…In 1996, I was absolutely the only gay in the Formula One village…

Image Credit: BBC Radio Jersey

For those of you who have followed Formula One over the years, the name Matt Bishop might ring a few bells…

An automotive journalist since 1991, Matt took editorship of F1 Racing, a hugely respected publication at the cutting edge of motorsport reporting, long before the immediacy of the digital age.  In January 2008, Matt left to become Group Head of Communication and Public Relations for McLaren.  Overseeing the team’s recovery from ‘Spy-gate’ and then ‘Lie-gate’ and working closely with the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button – in particular overseeing Lewis Hamilton’s maiden championship win in 2008 – Matt became one of the most highly regarded people working in Formula One.

After 10 years at McLaren, Matt left, and after a short time out of the sport, became Communications Director for the W Series, the hugely successful all female-racing series.  He also became a founding ambassador of Racing Pride, an innovative movement, developed in collaboration with Stonewall and launched in June 2019, to positively promote LGBTQ+ inclusivity within the motorsport industry.

In his time away from the sport, Matt wrote his first novel, The Boy Made The Difference, an exploration of the family unit, frailty, love, marriage, gay sex, betrayal, illness and death.  It is set against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80’s and 90’s which had a profound effect on the gay community.

Before the development of anti-viral medication, Matt worked as a “buddy” or home volunteer for London Lighthouse, a London charity that at the time provided support for men suffering from HIV/AIDS, so the backdrop of the novel is a subject close to Matt’s heart.

Although I cover the W Series in my motorsport reporting, it was in fact the release of The Boy Made The Difference that brought Matt and myself to be chatting on a sunny September afternoon … but with such an interesting and fascinating career it was hard to know where to start.

In the beginning

I asked Matt what attracted him to motorsport and who where his heroes growing up.  Well, I was not brought up to motorsport”, Matt began.  His father, a classical concert pianist and mother, a novelist, teacher and psychotherapist, nobody in Matt’s family was interested in Formula One.  “I think when I was small my mother and father would’ve not even have heard the term Formula One.”

Matt was born in 1962 when Formula One was still a minority sport.  It wasn’t on the television and only the British Grand Prix got any coverage at all it written press.  It was not until the famous rivalry of James Hunt and Nikki Lauda in 1976 that Formula One really began to command an audience.  “I didn’t know anything about motor racing, but I was a petrolhead”, Matt exclaimed.  “I loved cars.  Even as a little boy, as my mother would push me along in the pushchair, I’m told that I would call out the names of the cars we passed: Morris Oxford, Austin Cambridge, Riley Elf, Wolseley Hornet, Citroën DS, etc., etc.”

And it was trip, in 1972, to the local newsagents and spotting a copy of Autosport which was the spark that lit the fire. “On the cover was a car the like of which I’ve never seen before.  I now know was a Tyrrell driven by Jackie Stewart who was, of course, the main man in Formula One at that time. I thought the car looked so cool, and I bought the magazine, can’t remember how much it cost, 12 and a half pence, I think? And I took it home and I read it from cover to cover.  I was hooked.”

I wondered if it was this love of cars that drew Matt to journalism, or it was just something he fell into.  “I didn’t do particularly well in my A Levels”, Matt started.  “I’d done very well in my O Levels but not well in my A Levels, so I ended up not going to university and doing some rather random jobs.  Minicab driver, factory worker, and, indeed, betting shop manager.”

It was whilst working as a betting shop manager that Matt met Jim Cremlin, greyhound reporter for the Racing Post, during a stint working at Wembley Greyhound Stadium that his journalism career began.  Jim encouraged Matt to start writing a piece or two.

“I realised that I could do that, and people liked it.  I’ve always been rather a kind of precise writer grammatically and so on, so I decided to kind of try and invent myself as a Sub Editor”, Matt continued.  “I ended up doing subbing shifts on Car magazine, which still exists today. Then from there, I got an actual paid salary job, my first job in media, as a sub. And from there, I became the features editor.  So, I started commissioning people like Nigel Roebuck [automotive journalist] and the late Russell Bulgin [automotive journalist] and the late L.J.K. Setright [automotive journalist and author] to write about not only cars but also racing, motor racing.”

When the people at Haymarket launched a magazine called F1 Racing, they headhunted and asked Matt to come in and edit it and with that Matt Bishop’s full-time media Formula One career began.

Having established himself as a journalist and editor, I wondered what prompted the move from F1 Racing magazine to the more corporate setting of PR and Communication with McLaren.  “It’s a very good question”, Matt began.  “Look, there’s no doubt I had 11 brilliant years at F1 Racing.  I can’t even imagine a job more fun than editing your own Formula One magazine and being able to decide what goes in it, decide what you want to write, and you decide what you want to get other people to write supported by a brilliant team of people which I had and many of whom are still on the scene.  It was absolutely fantastic.”

However, Matt felt the writing was on the wall with the invention of the digital age, magazines were beginning their slow decline.  “I love producing a beautiful coffee table magazine with wonderful photography and very, very meticulously weighed words where possible,” Matt said.  “I think it became clear to me that that was going to gently fizzle out or, at least, become so much less resourced that it would become less fun.”

There are of course racing magazines still out there, but budgets are non-existent, and circulation and popularity have dwindled with the rise of digitised media.  Teams had approached Matt with views to offering him a PR role, he was just waiting for the right offer…  

Image Credit: openlynew.com

It just so happened that Ron Dennis had first offered Matt a job as a press officer in 2001 over lunch at the French Grand Prix.  “I didn’t want to be a press officer,” Matt said.  “I was having far too much fun at F1 Racing.  I didn’t fancy a job just writing press releases and then walking round the media centre handing them out, because that’s what you had to do in those days.  I thought I could add real value as a strategic comms director. Ron and I talked about it on and off for a few years. And then along came ‘Spygate’…”

‘Spygate’ was of course a 2007 scandal involving the passing of confidential technical information between three Formula One teams: McLaren, Ferrari, and Renault F1.

Allegations were made against a former employee, Nigel Stepney, a senior McLaren engineer, Mike Coughlan, and his wife Trudy Coughlan concerning the theft of technical information.  Legal action was taken in Italy and an Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) investigation conducted.  A High Court case in England was dropped after Ferrari reached an agreement with the Coughlans.

It was a dark time for McLaren.  “It was very clear that they lacked the assistance that a communications director would provide or could provide”, Matt began.  “Ron asked me at the Turkish Grand Prix in 2007.  I had an opportunity because he needed someone who had the skill set and the knowledge and the contacts, which I did, and understood the sport and understood the FIA and understood the way the media works in Formula 1 which I did just because of having been there for a while by that time.

Dennis needed someone he could trust, Spygate was very difficult for everyone at McLaren and Matt signed on the dotted line the Monday after the 2007 Belgium Grand Prix.  I’m sure we would all agree, being Head of PR for a Formula One team must be one of the most exciting jobs out there.  I wondered was a typical day in the job was like.

“I don’t think there was such a thing as a typical day because it was always busy but often different, and also it evolved in the time I was there”, Matt explained. “I was at McLaren for 10 years and, at the beginning, you have to remember ‘Spygate’ had just happened and the team was reeling from that and to some extent we were in survival mode.   The $100 million fine had been paid, but reputationally, we were very much in damage limitation. That was a subtle and gradual process which involved us also having to tippy-toe around not upsetting the FIA, which was much more political than it is now, governed as it was by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley who were super effective and hugely capable but very, very difficult to deal with if you were in an adversarial situation.”

This all meant you had to watch your p’s and q’s all the time, in a way that people who run the teams now wouldn’t really know.

“Gradually over the 10 years that I was there, obviously, that began to become easier.  Max stepped away.  Bernie Ecclestone was always there while I was there at McLaren, but without Max, it was a different flavour, and Jean Todt was a different type of president.”

With Max gone, Matt set about rebuilding McLaren’s brand and building a more positive atmosphere.

Coming back round to the modern day, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get the thoughts of such a knowledgeable figure in the sport on the current state of sport, particularly as at the time of writing this, the Williams family were stepping back from the sport having sold the team they have owned and run since 1977.  Was F1 heading in a healthier direction?

“I love the history of the sport”, Matt began.  “Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I love the history of the sport.  I do these daily updates, #onthisday, so I do love the history of the sport.  Everything changes.  Nothing lasts forever, so, of course, I think it was quite sad to see the William’s family, their involvement come to an end, particularly Frank.  Obviously, Frank, who founded the company, and I think I saw on Companies House it just said, “Directorship terminated.” And you think, well, wow. that’s quite a stark little message, I certainly found.  What I actually hope, of course, more than anything else is that the men and women who work there will continue to have gainful employment and that the team will survive and that it will eventually thrive again, and what could be nicer?”

Of course, we all know things need to change in Formula One to make the sport viable in the long term and Matt’s thoughts echo the majority of us who follow and love the sport.  “There are things that need to change in Formula One, and I hope that they do make those changes.  And I hope that the 2020 regulations provide for better racing, cheaper racing.”

Looking in more detail, Matt said, “It’s too expensive.  I was in Formula One for so long, first as a journalist and then as a team person and now, working in W Series and grappling with what I might describe as normal budgets, you realise what an utterly profligate, spendthrift operation Formula One is.  The current regulations have to change so that it is impossible to spend that much money, or it becomes absolutely ludicrously unwise to spend all that much money.  Motor racing is never going to be as cheap as football or boxing for pretty obvious reasons because racing cars are complex machines, but it doesn’t have to be like that.”

At the time of speaking McLaren had just put their technology centre and Headquarters up for sale as it is significantly cheaper to lease it back.  “It is the biggest challenge”, Matt said.  “That’s much more of a challenge than can the cars overtake each other and so on.  Much of the challenge is, “Can we do it in such a way that it is financially sustainable?”  And that’s the real challenge for Chase Carey and Ross Brawn, I think.” 

A new challenge

In the spring of 2018, a new challenge and opportunity found its way to Matt in the form of the W Series.  The highly successful all-female racing series is technically in its second season although due to Coronavirus, all racing has been restricted to online simulator racing.  Despite this the series is going from strength to strength, gaining new fans and respect in the racing community despite some early opposition and is striving to break down equality barriers and show the world that the girls are just good as the boys.

I wondered what attracted Matt to the series and how taking the role of Communications Director came about.  Having left McLaren in the middle of 2017, he began writing his novel through to the following spring.  Around that time Matt got a phone call from an old friend asking, “What are you doing at the moment?”

That friend was David Coulthard.  He pitched the idea of a new secret project and it must have worked because Matt agreed to work for the project as Communications Director.  That project eventually became the W Series.

And the attraction? The idea of creating something. “I’d never done that before”, Matt exclaimed.  “I’d only ever joined existing entities.  I had faith when the cars drew up on the grid in Hockenheim for the first ever W Series race in 2019… I was standing there and, to use the Murray Walker phrase, I had a lump in my throat.  I absolutely did.”

There was some early criticism to the series.  People felt the series was segregating women and there were some drivers who were and still are very against it.  With a successful eSports league this year the series just wants to get bigger and better.

And it is true, having covered the series since it began for both Reuters and Overtake, the series has certainly been a triumph.  Resurrecting and reinvigorating the careers and passions of women racers who otherwise had said goodbye to their dream because of cash flow or a lack of available racing seats to fill.

“I will be able to retire happy”, Matt began, “if and when we begin to find that our drivers are progressing and reintegrating back into higher levels of motorsport.  Wouldn’t it be magnificent if a W Series graduate and it might be one of the drivers we have now or it might be a driver of the future, and it might be in two years or four years or six years, I don’t know, but if that person were to get a Formula One drive!”

I wanted to find out what the short term and long-term goals for the W Series particularly as, much like all sport this year, Coronavirus has forced the series to look for virtual solutions to racing.

“Well, we want to come back bigger and better next year”, Matt began.  “We’ve already agreed terms with Formula One whereby we will be racing on the 2021 calendar.  We’ve only confirmed two races so far which is Austin, Texas and Mexico City, but they’re both confirmed, and there may be others, and we will certainly have a season of at least eight races next year.”

The only gay in the F1 village

Matt’s novel, The Boy Made The Difference, focuses on the family unit and the trials and tribulations that come with coming out, particularly against the backdrop of the HIV/AID crisis of late 80’s and early 90’s and, although it is not set in an F1 world, I wanted to ask Matt about his experiences working in Formula One and as a gay man, how he felt that impacted on him and his career.

Matt came out to friends and family when he was 18, but actually found that you have to come out repeatedly.  “If I meet somebody”, Matt began, “and start chatting even in a business context, they may say, are you married?  Have you got kids?  So, I’ll say, no, no. I’m gay.  And I find it the easiest thing to say, but I didn’t work that out when I was 18.  I probably inched my way out of the closet the way people did back in those days, but it was a hard world to be gay in anyway.”

Starting his journalism career at Car magazine, Matt was reticent and hesitant, but by the time he had moved onto F1 Racing in 1996 he decided to be open and clear about his sexuality.  “I was absolutely the only gay in the Formula One village in 1996”, Matt said.  Of course, Matt couldn’t have been, there must have been other, but he was the only openly gay man.  “People told me”, Matt said, “you’re going to get problems, and I really didn’t.  Some people were embarrassed and didn’t want to talk about it, and there have been some Formula One drivers who have said, I’m grateful to you, Matt, because I got to actually work with a gay man which I never had before, and it taught me an awful lot.”

Matt is a founding ambassador of Racing Pride which was set up in 2019 in conjunction with Stonewall. “It was set up partly because of young drivers, junior karters, whether they be male or female or, indeed, as we should now say, LGBTQ+, who were finding opposition or prejudice in the karting world.”

Image Credit: racingpride.com

One of the things Matt has been working on with Racing Pride is providing support for mechanics and engineers who are gay and are struggling within the world of motorsport.  “It’s reasonably easy for an LGBTQ+ person”, Matt stated, “who is in marketing or PR or even journalism, I think they don’t encounter much in the way of hostility or opposition, but if they’re mechanics, they still do even in 2020.”

So how does Matt think we can change the current environment within the sport?

“What I think teams should do is do some internal communication and education around that, talk to the mechanics and the engineers, for example, ‘You 200 people, almost all of whom are guys, some of you will be gay. You don’t have to identify yourselves, obviously, but some of you will be gay, and some of you will not have told those who are standing next to you in this hall that you are gay.  Please bear that in mind.  Please bear that in mind with your language and your behaviour so that those people can, who, by the way, who all work hard and pull hard and we all work as hard as each other to try to get our cars to be as well prepared as they can possibly be and to be as well run as they can possibly can be, so just bear in mind with your language and your behaviour that you’re not making someone who is a valued colleague feel unhappy or unvalued which you might not even know.”

Racing Pride is undoubtably changing the landscape of Motorsport, working hard to change people’s perceptions about sexuality and helping everyone to feel welcomed and comfortable in the sport they love.  I wanted Matt to expand on how he felt F1 had changed towards the LGBTQ+ community. Had it changed for the better?

“Massively for the better, but not for mechanics”, Matt explained. “Progress still needs to be made.  When I arrived and when it became known that I was gay, I started getting emails – not from people on the Williams or McLaren or Jordan accounts – but from CompuServe or Hotmail or Yahoo saying ‘I’m gay.  I’m a mechanic, and I couldn’t possibly tell anyone.  I don’t know how.  It’s eating me up inside having to live this lie’.  I think that isn’t as bad now.  I do hope not, and I think not, but there’s still progress to be made.”

It’s worth noting that the W Series have two lesbian drivers, Sarah Moore and Abbie Eaton, both now Racing Pride ambassadors. “One of the things that we decided when we started W Series”, Matt explained, “with a clean sheet is that we were going to be absolutely prioritising of diversity and inclusion at every level and in every way.” 

Drawing on his experience I asked Matt what advice he would give to someone who worked in motorsport or indeed anywhere and wanted to come out.

“Well, my advice is to bite the bullet and come out, but there are some provisos and caveats.  If you live in Islamabad, that’s going to be a little bit harder.”

The Boy Made The Difference

During Matt’s downtime between leaving McLaren and joining the W Series, he wrote a book.  His mother, Bernadette Bishop, who sadly passed away in 2013 from cancer, was also an author, penning five novels, two of which were released posthumously and to critical acclaim, so writing is in Matt’s blood.  The Boy Made The Difference is Matt’s first novel, focusing on Rex, Jill and their son Danny and the fall out of a huge but unintentional mistake on Rex’s behalf.  The book doesn’t shy away from the challenges both big and small that the LGBTQ+ community faces.

Image Credit: Troubador Publishing

Having been entrenched in motorsport for so long, Matt wanted a clean break, making a conscious decision not to write about the sport.  “I thought there may be a good Formula One novel, but I’ve never read one”, Matt stated.  “I think sporting novels, in general, are quite difficult.  The other thing is so I looked at something I’d kind of forgotten about.  It was quite a long time ago which was the time in the late ’80s and early ’90s when I worked as a home support volunteer for London Lighthouse.”

The London Lighthouse was a centre and hospice for people with HIV and AIDS, set in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  Opened in 1986, it offered cutting edge residential care for men, women and children living with HIV and AIDS and provided a refuge, respite and a safe place to people marginalised and abandoned because of their diagnosis.  It was the largest HIV/AIDS centre in the world at that time.

As HIV treatment became more successful throughout the 90’s, the need for residential care became much less, and in 2015 it was decided that the building was no longer needed.  It was sold off, and the site is now the Museum of Brands. However, the memorial garden, where the ashes of many people who died at the Lighthouse were scattered, has been kept and preserved.

HIV and AIDS remains a big issue in the world.  There are 38 million people living with HIV now and the antiretroviral medicines have made such a huge difference that you can live for 50 years with HIV, but they aren’t available everywhere. In some parts of the world, people are still dying of HIV and AIDS. “It just seems that there was a story to be told”, Matt explained. “I didn’t want to write it all about HIV and all about AIDS because I thought it would be too morbid, but I wanted it as a narrative backdrop.”

Following his mother’s death in 2013, Matt set up the Bernadine Bishop Appeal.  It fundraises for CLIC Sargent which is a children’s charity that Matt has been fundraising for on and off over the years.  “Eddie Jordan got me into [CLIC Sargent] about 15 years ago”, Matt said.  “He’s done a huge amount of work for it.  I thought, I will write this book and then all proceeds will go to that.”

Aside from raising money for CLIC Sargent, I wanted to ask Matt what he hoped people would take away from the book regardless of their sexuality.  “I thought for gay men my age”, Matt explained, “it would be interesting to have the time revisited in a novel that retrospectively, I also thought that younger gay men would find it interesting to discover what life was like for their forebearers, for the gay men that went before them and really, only 30 years, not that long ago.  But also, the central narrative of The Boy Made The Difference is of the nuclear family: mother, father, son.  I did that deliberately because all of these issues exist in families.  Every nuclear family has its own problems and concerns and challenges and secrets.  I think The Boy Made the Difference is for everyone.”

The events in The Boy Made The Difference takes place with developing AIDS crisis that occurred in the 1980’s and 1990’s and I wanted to get Matt’s thoughts about the stigma around AIDS and how the attitudes of people have changed from the days when he was a volunteer to now and promoting the book.

“Well, it was terrible back in the day.  It was very, very visible.  There was Kaposi’s sarcoma, particularly, which is a form of cancer that used to afflict, and still does if you don’t have the antiretroviral meds, people with AIDS. And it afflicts them by lesions. Black, purple, brown, very ugly lesions appearing on the face, sadly.  So, there’s no mistaking that, and sometimes if one of your service users, as we used to call them at London Lighthouse, was fit enough to walk, he might be in his last year or his last six months, but he’d be fit enough to go to the cinema, and he’d say, ‘I’d like to go to the cinema’ or ‘I’d like to go to the pub’. He’d be nervous to go on his own because he had visible Kaposi’s sarcoma, and you know, his friends wouldn’t take him.  That’s the saddest thing.  Often his friends would kind of disappear.  They wouldn’t mind making a phone call, but they didn’t want to be seen walking down the street…”

It was a time when those suffering would be victim to awful abuse, as Matt explains.

“You used to find people shouting abuse.  ‘Get that fucking freak out of here! or ‘AIDS face: back off!’.  And so, one of the things as a home support volunteer you would do, sometimes you’d go round and have a cup of tea with them in their flat.  Sometimes they’d be too knackered, and they’d say, you wouldn’t run the hoover around, would you? So, you’d say, yeah. I don’t mind.  You weren’t a counsellor and you weren’t a doctor or a medic, but you did what, well, within reason, what you were happy to do, and they were happy to do with you.  Sometimes you’d go there, and sometimes you had to kind of stick up for them, if you like, as you were queuing for the Odeon or whatever it was.  That was something that was challenging to do, but I was proud to do it.”

With the development of antiretroviral drugs, it has thankfully improved the landscape.  “I have friends who are HIV positive and you would never know.  They are as fit as a fiddle.  They play sport. They look good because they take their daily antiretroviral medication, and hopefully, they’ll make as old bones as any of the rest of us and they can have a good life.  The Boy Made The Difference harks back to a time when it was far more acute, of course.”

I was curious to know, aside from drawing on the experiences working with HIV and AIDS sufferers, if the characters in The Boy Made the Difference were based on anyone specific.“No. This is honestly the case.  It’s not me just saying it.  Nobody in The Boy Made the Difference is based on anybody I know or have ever met. I know that some novelists do write like that.  They have in mind a character, but I didn’t find that that was helpful at all, so I wasn’t tempted.”

Drawing on such experiences must have been challenging and emotional, I wanted to get Matt’s thoughts on revisiting such difficult memories.“Towards the last few chapters of the novel, yes. There were moments where I was a little bit emotional writing those bits, but that was really because I’d got to know the characters by then.  Hour upon hour, you’re alone in your study getting to know those characters, so towards the end I was sitting there typing away and some of it was quite emotional.  I will admit that, yes.  Very emotional.”

Having finished writing, Matt decided to dedicate the novel to the brave men who used London Lighthouse and the Broderip [the ward in the Middlesex hospital, now closed] that so many of those young men died in.

As we approached the end of our conversation, I wanted to get some final thoughts from Matt on his book and his career.  Describing his book in three words, Matt said, “raw, real and funny”. I also wanted to know if he was planning any other books.  “I don’t know how long I want to work.  Once I’ve passed 60, we’ll see.  But if I’ve still got health and strength and I’ve still got a brain that vaguely works, then why wouldn’t I?  I mean, a lot of it depends on the reception of this first novel.  If people think it’s rubbish, then I’ll probably retire and lick my wounds in the corner somewhere.  If it’s even vaguely well-received, then I might begin to think about a second.”

Creating a novel is all-consuming, you can’t do it in your spare time and having left McLaren it presented Matt with the opportunity to do it.  “You don’t finish a novel”, Matt explains, “You just hand it over because you always tinker.  You can always tinker more.”

Image Credit: Matt Bishop

With such a full and amazing career, and now becoming a published author, I finished by asking Matt what he felt was the highlight of his career so far. “Well, the highlight of my career must be, really, working with Lewis Hamilton”, Matt said proudly (and rightly so.)  “I mean, I think Lewis Hamilton is among the very, very best drivers we’ve ever seen in the history of Formula 1.  Someone who I, personally, like and admire as a man as well as a racing driver.  And of course, the most dramatic moment of my life was being in the garage having worked with that team so hard from when we thought we were on our chins on the floor at the end of the ‘Spygate’ to then come through and be standing in the garage screaming Lewis on and finally him winning that Championship at the last corner of the last lap of the last race.  It’s Boy’s Own story stuff.  And it will take some beating as a career highlight.”

Having interviewed a few people working in motorsport over my short writing career, I would have to say speaking to Matt was one of the most interesting and enjoyable experiences so far.  It is very clear to see how he has become one of the most highly regarded people working in the sport.

I would like to thank Matt for his time.

The Boy Made The Difference is out now and can be purchased from Amazon and direct from the publishers Matador Troubador, www.troubador.co.uk

Information on the W-Series can be found at www.wseries.com

Information on Racing Pride can be found at www.racingpride.com

Information on CLIC Sargent can be found at www.clicsargent.org.uk

To find Matt on Twitter, search @thebishf1

Image Credit: Troubador Publishing

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