“You must have been there – how far must I walk towards the curvature of the earth until reaching Alain Prost’s team?”
So asked Alan Henry of the S&G in Malaysia on a sweaty afternoon in 2001, when faced with the unappetising proposition of trekking so far down the F1 paddock. Alan seldom needed to venture beyond the elite first few garages of the F1 pit lane, but at least he was guaranteed a warm welcome when he got to the far end of the field. Even four-time world champions knew that their teams and reputations depended upon a good word from ‘Big Al’.
The Formula 1 paddock has many features that travel with it: the ‘Bernie Bus’ and the coterie of self-important nobodies who loiter without; Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and the greying heads of those very few F1 media who are worth reading.
Oh, and not forgetting the blasted fence which keeps the paying proles apart from the paid-for patricians, bedecked with gauze to prevent the great unwashed from catching a glimpse of the world within, manned (and womanned) by Austrian security guards marshalling their bleeping (and ‘bleeping’) gates.
Alan transcended all of that. He wrote about the sport as your mate. He was your passport to the inner sanctum. He had been there, seen it, elected not to wear the T-shirt but instead gave you his thoughts. And they were always valuable.
My own memories of Alan are tinged with sadness for reasons that I shall not bore you with. People find reasons to disagree with one another. Some of those reasons are fact. Others are fiction. But they also find reasons to respect, which are never undermined. When my first daughter was born, I received an email of almost papal importance. “As the willing slave to daughters myself, please accept these sincere congratulations. Alan.”
Every day I reflect on those words – and every day they ring true – fathers get into all sorts of scrapes for a daughter.
Alan prided himself on being a fuddy-duddy. A few years ago David Croft, the Sky Sports commentator, gleefully told the S&G of the time that he had managed to get Alan to visit a McDonald’s. While everyone else cheerfully dug into their Big Mac meals, one member of the party was struggling to fit himself into the plastic seats around the plastic table – all the while wearing an air of complete and utter incomprehension as to how and why this could be classed as a restaurant.
The ‘cartel’ of British journalists who inspired all who followed has lost its biggest personality in more ways than one. Cheers, Big Al. To your daughters, and those many more who miss you, my most heartfelt sympathies.