It is my great fortune that enough people visit this website that I can travel around Europe and attend races, and report on them from on site. Having done this as a full time job for six seasons now, I have gained a fair amount of experience on the various bits and pieces of equipment that I need to do my job as effectively as possible. If you have aspirations of becoming a motorcycle racing blogger or journalist, here's a guide to the essential kit you will need.
What does a MotoGP writer / blogger do at a race track all day? Put simply, he (or she, but as I'm a he, I'll be sticking with that for the moment) sits in the media center watching sessions, wanders the paddock finding people to talk to, rushes from garage to hospitality to attend rider debriefs, records what everyone says, makes notes as an aide-memoire, types up what he found out, and posts it on the internet. Simple enough, you might think, but the range of equipment needed to do that is surprisingly large.
Here's my minimum equipment list, a full discussion of the kit will appear below:
- Voice recorder
- Pens and notepad
- USB sticks
- 3G USB dongle
- External hard disk
- Spare batteries and battery charger
- Cables: USB extension, USB - MicroUSB charger, ethernet
- Ear plugs
- Compact camera
I bought and paid for all of the kit myself (with the exception of the KTM USB stick, more on that later), so I have no vested interest, and I have not received any sponsorship for any items mentioned here.
How did people cope before the advent of the portable computer? Well, some of the paddock veterans will regale you with tales of days long past. Dutch journalist Henk Keulemans, who has been writing about the sport since 1974, tells of taking turns typing up stories on a typewriter on his lap, as he and a friend drove home on Sunday night, stopping at phoneboxes on the way to phone the stories back to their editors. Then came the fax, then the computer, and finally the internet.
Things are easier now. Laptops are cheap and widely available, and all of them equipped with network connectivity. I have been through three different laptops in my time in the paddock, and in that time have settled on the most important criteria to judge them by:
- Portability / weight
- Battery life
- Screen quality
Portability is the most important factor. This is an item in my handluggage, which I have to carry on the train to the airport, into the aircraft, out of the aircraft, in and out of the paddock each day, and into my hotel room / apartment. That 18-inch Alienware machine may look pretty awesome, but by Saturday night, as you lug it down the stairs of the media center, you will start to loathe its 5.5kg bulk. The laptops I have bought have been successively lighter, culminating in my current, sub-2kg Lenovo Thinkpad.
It is not just weight, but also size which matters. As someone who is primarily focused on writing, a 14-inch laptop is more than enough for my needs. Bigger might be better, but unless you have a specific need to edit photos or video, there is little point. A 14-inch laptop fits easily in a rucksack, does not take up too much space on a desk (important in a sometimes crowded media center) and as a rule, does not weight too much.
If weight is an issue, why not go all the way and spring for one of those bootylicious MacBook Airs? Or a neat Chromebook? In a word: Ethernet. Though all ultrabooks (extremely thin laptops) have network connectivity, a lot of them skip on the ethernet port to save space. That may not seem like a problem, until you try connecting to the free WiFi in the Misano media center. That experience quickly brings back unhappy memories of the early days of the internet, when connections were via 2400 bps modem, and web page loads were counted in the minutes, not seconds. Ironically, at an event sponsored by a major Italian telecoms provider, the wireless internet is comically slow.
Almost every circuit has an ethernet network, and though those networks can also slow up - especially after the final session of the day is finished, and the photographers start uploading the many gigabytes of photos they have shot during the day - they are always infinitely faster than the WiFi network. Though the WiFi is sometimes free, while the ethernet almost invariably costs money, that is no comfort when the WiFi is effectively unusable. There are many USB to ethernet adapters available, for a relatively small sum, but that means sacrificing one of the USB ports you are inevitably going to need for other purposes (see below).
Battery life is the second major factor in choosing a laptop. Most of the time, you will be working somewhere with easy access to a power outlet, where that will not be an issue, but at some point in time, you will find yourself on a train, or at an airport, with something you really need to write very urgently, and the power fading fast from your laptop. The longer your battery lasts, the less worried you will be about being able to get your article finished. The Thinkpad I use has been excellent in this regard, with a battery life of upwards of 9 hours possible. Coming back from the Sepang tests earlier this year, I managed to work for around 10 hours on two flights and a train journey on just the battery, and still had some juice left.
Thirdly, screen quality is important, especially performance with light falling on the screen. The view from the media center at Aragon is spectacular, but at the end of the day, as the sun starts to set, it shines directly onto your laptop screen if you are sitting in the wrong section (something I always manage somehow). Around you, people erect temporary screens with notepads and bags, or throw coats over their heads to shield their screens from the light. Being able to still read your screen in strong light is a big plus. This is a weak area of the Thinkpad I use, the screen not being particularly bright or usable in direct sunlight. I am one of the people with a coat over his head as the sun goes down...
What else to take into account? Unless you are a photographer - and I'm not, so I can't be of any use there - the main use you will be putting your laptop to is creating documents, playing videos (especially the MotoGP.com live stream), reading the web, and probably, listening to music. That means you don't need the most powerful processor money can buy (unless you intend to spend your time in the press room playing MotoGP 2014, as I saw one young journalist doing at Valencia, ignoring the fact that the real thing was happening just outside the window.) I invest in RAM, as that is the cheapest way of improving performance, programs being run in memory, rather than cached to disk. Another tip I was given was to go for a solid state drive rather than a traditional hard disk. This saves weight, and is also less liable to damage when you pull your laptop bag out of the overhead locker and let it drop on the floor (which you will do at some point in time). Though SSDs are more expensive, you do not need much internal storage space, as the archives eating disk space can be shipped off to an external disk.
The two indispensable pieces of software (apart from the obvious web browser, antivirus and email programs) are LibreOffice, a free (Open Source) Office suite which is fully compatible with all Microsoft products, and powerful enough for all of the needs I have in terms of documents, spreadsheets, simple databases and presentations, and Cobian, an Open Source back up system which automates back ups of data to external disks.
Apart from your laptop, this is the piece of equipment you will use the most as a journalist or blogger. It allows you to capture both the words and the nuance of those words from the people you interview and speak to. It will also get you out of trouble when (and I do mean when) press officers take you to task for quotes used in interviews and news stories. Recorded words will help you defend your side of the argument, should you find yourself in hot water, so keeping recorded audio is essential.
It is worth bearing in mind that what you are recording here is just words, the statements of riders, team managers, etc. You are not trying to recreate the recording quality of the Abbey Road studios, so you won't be needing the kind of equipment which Thom Yorke might be dragging around with him should his muse take him. A simple, mid-range memo recorder is more than sufficient for most needs, unless you intend to do podcasts with it. Even stereo might be considered over the top.
The ability to add an SD card is a bonus, but to my mind, the most important feature is a removable battery, preferably of a standard size. There will come a point when the battery in your recorder runs out in the middle of an interview. It is so much better for all parties concerned if you can quickly pull a battery and swap it for a fully charged one, without losing the flow of the interview. A lot of journalists use their phones to record interviews, but embarrassment inevitably ensues when they receive a phone call halfway through the interview. A phone makes an excellent back up recording device, however.
I use an Olympus WS-811, a popular choice in the paddock. Hence the rather unfashionable wrist strap attached: when twenty journalists dump their recorders in front of a rider, inevitable three or more will be identical. Afterwards, everyone will rush up to the front and grab their recorders and rush off to the next interview/rider debrief. What you don't want is for someone to grab your recorder, the one containing the exclusive interview you did earlier with Marc Marquez announcing he has signed for MV Agusta to race in World Superbikes next season. Add a distinguishing mark to make sure you know which one is yours.
Pens and notepad
The back up to your voice recorder, pens (plural) and notepad are the writer's stock in trade. Despite the fact that I record everything, I also try to make notes throughout all interviews and rider debriefs, as a reminder of what they said. I make note of memorable quotes, of the general thoughts and feelings of a rider, so that I can convey the general gist of their report in my summaries. Size, shape and style of notepad is immensely personal, and I can only recommend that you find what works for you. Pens are also personal, but find a type of ballpoint pen that works for you, and carry two or three with you at all times. Murphy's law always applies in the paddock, and your pen will run out at the most inconvenient possible time. Cost does not correlate with effectiveness: one of my favorite pens costs about a euro a piece from a local chain store. I have spent much more on pens and been sorely disappointed. Find one that works, and buy ten or twenty at a time.
If life without a smartphone is unimaginable for anyone under 25, they are, if anything, even more indispensable for a journalist or blogger. Apart from actually functioning as a phone (something which actually sees quite a lot of use) to call other people, a smartphone can be used for a whole range of other functions. Your phone can be used as a back up audio recorder, if your recorder packs up for no apparent reason. It can be used to take photos. It can be used to post to social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
Social media is a vital tool, for me at least. Twitter is the fastest medium for any form of news, and so the ability to post anything new I learn, or any observations I may have directly is key. Twitter has, to a very large extent, made even online news media irrelevant. A few years ago, I was threatened (rather hilariously) by one journalist that I should not use a quote from a rider on the the internet, until it had appeared in his paper publication later that week. Nowadays, any quote I may get from a rider will already have appeared on Twitter by the time I am back at my computer.
The camera function of a phone is also extremely useful, not just for getting snaps of events as they happen, but also for the access it allows you. Teams and mechanics throughout the paddock are surrounded all day by photographers with professional equipment, and are constantly on the lookout for people with cameras and long lenses. They will often do their best to block people with professional kit from taking pictures, trying to protect their 'secrets' from getting out. They are not so quick to react if you pull out a smartphone, meaning that if you are a little discrete about it, and act calmly, you can get photos you would not otherwise be able to get.
My friend and ace photographer Andrew Wheeler did an experiment for Cycle World magazine, leaving his Canon 1Ds in his locker, and heading down to pit lane armed only with his iPhone. The results he got, and most especially, the reaction he got, make for very interesting reading.
Though I am (for reasons of my own personal prejudice) no fan of Apple equipment, the iPhone has produced the best smartphone photographs I have seen. I use a Sony Xperia T, which produces reasonable photos, but they are not fantastic. For everything else, it's a fine phone, a great screen, fairly responsive and with a reasonably vanilla Android experience. Being a 4-inch phone makes it very portable, while the screen is still large enough to work on. It is let down only by its WiFi reception, which is fairly poor. I also have a hard flip case for it, as I am prone to dropping or sitting on my phone, and can't afford to keep replacing it. So far, it has survived without me cracking the screen.
The data carrier of choice in the media center. When photos, audio files, documents, etc are swapped in the media center, they are always swapped on USB sticks. On Sunday, when you want to print out your boarding card for your flight the next day, you will need to take a PDF on a USB stick to the media center staff, who will print it for you.
The more observant among you (i.e. all of you) will have noticed that one of the USB sticks has KTM printed on it. As a journalist, you only need to buy a couple of USB sticks for yourself. Once you have attended a few races, you will start to collect USB sticks like free toys at a fast food restaurant. Press kits are almost always distributed via USB stick, allowing press officers to control the distribution of information, and giving journalists a tangible reminder of what they were presented with. This KTM USB stick held the press kit for KTM's Moto3 project, presented at the Sachsenring back in 2011.
How long the free distribution of USB sticks will continue remains to be seen. Increasingly, press kits are being delivered online, with access controlled by user names and passwords. Two years ago, at the presentation of the AGV helmet used by Valentino Rossi, we were presented not with a USB stick, but with a business card showing a URL, a user name and a password.
Four years ago, I bought a USB dongle for internet access at race tracks in Spain. That saved me money on internet access at circuits, meaning I could use the dongle for internet access on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, only needing to pay for one day access at the track. (The fact that circuits charge journalists for internet access is quite, quite bizarre. We are supposed to be publicizing their event, and we find ourselves paying for the privilege). Two years ago, I bought a USB dongle with a data allowance throughout Europe, meaning I could use this outside of Spain as well.
While the internet access has been useful, the meteoric growth in mobile data means that I have had to abandon my original plan to use this as an alternative to track internet access. So many fans and paddock members are now using smartphones to upload photos, videos, post to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, that 3G data networks at tracks are becoming swamped. Data transfer rates are so slow, even on Friday and Saturday, that they have become impractical.
However, having 3G internet access throughout Europe is still extremely useful. Instead of using the (dog slow and expensive) internet at airports, I can use my 3G dongle. Same applies at airports, or cafes, or restaurants, or anywhere along the way. Running a website means always needing internet access, and this is the best way of guaranteeing that.
External hard drive
Why do you need an external hard drive? Firstly, because any external storage capacity you have is capacity you don't need in your laptop, and laptop disk storage is still several times more expensive than external disk storage. Secondly, because as long as you respect a regular back up schedule (at the very least, daily) you will minimize any problems with loss of data due to damaged or failing internal hard drives, or even laptop theft (remember not to store your back up drive in the same bag as your laptop, though). And thirdly, so you can carry your movies, music, and other entertainment around with you to fill the many long hours of tedium on long flights and at airports. USB 3.0 means high speed disk access, and 1TB will hold a lot of back ups and a lot of music and movies.
Spare batteries and a battery charger
Did I mention Murphy's Law? Anything that can happen, will happen, and that means that the battery in your recorder will run out mid-interview, and the battery in your mouse will run out just as you are in the middle of reorganizing your file system. Having a spare battery at hand (and that means at hand, carrying it with you when you go to interviews, and not leaving it in the media center, or worse, in your hotel room. DAMHIK) is vital, and a lesson you will find out the hard way. Battery chargers are ten-a-penny, but money spent on a quality charger that will charge one battery at a time is one of the best investments you can make. Most recorders use just one AAA battery, and most wireless mice use one AA battery. The ability to charge one AAA and one AA battery at the same time, and for them to be charged individually, with a clear sign that charging is finished, is something you will come to appreciate. I use an Ansmann Powerline charger, which does all these things. It was one of my best investments.
Cables: USB extension, USB-MicroUSB, Ethernet
Spare cables can be worth their weight in gold. Forgotten your phone charger? The spare MicroUSB cable you have tucked away in your bag means you can still keep your phone topped up. It means you can connect the audio recorder someone else uses to your computer. It means you can get the photo on your phone onto your laptop quickly and easily.
I always carry a USB extension cable, because of the architecture of my laptop. The smaller the laptop, the more closely grouped the ports, and that means that you can often run out of space to plug a device in. Audio recorders often have a USB connector which slides out of the body, but that needs a lot of physical space next to the USB socket to be able to connect it. Same applies to a 3G USB dongle. Using an extension cable, you can plug these in without having to unplug your network cable, or the external hard disk in the middle of running a back up.
Finally, an ethernet cable. I carry a large (5m) cable with me, which sees occasional use in hotels, and a short (50cm) cable which I use at the circuit. Some tracks (Brno is an example) have network switched at the end of each row, in which case having your own 5m cable can make life a lot easier. As a rule, tracks will have short cables you can borrow (for a deposit), but carrying your own is always preferable. These can also be useful at some airports, which offer wired internet connections.
If you have not been to a MotoGP race, it is hard to imagine just how loud a MotoGP bike is. 130dB/A is literally deafening: even with your fingers in your ear, the noise goes straight through you. You feel it in your gut.
Ear plugs make life bearable if you go into pit lane or to track side to watch the bikes (which you should do, if you get the chance). I use custom-made ear plugs which I also use while riding my motorcycle, but many people choose to use the foam items commonly available.
If the smartphone allows you a certain amount of freedom taking pictures in pit lane, the downside is that the picture quality tends to be poor. A compact camera (you know the type, hand held, small, obviously not a professional camera) is regarded by the teams with the same disdain as a smartphone, but the picture quality, and the ability to zoom, is far, far superior. This makes it possible to get half-decent photos of bits and bobs in pit lane, without mechanics getting excessively paranoid and doing their best to block you. The photos I took at the test in Valencia were all shot on a compact camera (Canon Powershot 720), and though they were only passable in quality, they still revealed some interesting details. For photos which will prove instructive as to what the teams might be doing, a compact camera is more than enough, and will allow you more access than a full-on DSLR. DSLRs tend to trigger the paranoia meters of teams, mechanics and, most especially, factories. A compact camera won't land you a job shooting for a major magazine, but it might just get you a scoop on a technical detail.
I am currently looking for a replacement for my trusty Canon Powershot, so all suggestions are welcome. Small, cheap, powerful, and preferably using AA batteries.