Molina: “I’ve been told I have the best job in the world”
There is always the same man, svelte, mysterious, impeccably dressed, and never interviewed by the media, on the Grand Prix podiums, handing out the caps, watches, bottles and trophies to the drivers. Not many people know who he is. It turns out he is a Frenchman, Alexandre Molina, holder of a snappy-sounding title: “Master of Ceremonies”. We interview him over champagne.
How does one end up as “Master of Ceremonies”?
It wasn’t something I wanted or prepared for. I got into F1 in 1995, when I was 21. I was still a student, studying math and physics. F1 was a weekend adventure where I would lend a hand. Then I did a second Grand Prix as a stand-in. Then another. At the end of the season, I was offered a full year. So I dropped out of math and physics and enrolled in STAPS “Sciences et Techniques des Activités Physiques et Sportives” (“Science and Technology of Physical Activity and Sport”, Ed.) Then it dawned on me that more than a sport, it was a trade show. So I made another 90 degree turn and took a part-time two-year course in Sales. By then I was practically married to F1. In 2000, Gerald Bar (the former Master of Ceremonies, Ed.) resigned and Paddy McNally (his successor, Ed.) called me and suggested I come and work full-time.
“Alexandre Molina, holder of a snappy-sounding title: “Master of Ceremonies””
Are you an F1 fan?
Not at all. But it’s funny because the year before I started, in 1994, I was in college and I never used to watch Grand Prix racing. But I will never forget May 1st. It was a holiday, we had no school, I was outside and it was a nice day. There was just a radio. And I heard the commentator scream when Ayrton Senna died. So even though I never watched racing, you could feel it was a charged moment, very emotional. I had no idea then of what would happen to me but it left a deep impression on me.
What do you do before mounting the podium?
Very often, when people meet me, they tell me I have the best job in the world because I give away watches and caps, and I get to meet the drivers. This is just one side of the coin. But in fact, my job is all about organization, from the national anthem to the flags, to the dignitaries. For me, caps and watches are just one detail among many others. I also take care of all the commercial side, public areas, the F1 village, the support races, the logistics and the interface with the promoters. Watches and caps take up just 5% of my time.
Do you also choose the grid girls?
I tell them what they have to do and when to do it. I place them in the grid and on the podium. But I don’t choose them, an agency does. I just turn up, they give me 55 girls and I take care of them. Mind you, it’s a lot less glamorous than you might think. When you are talking to 55 girls at once, it’s not the same a talking with one or two.
Do people recognize you in the street?
“People call me ‘the man in the cap’”
I wouldn’t say it happens to me every day, but quite regularly, especially at Grand Prix, and in some countries more than others. People are quite friendly. They call me “the man with the cap” or “man on the podium.” Once I was in Belgium, I was approached in a restaurant by a young man who asked me “Are you the man who gives out the trophies?” I said yes, and then he introduced me to the friends he was sitting with. And they said: “We all have a bet together, it’s almost more fun than the Grand Prix itself, we have a big laugh. Every year we take bets on the colour of your tie”. (Laughter)
Have you become friends with some of the drivers?
I try to keep my distance, it would bother me. Sometimes there are circumstances where you get on well with one or not so well with another. I’ve had drivers tell me they didn’t like to see too much of me on the track. I had a hard time with Michael Schumacher for example. He is someone very much a part, super professional, but he never made life simple. He would always be twice as demanding as the others. It’s understandable; he was certainly much more in demand than the rest. Today, the one who reminds me most of Michael is Alonso. I feel more or less the same pressure. It’s not easy to define. Some days, it all goes smoothly, other days less so. It’s all down to him. And then there is also the odd moment of bonding. I remember once I was playing tennis before the Grand Prix. On the next court, there was Räikkönen with a friend. They offered us a double. And that day, he won the race. As soon as I saw him, even before I could say a word, he said: “Tennis?” and laughed. Nobody had any idea of what was going on.
What is a successful podium for you?
A podium where I don’t receive any negative feedback. The goal is for me to go completely unnoticed. The challenge is that it’s live, so we can’t start over. The other difficulty is in the details. 80% of these details can’t be seen with the naked eye and I might be the only one who knows if I made a mistake somewhere, or not.
Is a podium always magical or has it become routine?
When I started in 1997, Gerard Bar was Master of Ceremonies. I was his helping hand. I put on the national anthems with my little CD player. I used to check the flags and make sure they were in the right order. I opened the bottles of champagne and put them on the podium. I remember the first time I tried to press the “play” button, I was shaking so much I couldn’t do it. During the national anthem, nobody moves. It lasts a minute and a half to two minutes. That’s a long time when you are shaking. But once it became my sole responsibility, in the 2010 Bahrain GP, I don’t know why but I stopped feeling nervous on the podium. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t need to have total concentration. A few laps before the end, I visualize the ceremony to see if everything is in place. I’m in my zone. There is no routine. That’s what is the most disconcerting.
Are there any countries where things happen differently?
It is very important to respect the places we happen to be in. You find yourself in situations where you have the highest dignitaries: the King, the Head of State, the Prime Minister or a Sheikh. You have to remember there is a protocol in their country too and you have to be diplomatic. And then the TV doesn’t wait for you. You must never be late. In the protocol, the officials should arrive ten laps before the end of the race, because I have to brief them. But they may come later, very late or even too late. Once in Abu Dhabi, two laps from the end, the officials were still 200 meters away in another room. They didn’t speak English and I found myself in a situation where I wasn’t even sure I would be on time myself. It worked out in the end. Or another time in China, where I was told halfway through the race that the dignitaries would go on stage after the drivers. I had to contest this point but it went well.
Have you seen brawls after the race?
“Webber loves it when his champagne froths well “
I must admit the Weber-Vettel spat in Malaysia was particularly intense. In Austria in 2002, when Barrichello slowed down a few meters from the finish (to let teammate Michael Schumacher win on the orders of his stable, Ed.), everyone was a bit surprised. When Michael came in the room, it was very hard. What’s more, he wanted to give his cap to Rubens, which was not protocol, because he was the winner and had to have the number 1 cap. There was also Alonso and Massa at the Nürburgring. I remember Ron Dennis had tried to separate them and it was so tense (Massa accused Alonso of having caused two impacts between their cars on purpose, Ed.) he came up to me to tell me to hurry up because they were about to fight. It was like being the referee in a boxing match.
What are the logistics for the champagne on the podium? Do you carry the G.H.MUMM bottles up yourself in your bag?
Of course not! Every GP, G.H.MUMM sends us four jeroboams, three for the podium and one for the winners to sign, as well as the number of magnums needed for the side races. When we get them, we put them in the fridge until the race. After that, there are two schools of thought. Either we keep them a little warmer and they will froth. Or else we keep them cool and they will be good to drink. For example, Webber likes the froth. He’s a pro: he gives it a bump on the step just before mounting. I used to put out the bottles at the last moment, because I wanted them to remain cool. One day in Canada I believe, there was a last minute problem when a dignitary was replaced. I had to warn the TV and when I came back into the hall, I was watching the TV screen and waiting for the drivers. I took a last look at the podium and I saw I hadn’t put out the bottles. I had a moment of panic. Very quickly, I set them out. Another thing is the drivers are very possessive. Their bottle is their bottle and they won’t leave without it. One driver in particular is very attached to his: Vettel. He has to come, take the bottle and make a small mark on it. Every time he takes a piece of the label to be sure to recognize it. Once he said: “Of course it’s better when I win, so I don’t have to do that.”
Henry The Podiumist’s fact :
Every GP, G.H.MUMM sends four jeroboams, three for the podium and one for the winners to sign, as well as the number of magnums needed for the side races.
What do you think about champagne as an icon of victory in F1?
Champagne is very much associated with victory, and prestige. So it goes very naturally with the podium. It has become almost normal for people to see it. Every time we have an accident, drivers say on arrival: “No champagne.” There really is an association between joy and champagne. I think if G.H.MUMM has stayed faithful to F1, it is because it works for them. From the beginning, they were very committed and determined to use this image for their brand. It is an association which has worked very very so far.
Henry The Podiumist’s fact :
The spraying the crown gesture echoes a tradition that has been part of Formula 1 since the creation of the World Championship in 1950. Indeed it was that very same year that the first tribute with champagne began, when the pre-eminent Formula One championship was created. The tradition of paying tribute to the winner with a bottle of champagne started that same year at the Reims-Gueux circuit in the Champagne region of France. But it was actually 16 years later when the prize-giving ceremony on the podium took the form that we know today. Jo Siffert, after winning his category of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, unwittingly enriched the tradition. On the podium, the cork popped out of his overheated bottle of champagne, showering the onlookers below. The following year, in 1967, Dan Gurney celebrated his victory by deliberately spraying the crowd, a gesture that is now a Formula 1 ritual.
What do you think of F1 as a show?
I think we have been spoilt in the past five years, with exciting championships that really go all out. The last races are often the most dramatic in terms of tension: when Räikkönen triumphed despite being nine points behind, when Massa won the race and thought he had won the championship but Hamilton overtook Glock on the last bend of the last lap, last year in Valencia, when Alonso won and cried on the podium or in Abu Dhabi, a few years ago where five drivers were still able to be world champion. If you made a film of it, it would seem unreal. Even I have hairs that stand on end.
Interview by Charles Alf Lafon