How DJ legend Pete Tong’s world has crossed paths with F1’s spygate scandal
Even for a long-standing Formula 1 fan as famous as world renowned DJ Pete Tong, a working involvement in grand prix racing normally limits itself to playing post-race party gigs.
However, personal experience has shown that to be not too enthralling a prospect after confessing that the worst set of his life took place after the Monaco Grand Prix several years ago (more on that later).
So when the opportunity came up for him to get involved in a more serious way, and be the narrator of a new BBC Radio 5 Live podcast on F1’s Spygate scandal surrounding the McLaren team in 2007, Tong jumped at it.
“I’m known very much for one thing, but it's something I've always been curious about doing,” he told Autosport in an exclusive interview talking about the Spygate series that is launched today.
“I'm a sports fan. I'm a massive soccer fan and a cycling fan, and while I'm not a trainspotter F1 fan, I am a fan.
“The opportunity came up, and I think they thought it was a bit of a wildcard to even ask me. I don't know if they expected me to say yes. But once I read the story, I was just intrigued by it. So I kind of dived in.”
The eight part Spygate series digs deep into the drama surrounding both the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso throughout the 2007 season, as well as the much bigger spy case that erupted in the middle of the year.
Tong speaks to key figures involved – including respected F1 journalists Maurice Hamilton and Andrew Benson, former F1 technical director Mike Gascoyne, and former Ferrari press chief Luca Colajanni.
While a lot of the early episodes are dominated by scene-setting for the 2007 campaign, and open the door a little to explain the series to those perhaps not totally familiar with it, there are plenty of interesting snippets for even those well versed in all that happened during the tumultuous campaign.
There is the story of the famous photocopy shop staff member turning up for a meeting with Ferrari’s legal representative carrying in his rucksack a copy of the 700-page car designs file that Mike Coughlan’s wife had asked to be transferred to CD.
Gascoyne recalls that time in Barcelona when he spotted Coughlan and Nigel Stepney having a secret dinner down by the marina; and Tong also makes reference to McLaren, just as news of the scandal erupted, coincidentally rolling out ‘Spy Valley’ wine at a launch event of its new motorhome at the British Grand Prix.
Photo by: Anglo Management
For Tong, the podcast series has been an opportunity for him to dig deeper in a sport he has followed for years (having grown up within ear shot of Brand Hatch) but not in great depth.
He admits, for example, that while aware of the Alonso/Hamilton battle in 2007, the details of the spy controversy never really registered with him at the time.
“It's weird. It just passed me by,” he explains. “I don't know what I was doing at the time, but I was probably deep in Ibiza.”
The podcast therefore turns into as much a journey through the affair for Tong as it is for listeners.
Asked what stood out the most for him from all the multiple spygate elements, he said: “It's all just brilliantly stupid. But I think the Alonso pulling his kind of blackmail stunt before the [Hungary] race, and then actually realising he had kind of gone too far and trying to retract it.
“Then Ron [Dennis], having already made that phone call [to the FIA], so quickly, by the time the race had ended, and Alonso trying to undo what he'd done. I mean, that whole sequence is just like tragedy played out. That resonates with me a lot.
“I also couldn’t understand why Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan didn’t appear in the [FIA] hearings. It is the whole way those hearings work that, despite having QCs present, they aren't actually legal proceedings. They're kind of... it's like Camelot. It's F1's own rules.
“Plus the higher-level stuff about Max Mosley and Bernie [Ecclestone], and Max taking out vengeance possibly on Ron Dennis. I found that all fascinating.
“I guess also the beginning of the story is just the sheer audacity of doing it on that kind of old school level, of having a great big heavy stack of papers going into a photocopy shop. And it's just a freak, obviously, just the guy [working there] being a Ferrari fan.
“Then obviously, the tragic ending, I wasn't aware that Nigel Stepney died. And then the fact that there is still that question of did he jump or was he pushed?”
Photo by: Sutton Images
It says much about the boom that F1 is going through under the Liberty Media era that podcasts on something as specific as Spygate are being commissioned – and have mainstream figures like Tong involved.
Tong himself thinks a combination of two key factors – good racing, and the Netflix effect – have been critical in allowing such a popularity shift.
“Obviously competitive races and the same person not winning all the time, or at least having a battle as we've had recently with Verstappen and Hamilton, are obvious,” he says.
“But, by accident or design, the Netflix series has opened F1 up in a way I don't think anyone anticipated it. So I think that's actually brought in a younger demographic.
“Also now, it is probably not just a male-dominated traditional audience either. I think there are many more females interested. That's something I feel out is out there, in the kind of Zeitgeist.
“But that's also doing a disservice to the sport. F1 has been important for a very long time. I just think it's having a moment where it's gone more into the mainstream.
“The Netflix series is a big part of that, as is I think Hamilton's fame. In the same way [Michael] Schumacher did it in his era, Hamilton's done it in his era in a whole different way, obviously. There's never been anyone like Lewis Hamilton before. So I think that era has kind of changed perception as well.
“Obviously television helps, and it's just managing to reinvigorate it. I think the most important thing was bringing in new audiences.
“It's the same as I do with music: you can't just stay the same forever and your audience gets older and older. You've got to constantly reinvent the wheel. They've obviously been trying to do that forever, but they're on a successful run at the moment.”
Max Mosley, FIA President, and Ron Dennis, Team Principal, McLaren Mercedes
Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca / Motorsport Images
Of course keeping the younger generation interested in F1 longer term will take some effort from Liberty. But Tong thinks it easily possible as long as F1 keeps offering behind-the-scenes access of what’s really going on.
He cites the example of the way that Amazon Prime's fly-on-the-wall football documentary All or Nothing: Arsenal as the perfect example of how access keeps people engaged.
“I think it’s about getting behind the scenes, a bit like All or Nothing,” says Tong.
“I'm a massive Arsenal fan. It's been incredible, even though that series has been going a long time. Everyone was questioning why were Arsenal doing that last year. It’s like ‘Oh my God, that going to be embarrassing.’
“It's actually probably turned out to be one of the best things they’ve ever done.
“As it happens, it kind of got all the neutrals on side for Arsenal and [manager Mikel] Arteta now. And it kind of gave us an amazing momentum going into this season, which they've kind of stepped up and delivered on.
“I think it’s about opening F1 up. Getting more knowledge out there than just the racing on the day will obviously help. And then obviously you want talented young drivers coming through.”
George Russell, Mercedes W13, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL36, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18, the rest of the field at the start
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
What Tong’s involvement with the Spygate podcast also means is he can firmly put to bed all negative thoughts about working in F1 he has had since that infamous Monaco GP gig – which he makes reference to in an early episode.
Asked about what happened that night, he smiles.
“Sometimes you get these corporate gigs, and you're not really hired to do what you normally do. You're just kind of hired for your name,” he said.
“It was a party, but they were very specific about: : ‘Don't play too cool. This is a very commercial crowd. This is Monaco: play the hits.'
“I think I went on with David Guetta, which I would not normally have played necessarily in a club, and no disrespect to David, who's a friend.
“But literally within the first song, or certainly by the second one, they wanted me off. They said: ‘This is just too cool. This crowd aren't gonna get it.’ So I was yanked off.
“I think the next guy went on with Born to be Alive, from Patrick Hernandez and it was total kind of San Tropez - and not that much more commercial than David Guetta.
“Anyway, I was kicked off. So I went back down to the tables, and Jenson Button came up to me, and said: ‘What are you doing?’
“I had met him in Ibiza a few times. And he knew exactly what I was, who I was and what I was meant to do.
“So I told him I was kicked off. And he got up on the mic and then just had a rant at the crowd: ‘You do not realise what you've done! This is the greatest DJ on the planet, and you disrespected him!’
“Thanks Jenson, but I didn't go back on!”
The BBC Radio 5 Live Spygate podcast is available on usual podcast providers from today.
Photo by: Anglo Management
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