Based in the UK, Toby Vintcent, who once served in the British Army and then had a career in investment banking, now writes thrillers based in the glamourous, fast-paced world of Formula 1. A world where the cars are fast, the women faster and competition cutthroat. No quarter given, none asked for. His books have won major awards and garnered widespread acclaim. ‘Fiction in motor racing? I wasn’t convinced. But I gave Driven a try and, you know what, I was hooked,’ said Tiff Needell, former racing driver and TV presenter for Fifth Gear. ‘Reminiscent of the best Robert Ludlum-like thrillers,’ said The New York Times. Max Mosley (former president of the FIA) and Murray Walker (who provided television commentary of live Formula One coverage for the BBC and ITV), both of whom sadly passed away last year, also had good things to say about Toby’s F1 thrillers.
If that weren’t interesting enough already, Toby also has an India connect: He is the grandson of Nevill Vintcent, who, together with JRD Tata, co-founded Tata Air Services way back in 1932. JRD himself referred to Nevill as ‘the founder of Indian air transport.’ But coming back to Toby, who clearly finds F1 a bit more exciting than aviation, he has some interesting things to say about motorsport and his thrillers that are set in the world of F1. We talk to him about his fascination with F1, his books and the possibility of his F1 thrillers being adapted for film and television.
From serving in the British Army to a career in investment banking to writing F1 thrillers – that’s an interesting journey! Please tell us more.
When a chronology is put it like that, it sounds like the changes in direction might have involved some g-force! I served in the Army for three years which was, effectively, my university: I was immersed in situations and places I would have been otherwise unlikely to encounter in decades, if ever. For instance, coming from England’s much-mocked temperate climate of fog and rain, I became an Arctic Warfare specialist – able to survive, and thrive, inside the Arctic Circle at temperatures down to 30o below.
While serving, I followed the stock market, and found I could make money. As a consequence, I looked into turning that interest into a potential career; that idea took off when, in my first round of interviews, I managed to talk my way into the firm I wanted to end up with, SG Warburg & Co. I was trained as a fund manager and investment analyst.
In my day job for the investment management company, an increasing part of my role became communication: I was appointed the firm’s scribe, producing much of its written output, as well as becoming its main public speaker, fronting the firm at significant conferences: both activities required a degree of storytelling – taking audiences from the known to the unknown in easy stages, and structuring the message with a beginning, middle and end. I was lucky enough to be able to retire young.
Writing had been a hobby since the Army, and so after the city, fully concentrating on writing was my dream activity.
Were you always fascinated by Formula 1? What is it about the sport that you love most?
Growing up, my focus was actually on a completely different kind of horsepower – the organic, analogue kind: horses. My passion for competitive riding led me to capped, representing my country in a junior British Three-Day Event team. Throughout that focus, though, I was always obsessed with Formula 1 motor racing. I’m not sure where that interest came from, but it did manage to survive a degree of aversion therapy. As a child, I was treated to a day’s racing at Silverstone, but having chronic ear and hearing problems, the noise from the engines (back then) was pure torture. Nevertheless, that was my first experience of seeing cars racing up close, and the sensation overrode my pain.
Speed and energy like that seemed completely incomprehensible, and it does still: drivers putting their bodies on the edge and pushing physics to the limit – all in the pursuit of winning. My admiration for their commitment has not dimmed one iota, luckily for me though the sound level of the engines has! My original interest in F1 was then layered as I became aware of other elements of the sport: such as understanding the leaps of innovation the designers were applying to the cars, the way the rules were tactically interpreted, and then – my real passion – a fascination with the politics and endless powerplays acted out in the paddock, on and off the track.
What prompted you to write your first F1 thriller?
Thrillers, to me, are the best films – experiences being played out in my own head with me as the director. An interest in thrillers came from different directions, though. Ian Fleming, by marriage, was an uncle of mine, while another was literary agent to Dick Francis, the legendary British jockey who ended up – with my uncle’s help – writing 50 thrillers set in horse racing. Our house was always full of thrillers – I even have two first edition Bond novels sitting on the shelf behind me.
The first step to writing my own thriller was sparked in the Army: having experienced that life, I was disappointed I could not find military operations or their brilliant complexity being done justice on the page or screen. I wanted to try and put that right. I came up with a plot that that combined my two interests, the Army and prospectively the City of London. I felt I had achieved part of my aim when, gratifyingly, this manuscript was complimented by one of Britain’s senior Royal Marines, General Julian Thompson, commander of the Commando Brigade which retook the Falkland Islands in the 1982 campaign. Further gratification came from a hugely complimentary review of the book, given the pivotal banking references in the story, by a former governor of the Bank of England.
Getting an agent was not easy: that manuscript was rejected 79 times. Getting a publisher was even trickier. While I considered the setting and characters distinctive, most publishers said that they already had an author leading stories with an ex-military character, having clearly all jumped on the bandwagon; it became clear this book wasn’t going to get me my break. But the publishing companies’ reaction prompted me to start writing a story in a different setting, and I felt very comfortable choosing Formula 1. No one else was writing in that space: from a positioning perspective with publishers, I felt a story set there would not conflict with any publisher’s existing author: the landscape felt wide-open.
Tell us more about Driven, your first book?
When I started Driven, Formula 1 was in one of its processional / predictable periods: one of those times when as the teams arrived at a track, you knew how the grid was going to pan out – like Noah’s Ark, with the cars lining up two-by-two; you knew how the race was going to play out; and you knew who was going to be on the podium. After a while of this I thought: “Formula 1 has to be more exciting than this”. My mind wandered, and I imagined how I would like a Formula 1 season to look; that’s when I started writing some of it down. The moment I began, though, I couldn’t stop. Writing about the type of Formula 1 season I yearned for became a spectacular way for me to enjoy F1 when F1 wasn’t as enjoyable as it should have been.
Is the story based on things that may have happened in real-life F1?
The short answer is, yes. As the commercial potential of Formula 1 became realised, there were huge changes to the sport, particularly in the balance of power between the different stakeholders. As F1 grew, most participants made a lot of money, but some noses were put out of joint – most notably that of the governing body. Also, as the financial stakes rose, competitive pressures on the teams increased, prompting them to push the envelope with innovations, tactics, even to the point of industrial espionage. These elements crescendoed in 2007 with the extraordinary Spygate scandal: one F1 team accused another of stealing its IP. Two hearings were held at the international governing body’s HQ in Paris, with one of the teams being fined $100 million. Driven was informed by interpreting some of those dynamics and occurrences, albeit fictionalizing the characters and teams.
Since this was your first go at writing a book, how complex was the process? From thinking of the plot/story, to finish writing the entire book, how much time did it take?
Having started the banking / military story when I was in the Army, I probably – misguidedly – felt I had an idea of how to lay out a book. As it happened, once I had the nub of the Formula 1 story, especially the identity of my leading driver, I found the creative process surprisingly straightforward: the thing almost wrote itself.
About three months to flesh out the text across the whole structure, but then that’s the easy bit! The real work in a book is trying to improve the clarity – of the set-up, the structure, the flow of the reveal, and then the pace of the text. Finally, there’s a commitment to improving the language – to make it crisp and ‘addictive’ enough the reader wants to keep reading. All of which probably took a year.
What were some of the biggest challenges in getting the book published and finally seeing it in bookstores around you?
The biggest challenge was my agent! The moment I sent it to her she declared a sporting narrative was not publishable… thankfully, I then experienced one of those serendipitous quirks: her son read the manuscript – over one weekend – and came back raving about the story. He persuaded his mother to try and sell it. No one came close to offering on it, perhaps not such a surprise with an agent who didn’t truly believe in it. The key feedback from the publishers, though, was frustratingly ironic: having been told there was no interest in my military / banking story because every publishing house had an ex-military lead character, they now said they couldn’t see a place for a Formula 1 story as no one had published one before! Eventually, my agent’s son persuaded her to publish it herself. After only a few weeks in print, Driven was nominated for a British Sports Book of the Year Award, which caught the attention of a publisher who offered to take it on.
As far as bookshops go, these days they are run like cinemas: they only make a fuss of new releases, and then only carry that stock for a limited time. New authors, writing in a new landscape, have virtually no chance, unless the publisher throws big money behind them or there is a media frenzy, sadly neither of which Driven enjoyed. Nevertheless, the book sold pretty well online.
Compared with Driven, was it easier for you to write Crash and The Ringmaster? For a writer, does the writing process get simpler after the first book?
When I sent the manuscript for my follow-up F1 book to my publisher, he blew me away – offering me a four-book deal, something almost never heard of in publishing. As I wanted to feel my way, though, I agreed a two-book deal.
Crash was the follow-up F1 story. This was easier to write, not least as I wanted to make it very different from Driven: while maintaining the Formula 1 theme, the idea was to try and take the story as far away from the track as a I could. This thriller is set it in Russia, and involves the Kremlin interfering with a Moscow Grand Prix for political reasons: I would say Crash probably has more of a Cold-War feel than it does a thriller about sport.
The Ringmaster was my next title; this, too, was different and was also very stimulating to write: my idea was to find a way to celebrate the extraordinary – couldn’t-make-it-up – commercial and political history of Formula 1. To do that, I integrated into the plot the sport’s backstory and covered all the key historic events and political showdowns over 40 years, albeit with all the people, teams and names being fictionalized.
What are some key elements of the F1-based fiction that you write?
There is one key one based on the mantra: you don’t have to be a lawyer to enjoy John Grisham. A thriller should be a thriller, regardless of setting and subject matter. I aim for my stories to be accessible to anyone, not just petrolheads / F1 fans. My principal aim, therefore, is for the books to be page-turners. I can’t say whether they are or aren’t, but, gratifyingly, most of the feedback I receive compliments the fast pace of the stories.
After that, I am haunted by wanting to be authentic: while I steer well clear of turning them into text books, I don’t want any Formula 1 references to jar with the real world. I want them to feel accurate. As one of the fascinations of the sport to me is the engineering brilliance and scientific innovation, I revel in introducing some technical elements to the plots – such as aerodynamics, engine management, the regulations, etc – and then making them a key part of the storyline.
Are the characters in your books closely inspired by real people in F1, whom you may have met, heard of or read about?
Absolutely not, my lord / your honour! Over the years, Formula 1 has been populated by some phenomenal – larger-than-life – people: impressive, driven, egotistical, difficult. Inspiration has come from some of these attributes, but my characters are fictional.