scary. For Alan, the clean white lines and defined track limits of Formula 1 represent safety far more than danger. As the Sky Sports theme music begins he mutes the TV, fires up his stereo system, and belts out The Chain to get him in the mood the right way. In these few fleeting hours Alan can be Alan, whatever that means in 2017.

@Jim_Weeks