The Sky Sports F1 Team: The Verdict so far

To launch this blog, I thought it would be a good idea to do a five part series looking at the broadcasting of Formula 1 in the UK this season. With the changes of broadcasting, with the 20 races shared between BBC and Sky Sports, it gives the viewer a wider range of programming, as well as a wider range of voices on the screen. All the same voices remain as last year, but in 2012 we have nine new voices on either BBC or Sky. They are:

– Ben Edwards (BBC TV)
– Damon Hill (Sky)
– Gary Anderson (BBC TV)
– Georgie Thompson (Sky)
– Jaime Alguersuari (BBC Radio)
– James Allen (BBC Radio)
– Jennie Gow (BBC Radio)
– Johnny Herbert (Sky)
– Simon Lazenby (Sky)

Some of those have never been apart of Formula 1 paddock before, while others are veterans in the broadcasting circles in the paddock. Part 1 of this series will look at the Sky team and my opinions of them from the first four races, while Part 2 will look at the BBC team. Parts 3 and 4 will mainly focus on Sky, and how they could improve on their product. You may be wondering at this point why I won’t be doing a part focussing on how BBC can improve, I will say why when I get to Part 3. And finally, Part 5 will look at what effect the new broadcasting deal has had on the television ratings here in the UK. Have they increased, or have they decreased? All, shall be revealed.

The first part of my series will focus on in detail the Sky Sports F1 team. For the purposes of this series, I will only be focussing on the two main TV teams, as thus the Sky Sports News or BBC Radio teams will not be covered.

Anthony Davidson
After a short lived Formula 1 career with Minardi, BAR and Super Aguri, Davidson moved into the BBC Radio 5 Live commentary box at the start of the 2009 season where he partnered David Croft. He flourished in the role with Croft, with their commentary style in practice sessions universally well received. Davidson moved into other motor sports, mainly focussing on endurance races including the Le Mans 24 Hours. Davidson moved to Sky Sports in the same role for 2012, except instead of commentating on every session, he only commentated on the practice sessions, with Martin Brundle taking over for qualifying and the race. Davidson’s other role has been with Georgie Thompson in the ‘Sky Pad’.

Despite that, I do believe Davidson is under-utilised massively on Sky. On Radio 5 Live, Davidson commented on every session, and was part of their Chequered Flag podcasts before and after each Grand Prix weekend. On Sky, he’s only commentating on some of the sessions and is not seen often in the pre or post-shows apart from the ‘Sky Pad’ analysis. In China we did see Davidson join Lazenby, Brundle and Johnny Herbert during the latter stages of the show, something I hope we continue to see as the season progresses. The work Davidson does at the moment is very good, its just a pity in my view he is under-utilised.

Damon Hill
From someone who didn’t have a successful Formula 1 career to someone that did have a successful Formula 1 career. Hill won his only title in 1996, in a fantastic battle with Jacques Villeneuve which came down to the final race in Japan. Hill’s career went downwards from that point onwards, however, moving to Arrows in 1997 before retiring in 1999 while part of the Jordan team. Hill’s role with Sky Sports F1 is not his first broadcasting role, however. Some may remember that Hill was part of the short lived F1 Digital+ concept in 2002 which seen him join Matthew Lorenzo, Ben Edwards, John Watson among others at Biggin Hill during that season to preside over the pay-per-view channel. Hill has the main punditry role in Sky’s coverage, with him alongside Lazenby and Brundle in the pre and post shows. Unfortunately for me, however, I don’t find Hill the best of pundits, and is arguably the weak link on the Sky Sports F1 team.

I don’t think Hill suits the role of pundit very well, unlike Johnny Herbert and Anthony Davidson, who are ‘easy’ on the voice, Hill tends to grate for me I’m afraid. Pundits can make the difference between a dull and good pre and post shows, the combination of Steve Rider and Mark Blundell was one that was badly received in 2008 at ITV, but the combination of Jake Humphrey, Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard in 2009 at BBC had the opposite effect. In both cases, very good presenters, but it was the pundits that made all the difference – in the example above Jordan and Coulthard being better than Blundell. I’m left feeling at the moment that if Hill is continued to be used in the same way, that I’ll be drifting to BBC in the pre and post race show.

David Croft
In his 7th season now as a lead commentator in Formula 1, Croft began his commentary journey at the 2006 Bahrain Grand Prix with BBC Radio 5 Live commentating alongside the likes of Maurice Hamilton for the first three years. At the start of 2009, he was joined by Anthony Davidson for every session, a combination that has been well received. With the change of broadcasting rights for 2012, the inevitable question was ‘who would partner Martin Brundle?’ While the answer was not Ben Edwards, the answer was David Croft (I’m sure you have your own opinions on which line up would be better). Given how James Allen and Jonathan Legard fared alongside Brundle as a commentary pairing, fans wondered whether the Croft and Brundle line-up would fare better.

Thankfully, so far, in my opinion, the Croft and Brundle commentary pairing is far better than the pairs mentioned above. I think Croft has settled into the role alongside Brundle well, albeit with a few niggles, but minor ones at that. Driver misidentification is one that is raised a lot, but something that I think we should give somewhat due consideration to. We’re watching off a big TV screen, with little distractions, they are watching and commentating at the same time, calling moments off the spot. Inevitably mistakes will be made, but for me, there hasn’t been a higher-than-expected rate of errors from Croft. Aside from the errors though, one thing that does grate is the self promotion, and in the example of this past Sunday, revealing the result of a football live on air. I suspect both of these are calls from the commentary director (Mark Hughes) or the programme director, but either way I find both unnecessary. The latter is up there with Allen telling us that Coronation Street follows this programme in the ITV F1 days, but at least then no one was being spoiled – this time there was, in a few enraged football fans. In any case, hopefully they learn from this and don’t do it again (I sound like I’m telling someone off here… anyway).

Georgie Thompson
Probably one of the more controversial appointments given her drink driving record. But I don’t think Sky took that into account when hiring her. And neither will I, it doesn’t affect her ability to call and present Formula 1 coverage, so I won’t mention it again. Thompson, like Simon Lazenby, has been with Sky since the late 1990’s, mainly as a presenter on Sky Sports News. Unlike Lazenby however, Thompson has had experience on presenting motor sport, she presented A1 Grand Prix on the channel when it debuted in 2005. Thompson was announced as partnering Ted Kravitz to present ‘The F1 Show’ on the Sky F1 channel.

It would be hard for me to find complaints about Thompson in the coverage. She seems enthusiastic and genuinely interested in the sport. The show, for me has been the best part of the weekend, and her combination with Kravitz is definitely a joy to watch. The two gel together brilliantly. Aside from that, she is with Anthony Davidson in the ‘Sky Pad’ on Saturdays and Sundays. There’s not much to say about her here, she’s just there to throw questions to Davidson, which is understandable to keep discussion flowing and is there to keep Davidson comfortable, with Davidson not a broadcasting ‘veteran’. If Sky choose to have a pre-show for GP2 (more thoughts on that in Part 3), then she would be the perfect host for that alongside Davidson.

Johnny Herbert
A Formula 1 veteran, Johnny Herbert’s career began in 1989, lasting until 2000. He won three races during that time period, two during 1995 while at Benetton alongside the memorable 1999 European Grand Prix with Stewart. Herbert did not initially feature in Sky’s Formula 1 coverage, suggesting his appointment was last minute. In any event, Herbert’s first appearance was on the March 30th edition of The F1 Show alongside Georgie Thompson, Ted Kravitz and Christian Horner. Thankfully, it turned out that Herbert’s appearance was not a guest appearance, nor was it a one off. Herbert appeared once more in China, with Hill’s role only for 10 races. The difference, was evident to see and in stark contrast to the ‘forced’ nature of Australia and Malaysia. Herbert seemed comfortable in the role in Hill, and as thus the show seemed ‘lighter’ with Herbert, him, Brundle and Davidson cracking a few jokes, the end result meaning that Lazenby came across as feeling a lot more comfortable during that particular post-race show.

Martin Brundle
Another Formula 1 veteran, but probably better known nowadays as a commentator for 16 years. Brundle’s F1 career ended in 1996, his last year competing with the Jordan team. Despite retiring, Brundle stayed in the F1 paddock, and quickly found himself new fame, as a broadcaster and a commentator alongside Murray Walker. The combination, a collection of ‘Murrayisms’ and ‘Brundleisms’ quickly became popular with the public, as did Brundle’s famed gridwalk which was introduced at the 1997 British Grand Prix. When Walker left at the 2001 US Grand Prix, he was replaced by James Allen, whom Brundle partnered until ITV relinquished the rights to Formula 1 in 2008. Brundle jumped ship to BBC for 2009, partnering Jonathan Legard. Although Brundle was well liked, neither the Allen/Brundle and Legard/Brundle combinations were well received. Legard was dropped at the end of 2010, allowing Brundle to take on a ‘fresh challenge’, moving into the lead commentator, with long time friend David Coulthard alongside him. Due to the change in broadcasting rights halfway through that season, the combination only lasted a year. Despite this, the combination helped bring back out the best in Brundle.

Brundle ditched the BBC at the end of 2011, moving to Sky and becoming the main face of the channel, dividing his time between pitlane, paddock and the commentary box. I’ve always liked Brundle, having listened to his commentary since 1999. I think his combination with Croft after 4 rounds is already better than his combination with Legard during any of 2009 and 2010. The two gel extremely well, and the combination will only grow in time. I don’t have any criticisms of Brundle, there is an argument however that he is on screen too much so for that reason it may be advised to remove him from the qualifying show, but I don’t think it is a big issue (there’s much more pressing issues with the pre and post shows – something I will address in Part 3).

Natalie Pinkham
More of an entertainment reporter than motor racing reporter with her duties for various Channel 5 programming including The Wright Stuff, Pinkham moved onto the Formula 1 scene in 2011. Pinkham replaced Holly Samos as BBC Radio 5 Live reporter, Samos moving to pastures new. Pinkham has the role of interviewing drivers’, and occasionally smiling on camera whenever necessary. There’s honestly not much to say here, apart from improve the line of questioning. She isn’t a big aspect of the coverage, nor do I expect her to be. Louise Goodman was not a big aspect of ITV F1’s coverage, nor is Lee McKenzie with BBC. They do their job, sometimes the questioning is good, sometimes I’m left wondering “really? Did you just ask that?”. Apart from that, this section is rather short. We’ll leave it there.

Simon Lazenby
When the Sky F1 team was announced last November, it was no great surprise that Sky chose Simon Lazenby as their presenter. After joining Sky in 1998, Lazenby was Sky’s Rugby presenter for the best part of a decade, before moving over to their Formula 1 team. At this point, you could argue ‘why did Sky choose someone with no motor racing experience’. The answer is quite simple, and that is because they preferably want someone in-house. This is a tendency that all broadcasters have, ITV moved Jim Rosenthal to their Formula 1 coverage when they began broadcasting the sport in 1997, while BBC did similar with Jake Humphrey when they regained the rights for the 2009 season.

I think that there was more pressure on Lazenby than Rosenthal and Humphrey before him, though. Unlike Rosenthal and Humphrey, Lazenby was fronting a channel, not a programme which brings with it extra demands. With Sky covering every session live, it means the amount of time Lazenby is on air for is far higher than that of Rosenthal and Humphrey. Despite that, I believe Lazenby has settled into his role just fine. Okay, there is room for improvement, but if you were to compare Lazenby after race 4 with Rosenthal and Humphrey after race 4 in their respective seasons, it would be difficult to be harsh on Lazenby. My only criticisms of Lazenby would be that his questions can be long winded and that he interrupts his guests unnecessarily, the latter is not really Lazenby’s fault and is probably a demand from the director as the channel is heading to a break (more on that annoyance in Part 3). In China, where the commercials were ‘limited’, Lazenby seemed a lot more settled and relaxed without the extra pressure from the director to head to the next commercial. For that reason, I think Lazenby is doing fine as presenter at the moment.

Ted Kravitz
One of the best aspects of the Formula 1 coverage is hearing what the pit lane guys have to say. It always has been, getting into the nitty gritty of it, but also putting it across to the viewer in a language that they understand – without dumbing down. Which is always the fear. Kravitz’s F1 career began in 1997 with ITV behind the scenes. He moved onto pit lane reporter in 2002 when James Allen moved into the commentary box. I was extremely glad when Kravitz moved to BBC in 2009, as I always considered his pit lane tidbits one of the better aspects of ITV’s coverage. With free practice sessions live on the BBC Red Button from 2009 to 2011, Kravitz excelled as we got his tidbits on all three days of the weekend. Furthermore, his video blogs helped us dive into the post-race strategies and gave us a great summary of the majority of the teams’ on the grid.

Kravitz’s role expanded further for 2012 on Sky as he became host of The F1 Show alongside Thompson. As I noted earlier, the two have gelled together brilliantly. Kravitz’s relaxed style makes the show all the better, as well as seeing him poke around old machinery and seeing him explain new inventions on the Sky Pad. One of the explanations so far is with the Mercedes diffuser, which wasn’t dumbed down, but still made the hardcore fan like it. I’m glad Kravitz made the jump, because I would have hated seeing BBC cut his contribution down to shreds in the highlights shows, if anything, Kravitz deserves all the exposure he gets on Sky.

As a line-up of pundits, the line-up is stellar and very good. I think, and maintain, that the key word is ‘reorganise’. Some people are over used (Hill), some people are under used (Herbert). Whether that is due to contracts or not, I don’t know, I’m not privvy to those things. Overall though, I’m glad Sky taken the best people from BBC’s coverage and put them on their coverage alongside some new faces. I think over time the line-up will improve, and gel more and I look forward to seeing that on screen.

In part 2 of this series I’ll focus on all the BBC TV team members. I anticipate I won’t be writing as much, as some of the team have remained the same, but nevertheless I hope you enjoy reading it. Comments, suggestions, agreements, disagreements welcome!

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