Behind the scenes with RTL F1 reporter Kai Ebel

In a guest article for Motorsport Broadcasting, Edmund Wareham reports in from overseas again, giving insight on a recent podcast featuring RTL’s F1 reporter Kai Ebel. For those that missed Edmund’s first piece on RTL’s Florian König, head over here

There are few F1 pitlane reporters who have rap songs written about them. But in 2010 the German rapper Eko Fresh produced Kai Ebel Style, in honour of the German TV legend that is Kai Ebel, renowned for his striking fashion sense and his exuberant interviewing style.

Following on from their interview with König, the German podcast Starting Grid caught up with Ebel, who would have been reporting on his 28th F1 season this year but instead is biding his time at home.

“I should have been coming back from Vietnam at this point, but instead I’ve just come in from my garden.” In the wide-ranging interview with Kevin Scheuren, Ebel discusses his long career in the pitlane, how he reacts to criticism and how he makes no apology for regarding F1 as entertainment.

Ebel’s entry into F1
As with König, Ebel studied sport’s journalism at the German Sport University in Cologne and in 1988 was able to secure a four-week internship at RTL during UEFA Euro 1988 which West Germany hosted.

In 1992 RTL lost coverage of the Bundesliga football rights and Ebel considered whether it was better to leave what he feared at the time could be a “sinking ship”, however their decision to ask him to join the channel’s F1 coverage swayed him otherwise.

Ebel admits that he was not a fan before (he uses the same phrase as König: “I didn’t have petrol in my blood”) and as with his on-screen colleague saw this as an advantage. “You don’t see the bigger picture as a fan. I could learn from a distance and then gradually get closer,” Ebel told the podcast.

When Ebel first joined RTL, he believes F1 teams underappreciated the value of the press and media. The media conducted post-race interviews in a mixed zone (like football), where broadcasters and journalists vied to get a word with a driver. Together with a group of other broadcasters, Ebel was a driving force behind the introduction of the more professionalised media pen.

He also had the idea of introducing live interviews during the race from the pitlane, arguing that it could break the monotony of more boring races. RTL first introduced this at a weekend which still leaves a mark on Ebel. Over the course of his long career, Ebel has been present at some of the most important junctures of F1’s history, and none more so than Imola 1994.

Ebel recalls interviewing a “super worried” Ayrton Senna on Saturday, after Rubens Barrichello’s crash on Friday and Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal accident on Saturday.

On the Sunday, broadcasting live, “I just simply tried to function.” He tried to do as many interviews as possible. In his final task of the day, he had to appear on RTL’s evening news bulletin, and after the broadcast it sunk in what had happened. “I broke down and just cried. I was unbelievably battered,” Ebel said.

Over the course of 1994, as Schumacher chalked up victory after victory, viewing figures continued to rise, culminating in the “thriller” that was Adelaide 1994. Ebel believes over the course of the season Schumacher was a better driver than Damon Hill, but that he “committed a foul” to win the title that year.

Whilst Ebel remains good friends with Heinz-Harald Frentzen, his relationship with Schumacher was more functionable, calling it “respectful and reliable.” Ebel admired above all Schumacher’s hard work.

He recalls the 2000 Japanese Grand Prix, when Schumacher wrapped up his first title for Ferrari, and the newly crowned champion coming to the interview with a Bacardi and Coke. Wondering why Schumacher had yet to finish his drink, he explained “I have to go to my debrief.”

Dealing with criticism
Under YouTube videos featuring Ebel you will read a comment saying “Kai Ebel, you can’t be more stupid” with the reply underneath “there’s no one better.” Ebel is in many respects a polarising figure and openly admits that he is not your usual pit lane reporter. Over the course of his career he has faced a lot of criticism for the questions he asks and his unique style.

Boxing is Ebel’s favourite sport and he draws on the sport to explain how “factual criticism above the belt is absolutely OK but anything below, that’s not on.” But he accepts he has made mistakes.

In 1997 in Jerez, for example, he recognises in retrospect that he treated Schumacher too lightly after he had tried to ram Villeneuve off the track. Over time and with more experience he has learned to see criticism at more of a distance.

Despite opinions that he is not serious enough, Ebel makes no apologies for the fact that he regards F1 as a show. He remembers Bernie Ecclestone approaching him at the Nürburgring asking him to conduct podium interviews for the first time and demanding “entertainment. I do not want boring questions.”

Ebel loves meeting the celebrities who come to the grid, whether securing an exclusive interview with Usain Bolt thanks to a tip off from the head of Puma or boldly walking up to Al Pacino deep in conversation with Bernie.

Fashion and music
Ebel has also come under the spotlight for his fashion choices. Clothes have always been important to him so it was not his choice to have to wear race overalls in the pitlane following Jos Verstappen’s fire in Hockenheim 1994.

“I was just interviewing Mika Häkkinen and in the middle of the interview his eyes just dilate in this horrified way and he walks away,” Ebel recalls. “You think: the question can’t have been that bad! What was up? Behind me Jos Verstappen’s Benetton had just burst into flames.”

The gallery on Ebel’s website gives just a small insight into some of the very colourful shirts, shoes and ties that Ebel has worn over the years. Eddie Jordan pales into insignificance.

Music has been another important part of Ebel’s life and another way in which his profile has been beyond the pitlane. In 2004, Ebel made a guest appearance in the music video of the song Runaway by the band Groove Coverage. Four years later he made his debut as a singer, releasing Sie schrei’n Ebel, a song which originated as a bit of fun but which his bosses wanted to promote.

Whilst his musical career never had the same longevity as his time in the pitlane, the sense of fun which Ebel brings to his role is palpable. Whatever one’s views, there is no denying that he brings colour, energy, and humour to a sport which from the outside could be seen as sanitised.

Behind that is his dedication to the job and desire to convey some of the excitement of the F1 paddock back home to viewers. He has been at the forefront of a pivotal period in the sport’s history. “I find the whole job a privilege,” he says.

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