Asking the right questions

Nicki Shields at Formula E Beijing race in action courtesy Nicki Shields

Questioning someone following a traumatic experience without intruding or prying is a tricky thing for a journalist to get right. Here’s how Nicki Shields found the right words to interview Heidfeld and Prost after that horrific Beijing smash.

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Nicki Shields. Just a few weeks after the Beijing race, the Formula E world feed anchor and ITV pitlane reporter was delivering lines of a different sort – ones that include the phrase “I Do”. Yes, much to the chagrin of virtually every Formula E fan, last month Shields married her partner of four years, Mark Sainthill, in a ceremony on the island of Ibiza.

Given that we’re not OK or Hello, we’re not going to delve into dresses, rings and colour schemes. We’re more interested in Shields’ take on the first Formula E race – and how she went about interviewing the two drivers involved in that huge airborne crash.

“The manner in which the whole event was pulled off was phenomenal,” she says. “There were hiccups, but it was special. To make it work so seamlessly was really impressive. Doing the grid walk was a highlight. It was buzzing – everyone was so excited about the race first race. It was great to interview Jean Todt and Alejandro Agag at the start line. And there was a lot of glamour there, with people such as Bar Rafaeli.”

During the race itself, Shields found herself dashing from garage to garage: “It’s a lot of running around for me in the pitlane. I listen to the commentary by Jack and Dario in one ear and the TV director in the other, to keep up to date with what’s going on. Then I just follow the action, although in Beijing, the horseshoe-shaped pitlane didn’t make it easy for the camera crew or me!”

The u-shaped pitlane was a great idea until someone decided to put the VIP club right in the middle of it, cutting off what would have been great access between each leg of the pitlane for media. Putrajaya will revert to a conventional straight pitlane.

Still, the challenge didn’t faze Shields. “The best thing about doing live TV is the adrenaline,” she laughs. “We had a few technical issues, but you just have to remain cool and calm.”

Cool and calm was also required after the dramatic last corner collision between Prost and Heidfeld. Balancing the need for sensitivity with the need to deliver information can be a tough one to get right, says Shields: “I was psyching myself up for the podium questions. It was pretty obvious who was going to be first, second and third. And then the accident happened. Never before have I felt so sick. My heart jumped out of my body. Complete shock, followed by complete amazement when Heidfeld just got out and walked away. It was really emotional watching it – and then you have about five seconds to compose yourself and go and get the interview. Of course, the most important question was – ‘Is he OK?’ After that, you can go into the specifics of what happened. When the car came back into the pitlane, it was swamped with press – it was a spectacle in itself.”

Discussing the crash later with Alain Prost is one of the memories that Shields will never forget. “He said the sweetest thing,” she says. “He said that it was the most disappointing event of his career. Not just because of the result, but because he knew how upset Nico would be, and that Nico would feel that he’d let the team down.”

Safety remains top of the agenda for Putrajaya, where the threat of heavy rain has forced the organisers to compress the one day format even further. The two free practice sessions in the morning have been compressed into one, which will cause issues, Shields predicts: “The batteries in the car won’t run for the full practice session, and the rules don’t allow charging during practice, quali or the race. So will the FIA change the rules for Putrajaya? Otherwise the cars won’t run for long. If it’s a safety issue, I’m sure there are more precautions that can be taken. There were a lot of non-operational people in the garages in Beijing, people who weren’t properly trained about the cars and the charging systems. I think we’ll see a different approach next time out.”

Asked to pick a favourite for the Putrajaya podium, Shields points out that past performance might not count for much at this track. “It’s virtually like starting from scratch again,” she says. “It’s a completely new circuit. In Beijing there were so many chicanes, whereas this is a wide track with just one really tight hairpin. And the drivers have been very busy in other championships: it’ll be interesting to see how they get their heads back into Formula E, and fast. That said, e.dams-Renault and Audi Sport ABT have to be favourites. Outside those teams, I’d go for Franck Montagny for a podium finish – he always pulls it out of the bag and he ran a really good race in Beijing. Senna is also one to watch – we didn’t get to see what he can do in China. And we haven’t seen the full potential yet of Cerruti and Legge. Of course, Legge won the Fanboost in Beijing, which is a fantastic achievement and shows what a popular choice she is.”

The Putrajaya race takes place this Saturday. Follow live updates here and at our Twitter page (@current_e).

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