The new season of Formula 1 starts this weekend in Melbourne, Australia, and while there’s plenty of technical details for race fans to obsess over, it’s the seismic shift in the TV coverage of the sport that will be the biggest visible change to the general viewing audience.
Sky Sports clinched a deal to show all 20 races live from 2012 (the BBC will show ten races live, with highlights of the rest) and have promised to revolutionise F1 broadcasting, even going to the extent of setting up a dedicated new satellite channel (Sky Sports F1) as its base of operations. Even so, F1 represents an unprecedented step up in Sky Sports’ level of coverage for any event: until now they’ve largely got by with a studio-based team framing bought-in coverage of events, or (in the case of rugby, football et al) their broadcasts have mainly consisted of a round table chat from a box high up in the stadium. By contrast, F1 is a whole different ball game, not least because of the multi-day nature of each event and the need to be up and down the pit lane and all over the paddock to follow the goings-on of what’s essentially a medium-size town.
So how did they fare on their first big day, airing exclusive coverage of the Friday practice sessions? Well – it was fine. Perfectly okay. But if truth be told, it didn’t exactly feel like a break-through exciting innovation, more like an expansion of what had gone before. Perhaps that just says a lot for how the BBC (and ITV before it) have vastly improved the presentation of F1 on television over the last decade; and as the saying does, if it ain’t broke then there’s no need to mess it up by trying to ‘fix’ it, now is there? Sky’s greater resources (and more time to fill) meant that for the first time the practice day got a proper set of presenters at work in the pit lane. (By contrast, the BBC basically just dubbed their radio commentators over the world feed pictures in previous years.) That’s nice, although it doesn’t really radically transform anything.
It was odd to see Martin Brundle at work interviewing people in the pits on a Friday; for some reason the BBC and ITV before them treated him as a sacred cow who had to be carefully wrapped up in cotton wool in the commentary box and only brought out to cover the Saturday qualifying and Sunday race sessions, and – if he was really good – then they’d allow him to come and participate in the post-race analysis chat. It was nice to see him properly out and about.
While Brundle’s signing is definitely the lynch pin on which all of Sky’s F1 coverage revolves, the actual presenter is Simon Lazenby who has been a rising star of the Sky Sports firmament and until recently the anchor of Sky’s rugby union coverage. It’s slightly unfortunate that he resembles a shorter Jake Humphrey (the BBC’s own F1 anchor) and that the production team have kitted him out with an iPad (which was Humphrey’s innovation in the role a couple of years back) because it makes him look uncomfortably close to being a stand-in for the ‘real’ thing, the ‘next best’ man for the role when Sky failed to lure Humphrey himself away from the BBC (he’s got too big a future there, not least with the 2012 Olympics.) Lazenby is better than that of course, but right now this is all frighteningly new for him, and it shows: he doesn’t yet quite know the people, the technology and the history and so there are slips and a general nervousness on opening night. But the same was very true of Humphrey himself three years ago, when fans decried the insult of having this former children’s television presenter imposed on them; three years later and most F1 fans and casual viewers alike absolutely adore him and he’s certainly grown immensely in the role. The same will likely happen with Lazenby. (Alas, that can’t be said of ITV’s former anchor man Jim Rosenthal, who seemed perpetually perplexed by the sport and forever wondering when the whistle was going to go for the kick-off.)
Sky’s initial coverage also seems to suffer slightly from inexperience and an uncertainty about what’s going to happen in reality: instead, they’ve somewhat over-prepared for the event, timetabling too many pre-planned features and pre-filmed VT packages which are then dropped into the running order regardless of whether they feel right or natural. The ‘team personnel profile graphics’ used to put faces to lesser-known names in the various race squads was particularly annoying when it interrupted live practice coverage for a minute at a time, for example. It gives the program as a whole a bit of a choppy, ADHD feel to it this first weekend; but again, this is something that should improve with experience and as they get the confidence of having done it a few times to know what’s needed and what works best. At least when all the surrounding hype was over and done with and the attention focused on the activity on the track, we were back in the capable hands of David Croft and Anthony Davidson who were cheerfully throwing over to main pit lane reporter Ted Kravitz. The old BBC 5 Live team back together again, and it felt nice and warm and safe. There were no longer any worries about it going wrong or having to get used to annoying new quirks, it just all felt right again.
Except for the adverts, that is: because this being Sky there were frequent ad breaks, more than I’d been expecting if I’m honest. While Sky say there will be no ads in the races themselves, that same prohibition clearly doesn’t extend to practice sessions: at one point there were three ad breaks in 15 minutes, made the more annoying by taking up unnecessary time with ads for the Sky Sports F1 coverage you were already watching. I really do understand the need for commercial broadcasters to make money – and it’s hard to complain about adverts during a wet Friday when there was little happening on track for large stretches in any case – but it’s strange how they manage to show hundreds of live football and rugby matches uninterrupted but don’t seem to be able to do the same for motorsports. Ahhh well, that’s the reality of it and no point complaining. The Gods of F1 made their displeasure known, though: after 10 minutes of nothing much happening lured the TV team into thinking it was safe to go to commercials, inevitably two of three incidents would happen in the ensuing two minutes leaving the station sheepishly showing everything in replay.
Meanwhile, how is the BBC faring? Australia isn’t one of their ten live races so there’s no sign of TV highlights coverage yet, but they do get to continue with radio coverage every weekend. The 5 Live team was the most comprehensively eviscerated by Sky in its talent raid after they won the F1 rights and it would be understandable if 5 Live were still reeling, but what was really strange was how unaffected and normal it all seemed there. The new lead commentator (replacing Croft) is to be James Allen – formerly ITV’s post-Murray Walker commentator – but he was spending Friday back as a pit lane reporter for the first time in over a decade. I had my doubts about him as a commentator (it’ll be interesting to hear how he fares back in that role as things settle down) but he was always particularly good out and about in the pits and he slipped right back into it. More surprising was Jennie Gow, who had a brief but unhappy time fronting BBC’s MotoGP coverage. She took a lot of flack in 2010 for not being a bikehead and moreover for not being Suzi Perry, but here she was impressively natural as the main radio pit lane reporter and fitted in right away in just the way that she never did in MotoGP.
Allen was in pit lane in order to allow Ben Edwards to have a ‘warm-up’ for his forthcoming début as BBC’s television F1 commentator. Now I have to say, I’m very biased when it comes to Edwards, having loved his commentary on CART/Indy cars for Eurosport in the 90s, A1GP for Sky in the 2000s, and most recently British Touring Cars for ITV. (He also previously commentated on F1 for Sky during the unsuccessful “F1 Digital +” enhanced broadcasts in 2002 but I never saw any of that.) It’s always seemed to me that he’s the natural successor to Murray Walker in the commentary booth, in that he combines both an ability to communicate and a excellent level of knowledge with the capacity to get spectacularly over-excited when even merely semi-interesting things are happening on the track. He makes watching races fun, so that even a rather dull processional affair becomes enjoyable in his hands. That was something that ITV’s Allen, BBC’s Jonathan Legard and even Martin Brundle have failed to do in that seat, their journalistic objectivity often leaving them sounding glum and reciting facts and race recaps that left the viewer feeling rather nonplussed. For me, Croft is the only commentator close to matching Edwards in making F1 sound fun.
Having wanted Edwards to get the F1 commentating gig for the last decade, I’m delighted it’s finally happened and he sounded instantly right in the role – I’d forgotten he was the nominal ‘new boy’ just five seconds in. However, I’m less convinced by the selection of former Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari as 5 Live’s expert summariser sidekick: there’s no doubt that he brings impressively up-to-date knowledge to the commentary (he was in the car until the end of 2011) and he’s evidently very intelligent and articulate, but he feels rather new, uncertain and earnest as a broadcaster right now. Again, another one who may just need some time to learn the ropes and settle in, but he didn’t seem to have the same immediate easy charm and charisma in the role that Davidson and Karun Chandhok did before him.
So if and when there’s a straight choice between Sky Sports F1 (led by Croft with Davidson and Brundle as his ‘race colour’ experts) and the BBC (with Edwards presumably being joined by David Coulthard, or Allen with Alguersuari on the radio) which one would I go for? It’s a very hard choice. Which is actually rather wonderful to have; it means that I’m likely to end up watching those races twice – once with Croft and Brundle, the other with Edwards and Coulthard – because they will give such different takes on the proceedings.
It almost feels like the number of F1 Grand Prix events in the year went up from 20 to 40, and what could be better than that? (Non-F1 fans, don’t even think about answering that.)