16 Jun Catching up with Gerald Donaldson
By Bryce Turner
Like a road course, Gerald Donaldson’s path from race fan to accomplished motorsport journalist took some twists and turns. He was interested in the sport as a teenager, following Formula 1 (F1) closely through magazines, but an early exit from high school led to working odd jobs.
When there came a time that he wanted to do something different, he returned to school, attending the Ontario College of Art & Design, which led to work in advertising. Ironically, he became a writer and wrote about travel before entering the motorsport industry and residing in England, where travel would play a key role throughout his career.
Donaldson started covering F1 in 1977, attending Gilles Villeneuve’s series debut at England’s Silverstone Circuit. As a Canadian covering a largely European sport, his career involved regular travel between various countries.
“The travel was quite hectic and it was very expensive; nobody ever paid my expenses,” said Donaldson. “You had to really be keen to do it. I was propelled along, really, by the momentum of the sport…you have to be somewhere, another country usually, and you have to produce, otherwise you’re gone.”
Over four decades since he started, his resume includes coverage across two mediums and multiple outlets, including 20 years for the Toronto Star and coverage for the Globe and Mail, TSN, CTV, CBC and various magazines. He also wrote books about Villeneuve, Juan Manuel Fangio, James Hunt and the history of F1.
Donaldson’s books were extra work, on top of covering races, during a time before the internet was common, when it took more time and effort to do research. While the workload required a lot more than writing race weekend articles, there was actually some fuel provided by all of this homework.
“The more you do, the more material you got, the harder you pushed,” he said. “It was natural. It came more easy to finish. First of all, you’re working to a deadline and your payment depended on your meeting the deadline, whereas with a newspaper, there was a contract.”
Research for the books included interviews with those close to the featured characters. Donaldson found interviewees to be quite willing to talk because of their enthusiasm towards the characters.
He also found that the books opened a lot of doors because they were highly praised by the international media.
Another enthusiastic group were the readers, including a fan who went to a signing for the Villeneuve book.
“A fan came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you Mr. Donaldson for teaching me how to read,’” said Donaldson. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’ He said, ‘well, I came from a poor family, I had to leave school early, I never learned to read. But, Villeneuve was such a hero for me that I read your book six times to learn how to read.’”
The fan asked Donaldson to sign the book to his son, who was named after the dad’s hero, Gilles.
“Two things I learned (from writing the books),” said Donaldson. “First of all, how extraordinary these characters were when you got to know them well. And also, the huge impression they made on people who knew about them, who were huge fans of the guys.”
Travel was a big part of Donaldson’s career. Some venues he found more interesting than others, such as Suzuka Circuitland in Japan and Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in Italy, which he calls a “madhouse,” because of the droves of dedicated Italian fans. Some tracks were nice to visit because of the warmer weather, such as Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia and both Adelaide Grand Prix Circuit and Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit in Australia.
One of his favourite tracks is Autodromo Enzo & Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy, where he’d spend time with colleagues away from the venue.
“We’d dine together in the evenings, especially at wonderful venues like Imola,” he said. “(We’d) go out into the village, the Italian countryside…drink a little bit and talk; a lot of gossip.”
Even with the gossip, the journalists would still keep some secrets to protect scoops.
The track that Donaldson considers the most interesting is Circuit de Monaco, which is home to one of the most historic and prestigious events on the calendar, held on the hilly streets of Monte Carlo, in the principality located at the edge of France and the Mediterranean Sea.
“It’s most enticing to watch because, as a journalist, you can get out right beside the guardrail,” he said. “To see the velocity of these cars, how fast they’re going and how brave the drivers are, is really what the sport is all about; guys kind of risking it all in exotic machinery, at this track which is so primitive.”
As part of his research for one of the books, Donaldson says he discovered that a local newspaper noted in 1929, when the track was built, that they shouldn’t have built it, that it was too dangerous.
The danger of the sport isn’t lost on Donaldson. When reflecting on F1 moments that stand out from his years of coverage, deaths are the first thing that come to mind, specifically Villeneuve’s death in a qualifying crash at Belgium’s Circuit Zolder in 1982, and Ayrton Senna’s death in a 1994 crash in a race at Imola.
While he notes that F1 is safer now, he says Anthoine Hubert’s death following a Formula 2 crash in 2019 was a harsh reminder of the danger.
Donaldson still covers races today, though he hasn’t been able to attend events recently due to pandemic travel restrictions. He writes for his own blog, www.f1speedwriter.com, and writes driver biographies for the official F1 website.
In recent years, he received a couple of notable honours from F1’s governing body, FIA. He was inducted as part of the Formula 1 Paddock Hall of Fame’s class of 2018 and received a lifetime media pass from the FIA. He says the media pass was an acknowledgement, by the governing body, that he’s made a valuable contribution to the sport. It will also provide ease of access once he’s able to attend races again.
Donaldson was also inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame (CMHF) as part of the inaugural Media class. Members were announced in January 2019 and inducted during a ceremony at the Canadian International AutoShow in February 2020.
“Just a little while before that induction into the CMHF, I had been made a member of the Formula 1 Paddock Hall of Fame at Monza in Italy, and that was a big deal,” said Donaldson. “But it was really more important to me to have the CMHF induction because it kind of helped prove that my career had not been in vain, to be recognized in my home country.”
Travelling the world was a big part of Donaldson’s journey from a high school dropout in Canada to an accomplished international motorsport journalist. It introduced him to extraordinary characters, both behind the wheel and in the stands. But, it’s the extraordinary storytelling of Donaldson that helped introduce and connect Canadians to their racing heroes in the world of Formula 1.