A look back at ITV’s first live Formula 1 broadcast in 1997

So originally I had penned in for today to upload a comparison of VT’s between BBC and Sky Sports for the Monaco Grand Prix. But then, it sort of clicked. Would it be better doing that on its own, without any comparison to previous eras, or should I take a trip down memory lane and look at how ITV laid out their first Formula 1 live show?

The purpose, of course, of heading down memory lane is to see whether the quality of the shows has really improved, or whether in fact we are given more airtime, which means we are given more ‘fluff’ (ie more irrelevant pieces that mean little), and therefore, nothing has really improved? That’s an interesting question in itself. I’m sure come next week I will start staying “is this VT necessary?”. Maybe.

You may wonder why I have picked ITV’s first live broadcast, the Qualifying session of the Australian Grand Prix. First and foremost, when I do my blog post next week for the present day, I will be using the Qualifying session for Monaco, so it is important to compare side-by-side. Thirdly, I wanted to use the starting point for ITV, as Sky are in a similar position with their presentation just starting out. Obviously it’s a lot more different, and I want to use this to show how much things have moved on in some areas.

Texaco were ITV’s Formula 1 sponsor from 1997 to 2001.

As a viewer back in 1997, I imagine you were interested to see how the changes in broadcasting rights turned out on TV, while also annoyed that BBC had lost the rights. Out goes The Chain, and in comes Jamiroquai. Of course, it was actually a very good introduction and theme music. It’s just that it was not The Chain and therefore was not as well received. Same applies for Just Drive today. Both are very good introductions for the programme. Unlike Lift Me Up by Moby. The song is fine, the imagery… not so. Lets not go there. Anyway. Also coming in were adverts. Which, very obviously, was the major bugbear for any viewer. There was the suggestion of pausing the race while going to adverts. It did not occur in 1997, so I’m pretty certain in 2012, it would be extremely inconceivable to do such a thing. At the moment, in 2012, we are one of the few countries to have our races advert free, so we should count ourselves lucky.

Back to 1997, and at approximately 01:30 on Saturday 8th March, the Texaco sponsor and Jamiroquai played over to the nation for the very first time. While Jamiroquai was not The Chain, the Texaco spots were definitely the best sponsorship for ITV in their 12 years covering Formula 1.

Once the opening titles finished rolling, Jim Rosenthal gave us an introduction from the river beside Albert Park, followed by a VT previewing the new season. Two minutes and 41 seconds was the time needed to convey the information about the 12 teams and 24 drivers to screen. No flashy logos or anything, just video of drivers interspersed with the ITV F1 logo when the subject changed to another team. Afterwards, we were greeted to our first shot of the ITV F1 studio with Rosenthal alongside analysts Tony Jardine and Simon Taylor. Presenting Formula 1 from a studio on-site was a new thing back 15 years ago. Of course, F1 had been presented from a studio before. Just that the studio was in London and not track side.

ITV’s F1 studio in 1997. Tony Jardine (l), Simon Taylor (c) and Jim Rosenthal (r).

In 1996, BBC’s last season consisted of Steve Rider either in London or presenting from the grid (depending on the race) with Tony Jardine in the pit-lane, and Jonathan Palmer alongside Murray Walker in the commentary box. ITV’s new studio helped them expand the on-air team with four people being expanded to seven people. Rider was replaced by Rosenthal, Jardine moved to the new studio, which would be transported all over the world, while Louise Goodman and James Allen presided over the latest pit-lane activity. If we are to forget about the adverts issue for a minute, having an on-site presence was already a step forward from the BBC’s offering the previous season. The studio also gave them a ‘safe haven’ I feel in a way in that it felt more rehearsed, but at the same point gave the coverage a laid back approach. Rosenthal was a safe pair of hands to steer the ITV F1 ship as well with over 15 years of sport experience covering sports such as boxing and football before joining the Formula 1 circus.

After a minute or so introducing the key topics with Jardine and Taylor, we got our first glimpse of Walker and Brundle together, the two presenting a short piece from the commentary box balcony.

Martin Brundle and Murray Walker on the balcony.

From that, we then went to a VT, which for their first show seemed a bit out of place I would say, the first of many ‘Inside F1’ pieces, the first piece looking at the steering wheel with David Coulthard. Looked a bit out of place just eight minutes into the coverage. You could argue it was dumbing down with features like this, but if we look into the future from 1997, BBC did something similar in 2009 with ‘The Formula‘ whereas Sky do things with their virtual car. Although I’m not particularly sure why people would have their understanding ‘enhanced’ at 01:40 in the morning when the majority of them are hardcore fans! The feature would have been better saved for when more casual fans are watching starting from the European rounds. Rosenthal linked us from that to another VT, which was basically the news. Interestingly, the VT did not actually have any soundbites from the drivers’. Normally the news pieces nowadays tend to have a soundbite from the driver from the pre-weekend Thursday media interviews, but none were featured here. Instead the focus was on possible protests for the weekend’s race.

One thing we did get though was live interviews with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, although before the interview with Hill we did get a case of Rosenthal fluffling his lines, even referring to James Allen as Louise Goodman. Once the first commercial was out of the way we got Villeneuve live, with Goodman the interviewer. Not as polished as Allen at first, although Allen had previous broadcasting experience as ESPN pit-lane reporter whereas Goodman was a press officer for Jordan Grand Prix. After the interview we got evidence of just how much the track guide has moved on in the 15 years since 1997. For the 1997 season, we were greeted to a retro track guide from the F1 1997 video produced by Psygnosis. A great game it was as well for the time period, although it shows how basic the track guide was back then whereas nowadays you would have some corners analysed in the most finite of details to see where the extra hundredth of a second comes from.

James Allen interviewing Damon Hill live.

And that was just about it for the build-up before Rosenthal handed over to Walker and Brundle for the first time. No five minute sting back then for Qualifying so Rosenthal handed over two minutes before the beginning of the session. A full summary of VT’s and live action will go up on this blog in the next few days, but for the 20 minute build-up excluding commercials, VT’s clocked up a total of 10 minutes, 19 seconds whereas live action, for instance studio discussion and interviews from the pit-lane hit just over 10 minutes with 10 minutes, 05 seconds. How does that compare with the present day? I will discuss in full in a few weeks, but BBC’s Qualifying programme for Monaco had over double the VT’s and over double the live action. ITV’s longest VT, 2 minutes and 41 seconds was shorter than three of BBC F1’s VT’s.

After the session, although I have not done any counts, the lengths are fairly similar, both with ten minutes each. The qualifying formats are different though, with the action today being analysed in between every session, so it is probably not a particularly fair comparison. One thing that I again noted was no driver interviews after the session, and nothing of the post-qualifying press conference shown. The post-qualifying coverage simply consisted of Rosenthal, Taylor and Jardine discussing the one-hour session until the end of the programme, which worked well with it being a relaxed discussion going over the key points.. It may be that they saved the interviews for the Qualifying Update show (turned into F1 Special’s when the European season came into full swing) on Saturday evening. On that note, here was the schedule for the remainder of the weekend:

Saturday 8th March 1997
17:15 – Qualifying Update
21:55 – Grand Prix Night
– The Clive James Formula 1 Show at 22:00
– FILM: Grand Prix at 22:00
– Australian Grand Prix Live at 02:05
–– 55 minutes build-up

Sunday 9th March 1997
14:00 – Australian Grand Prix Re-Run

As always, comments and thoughts are welcome. Did you watch ITV’s F1 coverage in 1997? Did you mind adverts? How did you rate it?

Images in this article are copyright of ITV Sport.

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