Over the course of eleven years at the helm, ‘The Bish’ took F1 Racing from being a specialist magazine available in English and German, into dozens of new markets, its feature-based approach to the sport, along with genuine scoops, unique photography and genuine relationships with the drivers, team bosses and technical gurus, making it the standard for sporting magazine journalism.
His arrival at McLaren, having been lured personally by Ron Dennis, who had every reason to detest Bishop and his magazine, not least for the infamous ‘second brake pedal’ scoop of 1997, coincided with another difficult episode in the life of the Woking team, one that almost broke it, Spygate.
Thrown in at the deep end, Bishop, who was recently revealed as the communications boss for the all-women W Series, suddenly found the tables turned as, in his role of communications head for McLaren, he had to defend the team during one of the most infamous scandals in sporting history.
It was an episode that cost the Woking team $100m but could have cost it even more, and as the dust finally began to settle, Bishop headed into 2008, his first full season at Woking.
“In the closing stages, there we were,” he recalls of the fairy-tale climax to the following season, just twelve months after Spygate, “Lewis in sixth place, he had to be fifth, had to be fifth. Otherwise, every gram of effort that had gone through that entire year, a year of effort and redemption, or hoped for redemption, immediately following Spygate, every gram would be wasted.
“You remember what happened… Lewis lost fifth place to Vettel, in the Toro Rosso, and then Lewis began to lunge at Vettel, trying to get that fifth-place back. But every time he lunged, Vettel just put the power down and disappeared down the straight again. And we all began to hope, but also fear… I remember sitting in the garage and looking at the guys, looking at the monitors, looking at everyone, and I could see everyone was muttering, everyone was doing this… ‘come on’, ‘come on’…
“Of course, you couldn’t hear, because in those days Formula One engines were very loud, so you couldn’t hear a thing, but everyone was mouthing these words… and I found I was too.
“At the very end, I mean, this is Boy’s Own stuff, this is really astonishing sporting drama, we’re talking about the last corner of the last lap of the last race… by which time Felipe Massa was celebrating not only victory but also his world championship. And in that same period, we suddenly all saw, as did everybody sitting on their sofas, that it wasn’t Vettel that Hamilton was getting past, it was Glock, the Toyota was going slowly.
“I can’t really talk about it without getting emotional,” he admits, his voice clearly trembling, “it was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. I remember rushing, we all did, just rushed across the garage, across the pitlane to the pit-wall. It was that shared drama… lots of tears, lots of joy.
“And then of course, in the utterly congested Interlagos paddock, old-fashioned paddock, taking Lewis from TV crew to TV crew, I remember, being bumped because there was no space, TV cameras banging you on the head, and I remember, at one particular point, Lewis was standing there with a whole lot of TV cameras in his face, and then, lower down, in between the legs of the cameramen and the interviewers, this little figure appeared, in red. I looked down and this little figure crawled through and looked up… Felipe Massa.
“He put his hand out, and reached to Lewis, and said: ‘Congratulations Lewis, congratulations’. That is class behaviour, world class behaviour. A class act.”
“2009 started very badly,” admits Bishop. “The car was dreadful. We found out in testing it was going to be dreadful, and we decided to admit publicly that it was going to achieve poor results. We did a lot of ‘expectation management’ in the media, which is much better than telling porkie pies, let’s be honest about it, we were not going to be good at the beginning of the year.
“Massive credit to the McLaren engineers, who worked, and worked and worked… Formula One is not about magic bullets and great discoveries like in Colin Chapman’s era. When, ‘I know, I’ve invented ground effects, let’s just make a car that wins every race’, that doesn’t happen any more, it’s all about iterative improvements. And so the McLaren engineers, brilliant performers, continued making iterative improvements until finally we got to Hungary, which was a circuit that would help us and Lewis put it on pole… and won.
“I remember speaking to him as we walked back to the McLaren Brand Centre, hot and sweaty and delighted, and he said: ‘Matt, do the sum, do the sum… how many races left have we got… if we win every single one we can still win this world championship’. That was Lewis. Absolutely nothing about ‘oh, thank goodness, we’ve made it less disgraceful by winning a race’, no… no… no… it was ‘Matt, go and do the sum, if we win every single race we can still win this world championship. That’s the mark of a winner.
“Lewis is a much misunderstood person,” he lives his life in some ways on social media and most people experience him on social media, and now of course he has the trappings of great wealth, his sartorial choices are eccentric, he rubs shoulders with superstars outside of the sport, he’s as rich as you could want to be, he’s got his dogs, he’s got his big red jet, but Lewis is still an extremely warm person.
“My mother,” he says, referring to novelist, teacher and psychotherapist, Bernadine Bishop, “was dying of cancer at that time, and it so happens that Lewis had spoken to her on the phone in the past. She was already not well, and he knew that, and I happened to be talking to him, doing a media briefing or something, and my phone rang and he saw it said ‘Mum’, while I was doing something else.
“So he answered, and he spoke to my mother, and he said ‘I gather that you’re fighting cancer, you need to be really proud of your son, he’s doing such a great job’… and all that. My mother told me later what he had said, yet when I walked back, Lewis didn’t even tell me that he’d answered my phone and spoken to my mother, it was she that told me sometime later.
“Anyway, that was 2012, when she was ill. In 2013, she was in the last stages, and she died on the Thursday before the German Grand Prix. I called my great friend and colleague Steve Cooper, and said that I would not be able to attend the Grand Prix as my mother had just passed away.
“I was sitting in my mother’s front room in north London, and at ten-o-clock at night my phone rang,” he says, holding out his hand as if looking at a mobile. “Lewis Hamilton, it said.
“I answered the phone… ‘Hi Lewis…’ Obviously, when I said ‘Hi Lewis’ everybody in the room paid attention, and went quiet, because it’s not such a common name and they knew what Lewis that must be.
“Remember, he wasn’t in the same team now, and I was very surprised. I said ‘Lewis, I’m not in Germany.’ He said ‘I know you’re not in Germany… I’ve just this moment heard that your mother passed away, she was a great lady, and I just want to say you have all my condolences, and if you’re with your family this evening, please pass on my condolences to all of them and tell them that I will remember her in my prayers tonight.
“Again, first class behaviour, proper, proper behaviour. People don’t see that side of Lewis, the soulful, kind-hearted man, they just see the Instagram version.”
Of Hamilton’s decision to leave McLaren and join Mercedes, Bishop reveals that the Briton spoke to a number of teams including Red Bull, but it was Niki Lauda and Ross Brawn who persuaded him to move to Brackley.
“I minded it,” says Bishop of the decision, “I didn’t blame him, but I minded it. I remember talking, and there was this disagreement within McLaren at the time and some people said ‘Lewis is getting too big for his boots, he’s becoming difficult’, there was a little bit of truth in some of that, but my view always was that you want the best driver you can possibly get, and if they’re a little bit difficult, and by the way, the best drivers are unlikely to be the easiest, particularly once they become champions and once they acquire the gravitas of seniority, and Lewis had, you want them, and by the way, that’s how you earn your salary trying to control them. What I mean is that he’s not the easiest, simplest person.
“I remember the last race, which was Brazil 2012, which, tragically I have to say, is the last race McLaren has won, as of now. Jenson won, but Lewis could have won it until he hit trouble. He walked through the paddock, through the hospitality, exactly the same rooms where, four years previously, he had had his day of days, and I remember thinking ‘that’s the end of that era, that’s his last McLaren drive’, and he went into his little room at the back and I felt the need to say something to him as we’d become quite close. So I tapped at the door and walked in, and he had his overalls around his waist, bare top, and he stood there and shrugged as if to say ‘I didn’t win did I?’, and I just stood there and I didn’t have anything to say, so I stood there and began to clap. That’s all I did, I clapped him for what he had done for McLaren.
“A much misunderstood person, a brilliant driver… everyone will miss him when he’s gone.”