Zoltán Szujo is the lead F1 commentator for Magyar Televízió (MTV), Hungary’s national public service TV station. Renowned for being one of the country’s most prominent authority figures on the sport, we catch up with him to talk about F1 memories, the unpredictability of the 2012 season, and what the future of the sport may bring.
Hi Zoltán. How did you become the lead F1 commentator on Hungarian national TV - something that many people would consider a ‘dream’ job?
I’ve been the main F1 presenter on Hungarian TV for 11 years now: the first 10 on RTL Hungary, who are part of Germany’s RTL broadcasting group, and now this season heading up the coverage on the national station, Magyar Televízió. I also cover other sports such as boxing and football, and I’ll be heading to London straight after the Hungarian Grand Prix for the Olympics, which I’m very excited about.
In terms of my decision to pursue a career in sports commentary, my hero was a guy called Jeno Knezy, who is a really iconic and well respected commentator in Hungary – I made the conscious choice to emulate him and his profession from quite a young age. I got the chance to follow in his footsteps back in 2000 when I became a trainee at National Television and was lucky enough to work on the Sydney Olympics directly alongside him - it was a huge moment for me.
What’s your earliest F1 memory?
Perhaps not the very earliest, but certainly one of my fondest memories dates back to 1990 when I was 13 years old and living in the countryside: my Grandfather, who was a big fan of motorsport, took me to the Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring. I clearly remember being sat on the grass next to the final corner of the track, just before the start/finish line. It was a race won by Thierry Boutsen from the Williams team, but my overriding memory is that of my all-time favourite driver, Alain Prost, pulling over to retire his car just two or three metres from where I was, and me running up to the fencing to get as close as possible to him, crying. He just took off his helmet, looked at me and said “don’t worry – it’s no big deal!” This was the moment that I decided that I wanted to be involved in this amazing sport in one capacity or another.
Several years later, as a reporter, I got the chance to catch up with Alain in person on a boat in Monte Carlo and tell him the story!
The F1 2012 season, with seven different winners in the first seven races, has been one of the most exciting, unpredictable and open seasons for many years. Why do you think this is?
The main factors, in my opinion, are the ban on exhaust-blown diffusers this season and the really unpredictable behaviour from the Pirelli tyres – it’s made the races really open and fascinating. This is a good thing for journalists and TV in terms of having different stories to tell featuring different faces and winners. To be honest though, now we’ve reached the halfway point of the season, I think it will be a straight fight between Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and McLaren for the Championship titles.
What’s been your favourite race of the season so far and why?
In terms of the overall package, I’d always say Melbourne, as the Australian F1 fans are brilliant and passionate and the city has a really cool vibe and culture about it – the same also applies to Montreal. However, in terms of the races themselves, I can’t look past what I’d call the ‘traditional’ circuits – the likes of Monza, Hockenheim, Silverstone, Spa Francorchamps and the Hungaroring. With the newer venues, I understand the need to expand F1 further afield and make it as truly global as possible, but the atmosphere and passion of the fans is not quite the same.
From a technical perspective, what is it that makes double World Champion and Infiniti global brand ambassador, Sebastian Vettel, such an outstanding driver?
He is just amazingly quick and he can adapt his driving style really quickly to changing conditions which is always a crucial thing - there are some F1 drivers who are not able to change their style as quickly, so that’s what gives him the edge. The other thing that I really like and respect about Sebastian is that despite all his success he’s remained very grounded – you see him smiling and chatting with the guys in his garage, all of whom he seems close to. He’s just a normal, down-to-earth guy, which is good to see in a top level sportsman – sometimes egos can run away with those who have had the success of Sebastian.
How do you rate Red Bull Racing’s changes of winning both the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships for a third successive year?
Well, it won’t be easy but it certainly is possible! It is great to see that Mark Webber is in good shape and in a good place mentally this season, full of confidence, whilst Sebastian is always as likely as anyone else on the grid to win races and pick up big points. Ferrari, in particular Fernando Alonso, obviously pose a threat, as do both McLaren drivers, but there’s no reason to bet against Red Bull Racing doing the double yet again.
What are the main changes in the sport that you’ve noticed since being involved in F1 as a commentator?
F1 has always been a very technical sport, but I’d say, if anything, it’s become ever more technical over the course of the past 11 years since I’ve been commentating. You can see just how hard that they are working in the factories to constantly evaluate the cars and make progress in finding new opportunities to be quicker by another 10th or even half a tenth of a second per lap. The nature of the sport is evolving so quickly, with new rules and regulations that teams must adhere to being constantly introduced – this is the main change in recent years.
KERS and DRS have drastically increased overtaking opportunities and made F1 more accessible to the more casual viewer. What changes would you personally implement if you could in order to improve F1 further?
I personally would get rid of DRS – I don’t like it all that much, as it takes some of the skill out of the art of overtaking…not that it’s ever particularly easy to pass a car at 300kmph! The other thing I would consider changing is related to Qualifying, making it a bit shorter. Either that, or have reverse starting grids for the Grands Prix based on the final positions from the previous race. I think that would be quite interesting!
F1 becoming greener is always an active topic of discussion, especially with more fuel efficient engines being introduced to the sport in 2014. How big an impact do you think the engine regulations will have on the sport?
Not too much I think. No matter how strong or fast the 1.6L engine cars are or whether the lap times are slightly slower, you will still have 24 highly skilled, highly competitive drivers who will be looking to get the absolute most out of the technology they have been given to work with. I believe that most people who enjoy the sport enjoy it because of the personalities behind the wheel and the fights they have amongst each other out there on the circuit – this element certainly won’t change. Of course, that said, it is still up to each individual team to make the 2014 regulations work as well as possible for them, so it will be interesting to see how this pans out.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing Formula 1 going into the future?
Definitely the economic crisis, which is not good for high level, expensivetoparticipate sports such as F1. Cost cutting in the future is key - I think F1 has to give an answer to how to run the sport in the midst of this economic situation, whilst not diluting the quality of on-track racing.
What’s your prediction for the coming weekend’s race at the Hungaroring?
Tough one! McLaren are back on the pace, as demonstrated by Jenson Button’s showing at Hockenheim, whilst obviously Alonso is very much in form. The Hungaroring also really suits the RB8s of Red Bull Racing…if I was to stick my neck out I’d say one of Sebastian or Mark will win the race, but I think it will be a close fought battle!